Thursday, January 27, 2011

Warts and All

Tomorrow I leave for a long weekend in Seattle to negotiate a summer job offer with Boeing. Seattle is one of the most physically beautiful cities I've ever been to, on par with San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, and Honolulu. Two summers ago I lived there for ten weeks while I interned at Blue Origin, and I feel in love with the endless sunshine, the quirky downtown and museums, and the Puget Sound area's epically good Thai food scene. Boeing is one of the giants of the aerospace industry, and after working at a small company in one of the more esoteric niches of the business (a wonderful experience, by the way), I'm looking forward to learning how its big brothers are operated firsthand.

Still, Seattle in January is a different beast from Seattle in July. The forecast is cold by my Arizona/Texas standards and rainy all weekend, and this is pretty typical weather throughout the winter months. My summer with Blue Origin gave me the best possible introduction to the city, and made me want to come back as often as I could. The net three days will be a good way to calibrate my enthusiasm for the Pacific Northwest against its drearier side. For a little while at least, I'll be able to soak up the rain, meet some amazing people a little bit like me, and watch airplanes get made. This should be a good weekend.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Local Hill Climbing

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An old boss of mine once posed the following problem. Suppose you've been dropped into a remote mountainous region in the Pacific Northwest. Your location is unknown and you don't have a map. The terrain is complex and hilly, and the air is thick with fog. There are mountains, that much is clear, but their height and steepness are hard to determine in the milky blanket of cloud covering the land. The objective is to get as high as you can.

It's virtually impossible to determine which of the many available peaks is the highest, or if a more distant obscured summit is higher than all the ones nearby. The trails are steep, gravelly, and thickly wooded in all directions, but they do go up. What's the best strategy to obtain our simple objective?

Some hiking and scouting is certainly welcome and justified. Though the fog is thick, it's unsteady, and each new angle and each passing moment yields new information about the topology of the mountains. Every once and a while the clouds scatter for a moment, and the summits appear. We're real, they taunt, come see us. I imagine the  interloper rambling through the passes, watching the slopes and curves of the hills, building an imagined world in her head as faithfully to the reality surrounding her as possible. Eventually, though, the only way to gain elevation is to go up.

With total clarity of mind and knowledge of the terrain, it would be easy to plot the fastest route from any point in the valley to the highest summit within walking distance. This doesn't exist in reality. While the global optimum path is elusive to our climber, it's easy to ensure that each step is a little higher than the last. The slope and its directionality is obvious to the hiker chugging away on its side. This can be done even when virtually all of the land is fogged into obscurity. Going up, the feet beat on, each lifting its partner above it with each step. Ultimately, this local hill climbing is the only way to make progress on our stated objective. Climb now, where you can, even if it's not the best way any human could climb, and try again if your summit isn't the right one.

I think this mental exercise is a good analogy for what it's like to seek truth as a fragile, fallible human being. The rigid truthful reality is there, incomprehensible and sublime as it is from the human perspective. We can take steps now, everywhere, to inch ourselves closer to what we can and should be as people, but there's no guarantee that the methods we seek with are optimized or even converging on the best solutions. As I've marched through high school, then college, and soon grad school, I've become more self-conscious about how little I truly understand about myself, the universe, and the way we inhabit it. There's so much I don't know. I want to climb, so I'll keep marching. The anxiety that I might be circling a summit as I hunt, or that I'm going up the wrong mountain can be daunting at times. The only solution, such as it is, is to keep searching despite the doubt.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


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Over at the always thought-provoking Unequally Yoked, Leah recently wrote a series of posts on the mind-body problem and the unending argument between dualism and monism. This is a rich subject, philosophically and scientifically. Many philosophers, natural, analytic, or otherwise, have argued passionately that either substance dualism or monism is a bogus way of thinking about the world for thousands of years. Adding my voice to the chorus will do little shape the tide's direction, but like many of my predecessors, I'm fascinated by the arguments about the ultimate nature of reality posed by this line of metaphysics. Since most of my training on this subject comes from wikipedia, Philosophy Club meetings, and Douglas Hofstadter books, the usual bromide to take the following with a humble grain of salt is advised.

