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Friday, August 25, 2017

CARL SAGAN, VOYAGERS AND UFOs

I felt terrific, after having one of my molars recapped, driving on the Manoa Campus of the University of Hawaii without my glasses, for a year ago I had cataract surgery and can now see 20-20.  It occurred to me that my first day on the job here was 45 years ago. While a lot has happened, much has remained the same, for I'm still here.

There was a wave of nostalgia, as I drove by Keller Hall, where I had my first office, parked in the lot of engineering's Holmes Hall, where I spent most of my productive life, and walked to the Pacific Ocean Science and Technology Building, where I'm now located.  How many academics still have an office at their institution eighteen years after retirement?  I don't know of anyone else.


In 1981, Senator Proxmire sponsored an amendment to eliminate SETI from NASA. One of my side efforts was, with others, and also the considerable personal suasion of Matsunaga with Proxmire, help Carl Sagan, a colleague of Frank Drake at Cornell, reinstate funding. The involved team set up that fateful meeting with Senator Proxmire, who was of the Dyson school of thought that it was a silly waste of government funds to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. 

I had met Sagan when he served on a panel during my NASA Ames stopover, where he was in a group commenting on the first Viking photos to arrive from Mars. We were the first to see these photos, line by line, being posted unto the auditorium screen in Mountain View before they were released into TV land. Who knows, maybe fuzzy Green Ladies could have shown up. I still remember Sagan pontificating as to why the color of Mars had a salmon-tinge, and commented so in fine scientific detail…except, well into his elocution, a technician sheepishly commented, “Dr. Sagan, we haven’t yet applied the correction filters.” That’s the only time I saw Sagan visibly embarrassed. It turned out that the addition of the filters did not change the salmon hue.

The story has become almost legendary, as Carl Sagan was so successful in his conversation with Senator Proxmire that the following year Congress funded SETI at the level of $1.5 million. This support very slowly grew to a point in the early 1990’s when a ten year, $100 million program, was announced by NASA. A sum of $11-12 million was annually expended through three fiscal years in the early 90’s. 

I then recalled watching PBS last night about Voyager in Space, that was 40 years ago this month,...and it was 20 years ago this past year that Sagan passed away, mostly from a bone marrow defect.  He lived quite a life, with three wives and a reputation of being the pre-eminent communicator of science.  If you're into SETI, you avoid flying saucers like the plague, for you could ruin your reputation just by addressing that topic.  There is, however, Sagan's Paradox, which I here repeat from Wikipedia:

Sagan's contribution to the 1969 symposium was an attack on the belief that UFOs are piloted by extraterrestrial beings: 

Applying several logical assumptions (see Drake equation), Sagan calculated the possible number of advanced civilizations capable of interstellar travel to be about one million. He projected that any civilization wishing to check on all the others on a regular basis of, say, once a year would have to launch 10,000 spacecraft annually. Not only does that seem like an unreasonable number of launchings, but it would take all the material in one percent of the universe's stars to produce all the spaceships needed for all the civilizations to seek each other out.
To argue that the earth was being chosen for regular visitations, Sagan said, one would have to assume that the planet is somehow unique. And that assumption "goes exactly against the idea that there are lots of civilizations around. Because if there are then our sort of civilization must be pretty common. And if we're not pretty common then there aren't going to be many civilizations advanced enough to send visitors."
This argument, which some called "Sagan's paradox," helped to establish a new school of thought: the belief that extraterrestrial life exists but has nothing to do with UFOs. The new belief had a salutary effect on UFO studies. It helped separate researchers who wanted to identify unidentified flying objects from those who wanted to identify their pilots. And it gave scientists opportunities to search the universe for intelligent life unencumbered by the stigma associated with UFOs.[119]


The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying ... it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.[88]

I've always thought he was other worldly visionary, yet rational.  His sense of Martian life below.



Finally, about Sagan and Voyager:

At 11 billion miles, Voyager 1 is the farthest manmade object from Earth.  Launched in 1977, we still communicate and it responds.  It takes 17 hours for a message to reach the satellite.  This means that this craft has been traveling at around 35,000 miles per hour.  It will be another 40,000 years before it gets close to a star, Gliese 445, but still 1.6 light years away. 

Our closest star is Proxima Centauri (left) at 4.243 light years.  Thus, if Voyager 1 traveled at the speed of light, it would have have already started back to that star on its fifth roundtrip.  Of course, the craft is slowing down and the nuclear batteries will lose power around 2025.  Both Voyager 1 and 2 cost something in the neighborhood of a billion dollars, or around 8 cents/citizen/year.  I would say it was worth it.

National Geographic this month featured the twin Voyager probes:
  • Termed "one of the greatest voyages of exploration ever conducted."
  • Could only be launched in a few month period in 1977 to take advantage of the conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, or else, we have to wait for another 175 years.
  • They were each the size and weight of a subcompact automobile.
  • As they swung by, the handfull of Saturn's rings turned out to be thousands of ringlets.
  • Volcanoes appeared on Jupiter's Io and Neptune's Triton, and the latter at 40 C above absolute zero.
  • Alien life was deemed possible on Jupiter's Europa and Saturn's Enceladus.
  • The latest projection is that both will stop communicating in 2030.  They use Plutonium-powered electric generators.
  • But that will not be the end.  They will become time capsules for aliens to capture.
  • Each, thus, has a golden record, with a shelf life of around a billion years.  Carl Sagan chaired the committee that produced this message from Planet Earth.  Watch the two-hour presentation.
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As reported yesterday, Hurricane Harvey at Category 3 strength will make landfall over Texas just to the east and north of Corpus Christi as the worst to strike the USA since Katrina and Wilma in 2005.


As hurricanes revolve counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, Corpus Christi should escape from particularly high winds.  However, the whole region from this city up to San Antonio and into Houston will be inundated by up to four foot rainfalls, for there will be some stalling, and the eye will not make it up to San Antonio.  Instead, projections see movement to the east and south, so that this eye could fall back into the Gulf of Mexico.  While the odds are such that a significant re-strengthening will not occur, that remains a possibility.

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