June 15, 2017

QotD: The Budapest Effect

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

A group of Manhattan Project physicists created a tongue-in-cheek mythology where superintelligent Martian scouts landed in Budapest in the late 19th century and stayed for about a generation, after which they decided the planet was unsuitable for their needs and disappeared. The only clue to their existence were the children they had with local women.

The joke was that this explained why the Manhattan Project was led by a group of Hungarian supergeniuses, all born in Budapest between 1890 and 1920. These included Manhattan Project founder Leo Szilard, H-bomb creator Edward Teller, Nobel-Prize-winning quantum physicist Eugene Wigner, and legendary polymath John von Neumann, namesake of the List Of Things Named After John Von Neumann.

The coincidences actually pile up beyond this. Von Neumann, Wigner, and possibly Teller all went to the same central Budapest high school at about the same time, leading a friend to joke about the atomic bomb being basically a Hungarian high school science fair project.

But maybe we shouldn’t be joking about this so much. Suppose we learned that Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach all had the same childhood piano tutor. It sounds less like “ha ha, what a funny coincidence” and more like “wait, who was this guy, and how quickly can we make everyone else start doing what he did?”

In this case, the guy was Laszlo Ratz, legendary Budapest high school math teacher. I didn’t even know people told legends about high school math teachers, but apparently they do, and this guy features in a lot of them. There is apparently a Laszlo Ratz Memorial Congress for high school math teachers each year, and a Laszlo Ratz medal for services to the profession. There are plaques and statues to this guy. It’s pretty impressive.

A while ago I looked into the literature on teachers and concluded that they didn’t have much effect overall. Similarly, Freddie deBoer writes that most claims that certain schools or programs have transformative effects on their students are the result of selection bias.

On the other hand, we have a Hungarian academy producing like half the brainpower behind 20th century physics, and Nobel laureates who literally keep a picture of their high school math teacher on the wall of their office to inspire them. Perhaps even if teachers don’t explain much of the existing variability, there are heights of teacherdom so rare that they don’t show up in the statistics, but still exist to be aspired to?

Scott Alexander, “The Atomic Bomb Considered as Hungarian High School Science Fair Project”, Slate Star Codex, 2016-05-26.

January 1, 2014

Isaac Asimov’s predictions for 2014, written in 1964

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:51

VA Viper dug up an Asimov essay from 1964, where he speculated on what life would be like in 2014. It’s an interesting read:

What will life be like, say, in 2014 A.D., 50 years from now? What will the World’s Fair of 2014 be like?

I don’t know, but I can guess.

One thought that occurs to me is that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colors that will change at the touch of a push button.

Windows need be no more than an archaic touch, and even when present will be polarized to block out the harsh sunlight. The degree of opacity of the glass may even be made to alter automatically in accordance with the intensity of the light falling upon it.


Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence. The I.B.M. exhibit at the present fair has no robots but it is dedicated to computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English. If machines are that smart today, what may not be in the works 50 years hence? It will be such computers, much miniaturized, that will serve as the “brains” of robots. In fact, the I.B.M. building at the 2014 World’s Fair may have, as one of its prime exhibits, a robot housemaid: large, clumsy, slow-moving but capable of general picking-up, arranging, cleaning and manipulation of various appliances. It will undoubtedly amuse the fairgoers to scatter debris over the floor in order to see the robot lumberingly remove it and classify it into “throw away” and “set aside.” (Robots for gardening work will also have made their appearance.)

General Electric at the 2014 World’s Fair will be showing 3-D movies of its “Robot of the Future,” neat and streamlined, its cleaning appliances built in and performing all tasks briskly. (There will be a three-hour wait in line to see the film, for some things never change.)

The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long- lived batteries running on radioisotopes. The isotopes will not be expensive for they will be by-products of the fission-power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity. But once the isotope batteries are used up they will be disposed of only through authorized agents of the manufacturer.

An experimental fusion-power plant or two will already exist in 2014. (Even today, a small but genuine fusion explosion is demonstrated at frequent intervals in the G.E. exhibit at the 1964 fair.) Large solar-power stations will also be in operation in a number of desert and semi-desert areas — Arizona, the Negev, Kazakhstan. In the more crowded, but cloudy and smoggy areas, solar power will be less practical. An exhibit at the 2014 fair will show models of power stations in space, collecting sunlight by means of huge parabolic focusing devices and radiating the energy thus collected down to earth.


Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books. Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica (shown in chill splendor as part of the ’64 General Motors exhibit).

For that matter, you will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies, concerning which General Motors puts on a display of impressive vehicles (in model form) with large soft tires: intended to negotiate the uneven terrain that may exist on our natural satellite.