The argument for materialistic monism is so ubiquitous today I sometimes wonder if it's even possible to be taken seriously as a neuroscientist without renouncing the idea that mind, thought, sensation, or emotion exist in any manner separate from the physical brain states that correspond to these mental states. The idea that mind exists apart from a material universe, or that mental images and sequences are more fundamental to reality than matter is clearly down for the count in modern discourse on the mind-body problem. I don't want to dwell on the arguments for materialism too long, but my Cliff's Notes understanding of the philosophy goes something like this:

1) As scientific understanding of the brain advances, many mental states such as sensation and emotion seem to have strong correlations with quantifiable brain states.
2) It is reasonable to assume that as this scientific understanding advances, these correlations will be better understood and more complete.
3) If mental states can be fully explained through brain states, mental states are unnecessary to an understanding of mind.
4) Since mental states seem to have a one-to-one correspondence with brain states, ignoring the mental states completely is a better, more efficient, hypothesis in explaining mind/brain activity.

The road from part (4) to materialism and a rejection of consciousness as an illusion is straightforward enough. I've seen the case laid out plainly and passionately a number of times, and it's a tempting line of thought to follow. I'm pretty sure that it's wrong.

There's a fundamental mischaracterization that goes on here that's subtle but poisonous for the chain of thought. To put it briefly, the argument that since mental states correspond to physical states there is no explanatory power to mental states seems to me to be a non-sequitur. Typical arguments in favor of materialism glorify the property of emergence, that a collection of any entity can have radically different properties that don't exist for each individual entity. Fair enough. Individual water molecules don't have wetness, or pressure, or viscosity, although a trillion water molecules acting in concert certainly do. But the existence of a subjective experience of consciousness, of the bubbling flow of sensation and thought and the feelings of emotion, is such a fundamentally different thing from the aconscious interactions of matter that any theory that attempts to explain this sensation in terms of material interactions fails to grasp anything at all about what we're really interested in. I don't call that a good explanation.

Sometimes I wonder if I simply don't understand what the philosophers like Blackmore, Dennett, and Hofstadter really think, when the theories they posit seem so opposed to the reality I experience. I freely admit that consciousness could be, in some sense, a grand delusion, although I still have no idea what that would even entail. Last semester I discovered the writings of David Chalmers (video below), and I can't convey how relieved I was to see that there was someone in that great shouting chamber who seemed to be shouting at about the same pitch and timbre as me. Not feeling deluded is a wonderful feeling indeed.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tempo and Takt

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How do I put this without sounding like this guy?

Travelling, roommate drama, disconnected internet accounts, the start of a new (final!) semester tend to get in the way of things like writing blog posts on a regular basis. I'm not really sure what kind of regular basis I want to be posting on, anyway, but I'd prefer to keep week-long hiatuses to a minimum. My hope is that eventually a natural tempo will emerge, and I'll stick to that as well as I can. Historically my college semesters have been challenging and busy, and though I'm taking fewer hours than ever before this semester, some of those hours are made of senior design project and research. Those particular line items have a way of expanding to fill whatever free time remains. The good news is that by May I'll have helped design, build, and fly an airplane of brand new design and I may have presented a paper at a major conference on materials science and engineering. The downside is that this is not conducive to a peaceful personal life or a steady blog schedule. Oh well.

Since I don't want this blog to be only a storehouse for my moodier and more esoteric rantings (SPOILER WARNING: There will probably be lots of those), I'll take this opportunity to expound on what these last classes of my undergrad career entail.

1) AERO 452, Viscous Flows and Heat Transfer:
Like motor oil or maple syrup, air is sticky. It's a lot less sticky than either of those, but the tendency of air to tug on solid surfaces as it flows past, that is, it's viscosity, is enough to have profound implications on the dynamics of vehicles that move through it. Since the stresses that arise from viscous action are tiny compared to the stresses that emerge from pressure, there's a great temptation to ignore the effect of viscosity completely. This makes the equations of fluid motion a lot easier (and actually solvable in some relevant cases), but these inviscid equations are ultimately approximations of the true equations that include viscosity (and are never solvable for anything interesting). In this class, I'll be learning how to use the Navier-Stokes equations to get the full picture of how fluid flow really works, at least in an introductory sense. Since I don't plan to become a specialist in computational fluid dynamics, I doubt I'll learn a lot more about this subject. This class will be something of a capstone for my understanding of fluid dynamics.

2) AERO 419, Chemical Rocket Propulsion:
Above 100 kilometers, this is it. With no air to breathe, to get anywhere a spacecraft either has to harness the dilute power available in vacuum (through solar sails, electrodynamic tethers, and such), or use a rocket. A thorough background of the principles of rocket propulsion, how to analyze, test, and design them, and an overview of the capabilities of this technology are the bread and butter of this class. It astounds me to think that a few centuries ago Newton understood the dynamics of planetary motion as well as we do, but probably would've dismissed the idea of human-built machines vagabonding around their orbits as magic. This is how the magic happens.

3) MATH 401, Advanced Engineering Math:
To be clear, I have no quarrel with pure mathematics as a pursuit unto itself. Certainly much of pure math, once fully understood and placed in the proper context, is beautiful in a way similar to the baroque masterpieces of centuries past. By nature and by training, though, I'm an engineer, not a mathematician. Math is an incredibly powerful cognitive tool for understanding and describing the universe we live in. This descriptive math is different in character from the artistic math of pure mathematicians. Its problems typically don't have neat, closed-form solutions, and approximations of some sort must be made to understand what's going on with the equations. The Navier-Stokes equations of AERO 452 are a classic example of vitally important equations that have no analytic solutions. This class deals with finding the most elegant approximations available to the problems engineers are likely to encounter, and I submit this process for grasping the nature of reality is just as beautiful as the neat formal proofs of Euclid. Also, it helps us build airplanes, which are cool.

4) AERO 402, Aerospace Vehicle Design II:

This is the second act of my senior capstone project at A&M. Last semester my team and I designed a response to a request for proposals (RFP) for a high-performance military trainer to replace the T-38. The design is purely theoretical, of course, and this semester we'll redesign it at a smaller scale, test the shape in a wind tunnel, and build a remote controlled flying model to validate the design. Pure excitement, but also a lot of work.

5) LBAR 485, French Connections:
America and France are fascinating places. Both forged from revolution, they share a passion for democracy, but have radically different ideas of what role the state should play in the daily life of the citizens who compose those democracies. As an engineering major, I'm also sometimes amazed that anything gets done in France with a 35 hour work week. This seminar is my indulgence away from the engineering grind, and as something of a francophile I'm looking forward to learning more about what the homeland I love and its older, fascinating counterpart to the east have in common and how they differ. Our first reading will be Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong.

This is actually less work than I've ever attempted to take on in a semester before. As the academic pressure spools up I'll have to establish a takt to deliver the deliverables these classes demand on time, hopefully with enough to spare for blogging and other anti-insanity activities. I've done it before, with more hours, and so here's to the new takt. If you're a student, best of luck to you and yours as well.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Outback

I woke up this morning in Phoenix, and I'll go to bed shortly in Fort Stockton, Texas. The drive on I-10 between the two is probably the most sparsely populated stretch of road in North America south of Canada. The last third of the drive, east of El Paso, is particularly blank, yielding mileage signs like "Sierra Blanca 20, San Antonio 534." Between El Paso and Fredericksburg there's not much except a few towns of a few thousand people. Van Horn, Fort Stockton, Ozona, Junction slip by like little oases of civilization swallowed up by the ocean of desert. This place is truly outback, like the Australian interior or the Mongolian Gobi.

The history of the place is writ large in the mountains and canyons and yucca bushes and wind turbines that roll on to the horizon. First, it was ocean, waves crashing ashore while the trilobites and ammonites scuttled around, piece by piece dropping their limestone skeletons to the seabed. When the oceans receded, the limestone mostly washed away, leaving the brutishly beautiful pinnacles behind in the mountains. Though the place was dry always and either hot or cold usually, the yuccas and the cacti flourished, dotting the valleys with a greenish film of life. Finally the people come, and the wind turbines sprouted, leaving some people a bit uneasy, but generally keeping people happy with the power they tease from the wind.

Growing up in Arizona, it was never too hard to get away from urban scenery when my family wanted to. Drive north on I-17 from my parents' house and in twenty minutes' time you could never tell that the fifth largest American city is just to the south. In central Texas, though, you can't ever get away from the presence of humans, not unless you want to drive a long way west. Drive out of College Station on highway 6 north or south and the city tails off quickly, but never dims away completely, pockets of houses and stores flaring up with names like Navasota, Hearne, and Conroe all the way to Waco one way and Houston the other. If I wasn't so busy with school most of the time, it would feel downright claustrophobic.