Any number of simultaneous conversations between earth and moon can be handled by modulated laser beams, which are easy to manipulate in space. On earth, however, laser beams will have to be led through plastic pipes, to avoid material and atmospheric interference. Engineers will still be playing with that problem in 2014.

Conversations with the moon will be a trifle uncomfortable, but the way, in that 2.5 seconds must elapse between statement and answer (it takes light that long to make the round trip). Similar conversations with Mars will experience a 3.5-minute delay even when Mars is at its closest. However, by 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars, though a manned expedition will be in the works and in the 2014 Futurama will show a model of an elaborate Martian colony.

August 7, 2012

Overzealous copyright enforcement

Filed under: Law, Space, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:36

Even copyright-free NASA footage can be taken down for copyright infringement. Brid-Aine Parnell at The Register explains the fast-trigger-finger-goof:

YouTube was a bit keen in the prosecution of copyright laws during NASA’s victorious Curiosity rover landing yesterday morning, booting the first video excerpt of the livestream off its site for infringing a news service.

NASA’s video coverage and pics are actually generally copyright-free, which made the overzealous bot takedown even more ironic as it pulled the video from the space agency’s channel for infringing on the rights of Scripps Local News.

The problem, which took a few hours to fix, was flagged by online magazine Motherboard, which spotted a message on the video declaring: “This video contains content from Scripps Local News, who has blocked it on copyright grounds”.

August 4, 2012

Seeking Mars colonists for one way trip

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:00

Chris Brandrick on the first civilian recruitment drive for Martian colonization:

Just as NASA’s latest rover prepares to land on the surface of Mars, one Dutch company is looking to up the ante, with plans to send humans to the distant red planet. But before you sign up for travels to faraway lands, you may want to take note that the trip is a one-way deal, meaning you’ll never be able to return home to Earth.

Mars One, the ambitious company behind the planned mission, is hoping that a number of brave civilians will be willing to embark upon the mission to be the first to occupy the planet.

The company, founded by Bas Lansdorp, wants to send a number of humans to live on our neighboring planet indefinitely by 2023. The timeline for the mission will see Mars One send out a communications satellite in 2016, with a rover being sent in 2018 to find a suitable site for a settlement. Once the company finds a suitable location, it’ll send settlement units to Mars in 2020, which the existing rover will then set-up.

Once it gets the settlement established, Mars One hopes to send a small crew that would leave Earth in December of 2022, and arrive in April of 2023.

Visiting Mars would be fantastic, but I think I’ll wait until a return booking is possible.

July 16, 2012

Aggressive target for India’s space program: Mars

Filed under: India, Space — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:53

In The Register, Phil Muncaster reports on what is rumoured to be the next stage of India’s space program:

Not to be outdone by China in the space race, India is set to flex its muscles on the world stage, planning a mission to Mars late next year.

K Radhakrishnan, Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), told reporters on Saturday that there will be a definitive announcement on the scientific research-based project by the government soon.

“A lot of studies have been done on the possible mission to Mars. We have come to the last phase of approvals,” he said, according to Times of India.

The proposed Mars mission will apparently be focussed on the Red Planet’s origins and evolution, its climate and geography and whether life can be sustained there.

March 19, 2012

The PR problem of NASA

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Media, Politics, Space, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:49

L. Neil Smith explains why and how NASA has managed to become so uninspiring (hint: it was deliberate).

The truth is, there are three kinds of people in the world, those to whom traveling to, landing on, settling, and terraforming the planet Mars requires no explanation, those for whom no explanation of any kind will ever suffice, and those who remain to be convinced.

Our job in that respect really amounts to putting the romance back into space exploration that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration carefully throttled out of it over the past half century. I think their secret motto was, “If you’re having any fun, you’re not doing it right.”

All that time, NASA and its supporters seemed to be asking desperately, why is the American public losing interest in what we’re doing? But the answer was in the mirror before them. In a desperate bid for false respectability, in a misplaced desire not to evoke visions of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers or Captain Video, they ended up not evoking any visions at all, and thereby destroyed any reason for the average individual, the average man, woman, or child, to support their program.

I have also come to think — very reluctantly, believe me — that there has been a secret agenda, probably in echelons much higher than NASA itself, to prevent that average individual from ever getting into space, which may be why they opposed the whole “space tourism” idea so hysterically.