I wonder about the future of wild places like west Texas and the American southwest sometimes. People are getting better about using resources more efficiently all the time, but there are more people with each passing day. I wonder if in ten thousand years, doubling the age of civilization, there will be no more wilderness except for national parks and zones that have been kept wild through careful planning. The majority of the Earth will be cultivated, farms and mines and big algae tanks growing the food and energy civilization needs to keep humming away. I suppose there's nothing shameful in that, since very few people ever actually see wilderness the way it exists south of New Mexico, but it seems a little eerie. I like the fact that outback still exists, still shows how vast and awesome the universe is right here on Earth, and it would be like the loss of childhood innocence to lose that. For now at least, the desert spans on.

This morning I noticed a bumper sticker while I was waiting to turn left on my way out of Phoenix. "Catholic Radio AM 1310," it read. Figuring I had nothing to lose and I'd be leaving the broadcast range of the South Moutain towers soon anyway, I plugged the numbers in. Listening to the announcers talk their way through the rosary, I couldn't help but feel a sense of camaraderie for some reason. Though I don't share a creed and usually feel like a not-entirely-invited interloper at mass, something intuitively feels right about this reaching, a grasping for communion with that feeling of awe in creation. I crossed myself as they finished, and thought a little prayer for Gabby Giffords while I rambled through Tucson. Frankly, I don't know why I'm doing this, but it feels right.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Long Run

My career plans are a bit unorthodox, so I think it might be a good idea for me to take a moment to explain what exactly it is I want to do after I get that magic piece of paper four months from now enabling me to legitimately call myself a rocket scientist. I've thought about this a lot, and think it's important, but I don't often see people talk about the kind of future I want to work towards.

Compared to things on a human scale, the universe is pretty old. Barring illness, malice, or accident, a person can expect to live about a hundred years, give or take (mostly take) a score, and that's about a hundred-millionth the age of the universe. I've gotten pretty good at dealing with numbers over the years, but I can't even begin to comprehend on a raw, visceral level a time that so completely dwarfs all the time a human life can span. It's just, big, mega-big, I say to myself, with a tremble of awe.

Knowing this, saying that the universe is in its infancy sounds laughable. But for many of the current residents of the cosmos, much more lies ahead than behind. About three-fourths of the stars shining in the Milky Way right now are M class red dwarfs, the dimmest, coolest, littlest stars burning hydrogen into helium. Each of these stars will keep shining for up to a few trillion years from now, meaning many of them aren't even 1% through their lives. Long after the oceans of Earth have boiled away and the Sun has collapsed and cooled into a dim white dwarf, the universe will shine on, a bit dimmer, a bit redder, but steady across the ages. The universe is not old. It will be a child universe until every bright yellow star like the Sun has burned out and shriveled away.

Like the universe, humanity is in its infancy, on the edge of some new age. Humans in their present form have been around for about a hundred thousand years, again a dizzyingly long time from a single person's perspective. I often wonder what it would be like to be one of those people, long before the library, the written word, before even agriculture. They were about as smart as us, as curious, as clever, as compelled to awe and understanding and the emotions of people everywhere. It must have seemed so impossible to ever understand how anything worked when so much seemed downright inscrutable and arbitrary. But they kept at it, and though it took millennium after millennium of discouraging progress, the why and the how of crop growth, writing, math, civilization, astronomy, physics, and biology started to come together. We are outrageously privileged to live in the time we do, blessed with a thousand centuries' worth of labor toward understanding the world and enabling a human presence in it without asking for it and without deserving it.

Think for a moment about what those thousand centuries are compared to the youthful age of the universe. Nothing more than a few hours in a lifetime. Clearly, there's a lot of room for progress.

I don't know what Earth's capacity for supporting human life is, but I think it's reasonable to say that we're within an order of magnitude of it already (at least with foreseeable technology). If we are to continue growing, expanding, evolving as a civilization we need to look outward. By happy coincidence, humans finished fully exploring Earth at almost exactly the same time that we first became capable of exploring beyond. Human exploration and ultimately human settlement of space is limited by economics, not physics. The energy costs of flying a person around the world are about the same as the energy costs of flying a person to low Earth orbit. Once there, as Heinlein elegantly put it, you're halfway to anywhere else in the solar system, by energy at least. Clearly there's a way to settle a new frontier beyond Earth so that it is a boost, not a drain, to our global economy. We just haven't hit on the right utilization of technology yet.

This is what it will take to enable a long-term positive future for cvilization development. We can either develop the technology to affordably travel to and from low Earth orbit and live off the local resources, or civilization can remain confined to Earth and it's truncated timeline. Civilization can continue to climb and yearn and keep on developing on the timescale on which the stars live, or it can stagnate and we can all live as steampunk cavemen for a billion years. I'd rather climb.

So what do you do on a day-to-day basis to help create this future for humanity? I'm not exactly sure, but I think, and I hope, that what I'm doing right now is a good start.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Signal and Noise

When I left for college three and a half years ago, I didn't really know what I was getting into. The air was hot and arid when I got on the plane in Phoenix, and the air was hot and muggy when I got off the plane in Houston. That much I expected, though it did take a while to get used to the relentless humid winds that sweep north from the Gulf of Mexico through College Station. I left home with grand but vague notions of what I wanted to accomplish in the next four years and beyond.

I would be studying engineering, aerospace to be exact, and the experts assured me that the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas was a fine place to do so. After that was when the really exciting part would happen. With the broad and deep knowledge of engineering I was sure I'd develop over the next four years, maybe reinforced by a few years in grad school, I planned to take on the great aerospace challenges of our time. Efficient airplanes, supersonic transports, reusable launch vehicles, the settlement of the planets and moons and stars, all this was what I was really here sweating and studying on the western edge of the Bible Belt for. How exactly a BS in Aerospace Engineering fit into those plans was a mystery to me, but I knew it was the path of least resistance to working on these epic projects. Like a raindrop seeking the ocean I set out for Aggieland.

One of the best ways to establish myself as an up-and-coming mover and shaker in college was to do research, early and often, I was told. So I set out, long before I could provide any justification for the case that I could be a competent researcher, to "do research," whatever that was. Happily, Dr. B was only too happy to give me a tour of his lab a few weeks into my freshman year.

All modern aerospace engineering programs worth their salt have a wind tunnel or two, and the better ones have big and fast tunnels. Texas A&M has two wind tunnels on the engineering side of campus and three off-campus next to the airport. Dr. B's reserach focused on one of the off-campus wind tunnels, the Mach 6 quiet tunnel that had recently been shipped in from NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. I found the name amusing at first. You wouldn't expect anything about a machine shooting compressed air at six times the speed of sound through a rocket nozzle to be quiet, after all. It's a fitting name, though, since even though the tunnel screams when it's running, the interior is so precisely designed, shaped, machined, and polished, the airflow through the test section is impeccably smooth, free of the noise of eddies and vorticies that can dominate flow fields in less precise tunnels.

Quiet is not the opposite of loud; it's the opposite of noisy. It's very easy to be loud and noisy. Just watch C-SPAN or any of the 24 hour news networks for an hour or so if you need convincing. Being loud and quiet is difficult, and I think being quiet, free of noise and accurate, is more important anyway. I'd like to be loud, to broadcast my thoughts as broadly as I can to reach as many people as I can, someday, but I want to make sure that what I broadcast is the best it can be first. So for now, I seek quiet, not loudness.

One of the pieces of wisdom I picked up from a professor freshman year was that creativity doesn't happen in a vacuum. People need community to survive, or better yet thrive, and a community of ideas where the most robust are weeded out from a multitude of contenders is infinitely stronger than an isolated quiver of unexposed thoughts. Also, discussing thoughts and ideas as openly as possible is just more fun than keeping them all to yourself. Evangelism is a word that's long been a associated with the promulgation of religion, particularly Christianity. That's not really what I mean. The purpose of this blog is to seek the best ideas history and creativity have to offer and send them out into the ether. Who knows, something might stick or achieve something like profoundness, and even if nothing I write here ever does, I like writing and need to organize my hobbies better.

I haven't pinned down exactly what this blog's about, and I expect that it will evolve over time anyway. For now, I'll say this. I am a very skeptical person, and have a stronger religious drive than most. These parts of my personality can be awkward bedfellows at times. I'll consider my career a success if I can look back and say I've genuinely helped establish an enduring human presence in space. I think science, and humanity's harnessing of it through technology, is a sublimely beautiful enterprise. My life and worldview have been profoundly affected by a number of experiences I hope to describe in greater detail in future posts. In the past I considered myself a Christian, and in the present I don't follow much of a formal creed. Depending on your personal definitions, you might call me an atheist, an agnostic, an agnostic theist, or a pantheist, with varying degrees of accuracy. As corny as this might sound, there are such things as truth, beauty, and love in the universe, and I aim to seek these as well as I can. I see this blog as one line of work in this search. If you'd like to help, welcome aboard.