March 17, 2012

Schiaparelli’s ambiguous word choice and the lasting obsession with Mars

Filed under: Books, History, Media, Science, Space — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:09

Scott Van Wynsberghe reviews the hold that fictitious Mars has held on the imagination since “canals” were observed:

Mars, the most obsessed-about extraterrestrial body in the universe, has come our way again. On March 9, Hollywood unveiled John Carter, the first film adaptation of a famous series of Martian adventures written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, better known as the creator of the jungle hero Tarzan. Burroughs’s Martian yarns act as a portal to 135 years of cultural history that really is out of this world.

The bizarre story of humanity’s modern entanglement with the Red Planet began in 1877, when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported the existence of “canali” on the Martian surface. In Italian, that word can mean both “channels,” which are natural formations, and “canals,” which are not. According to science writer John Noble Wilford, that ambiguity was never cleared up.

[. . .]

Caught between science fiction and the supernatural, actual scientists were in trouble. French astronomer Camille Flammarion, for example, alternately wrote about Mars and reincarnation (1889) and Mars and science (1892). In 1900, the inventor Nikola Tesla announced that he had monitored transmissions from either Mars or Venus, but he was jeered (biographer Margaret Cheney thinks he was just detecting natural electromagnetic patterns in space). In 1921, radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi thought he had received a signal from Mars, but that, too, went nowhere. The biggest offender, however, was American astronomer Percival Lowell.

In 1895, Lowell released the first of a series of books proclaiming that Mars was inhabited. The canali, he said, really were canals, supporting a civilization struggling to survive on a dying globe. Although rightly scorned by other astronomers, Lowell was a superb writer and a frequent lecturer — Robert Goddard, the father of American rocketry, heard him speak — so his message spread. (And, in a way, it is still spreading: Think of that recent, much-debunked conspiracy theory about a giant, sculpted face on the Martian surface.)

March 11, 2012

Conflicting reviews of John Carter

Filed under: Books, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:14

First up, Tim O’Reilly (of O’Reilly Books), who wasn’t impressed with the new movie:

Well, I was disappointed. Here are a few reasons:

1. The character of John Carter was all wrong — brutish and stupid, far from the chivalrous Virginia gentleman of the books. They abandoned the unabashed romanticism of Burroughs in favor of a modern anti-hero whose tortured path to falling in love with Dejah Thoris, a Princess of Mars, was completely unconvincing.

I wonder at this failure to grasp the simplicity of emotion that suffused the golden age of science-fiction. George Lucas nailed it perfectly in the first Star Wars trilogy. Nobility of purpose, idealism, the pure romance of a boy (or girl) who hasn’t yet experienced the complications of the real thing, adventure and the chance to make a big difference against impossible odds: these are the motivations of the genre.

2. Too much spectacle, not enough attention to character and story. And what spectacle there was was undistinguished. There was a certain steampunk grandiosity to the way they did the flying ships of Barsoom that I liked, and there were some stretches of Lake Powell as the River Iss that I found visually compelling.

On the other hand, ESR went in expecting to be disappointed and instead quite enjoyed the movie:

I’ve read all of the Barsoom novels the movie was based on, but they’re not important in the furniture of my imagination in the way that (say) Robert Heinlein’s books are. They’re very primitive pulp fiction which I sought out mainly because of their historical importance as precursors of later and more interesting work. Still, they are not without a certain rude, innocent charm. The heroes are heroic, the villains villainous, the women are beautiful, dying Mars is a backdrop suffused with barbaric splendor, and the prose is muscular and vigorous.

This translation to movie form retains those virtues quite a bit more faithfully than one might have expected. In doing so it reminded me very much of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Junior (see my review, A no-shit Sherlock). I didn’t get the powerful sense Sherlock Holmes gave me of the lead actors caring passionately about the source material, but the writers of John Carter certainly cared as much. A surprising amount of Burrough’s Barsoomian mythology and language made it into the movie. The barbarian Green Martians are rendered with gratifying unsentimentality, and the sense of Barsoom as an ancient planet with time-deep history and ancient mysteries is well conveyed.

If you’re me, reading the Barsoom novels is also an entertaining exercise in in origin-spotting tropes that would recur in later planetary romances and space operas clear down to the present day. The designers and writers of John Carter are alive to this; there are a number of points at which the movie visually quotes the Star Wars franchise in a funny, underlined way that reminds us that Barsoom was actually the ur-source for many of the cliches that Star Wars mined so successfully.

April 28, 2011

Learning from mistakes, Martian style

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:56

I have to admit it’s doubly amusing finding articles like Mars ate my spacecraft!, once for the content and once for the amusing title:

The investigation board made the not-terribly-earth-shaking observation that tired people make mistakes. The contractor used excessive overtime to meet an ambitious schedule. Mars is tough on schedules. Slip by just one day past the end of the launch window and the mission must idle for two years. In some businesses we can dicker with the boss over the due date, but you just can’t negotiate with planetary geometries.

[. . .]

NASA’s mantra is to test like you fly, fly what you tested. Yet no impact test of a running, powered, DS2 system ever occurred. Though planned, these were deleted midway through the project due to schedule considerations. Two possible reasons were found for Deep Space 2’s twin flops: electronics failure in the high-g impact, and ionization around the antenna after the impacts. Strangely, the antenna was never tested in a simulation of Mar’s 6 torr atmosphere.

While the DS2 probes were slamming into the Red Planet things weren’t going much better on MPL. The investigation board believes the landing legs deployed when the spacecraft was 1,500 meters high, as designed. Three sensors, one per leg, signal a successful touchdown, causing the code to turn the descent engine off. Engineers knew that when the legs deployed these sensors could experience a transient, giving a false “down” reading… but somehow forgot to inform the firmware people. The glitch was latched; at 40 meters altitude the code started looking at the data, saw the false readings, and faithfully switched off the engine.

A pre-launch system test failed to detect the problem because the sensors were miswired. After correcting the wiring error the test was never repeated.

H/T to Paula Lieberman for the link.

April 21, 2011

Elon’s Dragon may “land on Mars”

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:35

While you’re talking up your own private space venture, you can probably be excused for a bit of boasting:

Famous upstart startup rocket company SpaceX, bankrolled and helmed by renowned internet nerdwealth hecamillionaire Elon Musk, has once again sent its goalposts racing ahead of its rapidly-advancing corporate reality.

The plucky challenger has stated that its “Dragon” capsule is not merely capable of delivering supplies to the International Space Station: it is — potentially — also capable of carrying astronauts to the space station and back down to Earth again.

In a statement released yesterday, Musk and SpaceX also make the bold claim that the Dragon, once fitted with modifications that the company is now developing under NASA contract, would also be able to land “almost anywhere on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy, overcoming the limitation of a winged architecture that works only in Earth’s atmosphere” (our emphasis).

October 14, 2009

Neuter NASA to save manned space exploration?

Filed under: Economics, Space, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:14

Gregg Easterbrook, to be polite, isn’t a fan of NASA’s big-budget plans:

Soon, Barack Obama must make a decision on whether to continue funding NASA’s daffy plan to build a Motel 6 on the moon. The president will be put on the spot when the final report of a space commission [. . .] is delivered. Rumor is that in keeping with the tradition of Washington commissions, the report will contain extremely vague language about sweeping reform; then cite every item on every wish list of every interest group with a finger in this pie; then recommend nothing specific, so as to offend no interest group; then close with a call for higher subsidies. NASA is not one of the core missions of government, and spends only one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget, so space waste is relatively minor in the scheme of things. But if public policy can’t get this right, what can it get right?

Right now NASA’s budget is $18 billion annually, and the quarter or so spent on science — planetary probes, telescopes that scan the far universe — is going very well. The rest of NASA is a mess. The agency has just thrown $100 billion of your money down the drain on the space station, which has no scientific achievement and no known purpose other than keeping checks in the mail to favored contractors and congressional districts. The station is such a white elephant the current plan is to “deorbit” the thing in 2016. “Deorbit” is polite for “make it burn up in the atmosphere.” So after spending $100 billion to build a space station, we’ll destroy it. Your tax dollars at play!

Since 2004, NASA has said its next goal is a manned outpost on the moon, as a stepping-stone to manned travel to Mars. There’s nothing a person could do on the airless, lifeless lunar surface that a tele-robot operated from a Houston office building could not do at a fraction of the price and risk. And the moon has nothing to do with Mars. Any Mars-bound mission will leave directly from low-Earth orbit to the Red Planet: stopping at the moon, then blasting off again, would consume the mission’s fuel to accomplish nothing. Though NASA has been studying moon-base and Mars-mission proposals for five years, the agency refuses to give a cost estimate — a sure sign the plans cannot pass a giggle test. Considering the space station price was $100 billion for a limited facility that was not accelerated to the speed necessary to reach the moon — speed means fuel which means higher price — even a Spartan moon base easily could cost several hundred billion dollars. For what? Why, for “economic expansion”! Today, no one is interested in economic expansion at Earth’s poles, which are far more amenable to life than the moon, have copious resources, and can be reached at one-ten thousandth the cost of reaching the moon.

There’s a lot more, buried in the middle of his weekly “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” column at ESPN.com. The numbers for manned exploration of Mars aren’t encouraging, either.

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