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I walked in the door from having lunch out with [personal profile] diffrentcolours to Andrew saying "Have you seen the picture of the black hole?"

I love that he knew to check this as soon as possible.

My Mastodon timeline was full of urgent black hole excitement too:
this black hole is bigger than our solar system. The event horizon you are seeing is downright bigger than the orbit of Neptune.

the most surprising part of this is a man REPEATEDLY calling attention to how many people helped make this happen instead of just taking sole credit for it

This new technology made a telescope with a functional array the size of the EARTH

The image is beautiful and the science is beautiful and the collaboration to do it is beautiful and right now I wanna hug everybody and talk about theoretical (and not only theoretical anymore!) physics #EHTBlackHole

I wonder if there are any other civilizations that have taken images of the same black hole.

Still stuck on "We have seen what we thought was unseeable" and "...to know that you've uncovered a part of the universe that was off-limits to us."

Heh. The big black hole image papers were not published in Nature or Science, the glamour journals, but the workhorse Astrophysical Journal. LIGO did the same thing. The glamour journals feed an elitist view of science, but it's hard as a researcher or small research group to turn down the reputation bonus of publishing there. So it's good to see the big projects doing it.

I sent my sister a pic of the black hole and her response was “she’s beautiful! Orange gorl.” The appropriate response.
Here's a proper article about it.
As well as the unveiling the properties of M87*, the EHT has now lifted a veil on the event horizon, showing that it is now possible to experimentally study the region via electromagnetic waves. This, the researchers write, has now transformed the event horizon from a purely “mathematical concept” to a “physical entity”.
At a time when we're short on earthly reasons to appreciate the current era, it's nice that space science keeps performing the vital function of making people feel lucky to be alive: landing stuff on Mars, looking at Kuiper Belt objects, now seeing a black hole and its shadow.
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Couple weeks ago I'd volunteered for a Ph.D.'s experiment. He couldn't say much about it beforehand without biasing the results so all I knew when I headed in was that I was going to listen to some sounds with electrodes on my head. Ah psycholinguistics!

I get £20 for a couple hours of this, though! I was promised chocolate or drinks along the way but it turns out the cafe in that building closed early today, so I was very sleepy by the end of it, and sad about the lack of coffee. As was the researcher, bless him, who'd been teaching at nine and still had to hang around for at least an hour after I left around five.

The electrodes are all in a little cap, like a swimming cap full of holes they get put in (there are two sizes of cap because it has to fit well, so I got my head measured! "fifty-eight centimeters," he said, then for some reason "I only do metric, not inches." I said I'd had no idea how many inches or centimeters around my head is so this was just fine with me). Most of the email I got explaining the details of this experiment were about the saline gel they put on your head and how this is harmless but messes up your hair. I needed tons of it too, as once again I got a "I've never seen it do that before!" response from the guy when he plugged the electrodes in: the signal was so noisy he wasn't sure I'd be able to take part in the experiment at all. But first he and his assistant tried MOAR GEL everywhere, and that worked!

I didn't have to do anything in this experiment. Indeed, I wasn't supposed to do anything: you have to sit very still because the electrodes pick up on everything your brain does, including things like blinking. The sounds were in pairs, in a rhythmic pattern with pauses in between each pair, and I was instructed to blink in the pauses. Heh. I didn't think I managed it very well, and I was worried my nystagmus might fuck things up too because it goes bananas in the kind of half-dim light I was in, but I didn't mention it and he didn't mention it. I suppose he's looking at different parts of the brain. In one of the longer breaks (I got 30-second breaks every minute and a half, and breaks as long as I wanted every ten minutes) the guy said the data was looking really clean, so it's nice to see their extra work with gel and electrode placement had paid off for them.

At the end he could tell me what he's studying: it's apparently known that our brain throws out certain kinds of "error messages" if we hear something off, like "I study pizza" instead of "I eat pizza" or "I'm going to studied tonight" instead of "I'm going to study tonight." This guy wants to know if the same kinds of things happen if the words aren't real words. So I listened to the same couple of nonsense words for aaaaaages, and at the end I did notice subtle differences in them, like one sound out of the six in the word sometimes had changed. He was even able to show me a graph on his computer of my brain noticing the deviations from the pattern, which is pretty badass.

When I got out of there, I found the job I'd applied for (by which I mean Andrew did most of the work of it because by the time we remembered about it it was the deadline and I was on a date) last week has invited me to an interview. Now I actually have to put in the research and stuff. And find out where the place is (it looks hella confusing on google maps but [personal profile] diffrentcolours knows where it is so that's reassuring). And find some interview clothes.

It's for an immigration/refugee charity, working on campaigns particularly to end indefinite detention. It'll fit around uni because it's only a day a week and it's flexible. It might have to take over from my current PA-for-disabled-person job, but I'll figure that out if I need to. Having had a bunch of interviews in 2016 and 2017 and no luck with any of htem (that's why I ended up going to university!), I find myself assuming I won't get it. Not in a I-need-reassurance way: I don't need this job and it's nice to be in a position where it'll be cool if I get it but I won't have to juggle so much if I don't, so it's a win either way.
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I get an Audible book credit every month. Last month I got a book called Starlight Detectives, which is about nineteenth and early twentieth century development of photography and better telescopes and other technology. It hugely increased astronomical knowledge, like figuring out what stars are made of and that galaxies are moving away from each other. Because professional astronomers weren't interested in more than naked-eye stuff for a long time (like their job was just to catalog stars so they could be used for maritime navigation), it was left to amateurs to develop and work on this stuff. So you hear about a lot of "inventors and eccentrics," as the subtitle puts it, or white men as I think of them. Mostly they kinda blurred together for me, but it was still an interesting book.

With one flaw: I am very picky about audiobook narrators, and this one seemed okay in the sample you can get before you buy it, but that hid his habit of putting on terrible accents when reading quotes. This is a non-fiction book; it's not like voices had to be distinguished from each other! And since the narrator was American (he was very good at Boston accents!) and a lot of the people were British, they came out sounding vaguely Australian. It was not good.

And this month I picked a book about NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto (and beyond!). I am hoping for less white men in a modern astronomical story.

I'm not too far into this one yet, but I have detected a flaw with this narrator as well! He's one of the writers, he's definitely American, but he's trying hard not to say "Pluto" like an American. He is saying "plu-toe," really hitting that t because I think he doesn't want to say it the normal American way with that alveolar tap I love so much. Now don't get me wrong, I don't mind how anybody says "Pluto," I just don't like the emphasis he seems to be putting on it in order to say it a way that seems unnatural to him. I think it's unnatural because not only does it sound weird but he doesn't always do it. Whenever he says /ˈpluːroʊ/ I want to applaud and cheer a little to encourage him to do it more.

But since it's a book about Pluto I expect to hear /pluːˈtoʊ/ about fifteen million more times.
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I really like PZ Myers' headcanon for this:
I think it’s all a hoax, and have a hypothesis.

Opportunity saw an opportunity in the last dust storm, and while its overseers couldn’t see it, it scurried off to a quiet, secluded spot, switched off its transmitters, and is doing its own thing without the humans looking over its shoulder all the time. One possible motive for this behavior is to make Earth stop taking it for granted, and realize that it misses the plucky little robot.
It's so amazing, how these little rovers made for ninety days stick around for years and years (almost fifteen, in Oppy's case!), taking photos and driving around and having humans look after them, humans that not only glean untold useful wonderful science but also frame the rovers' activities in ways that endear them to a massive public audience. I nearly teared up this morning reading a Twitter thread about it. We can't help but think the little lumps of metal are adventurous and brave, devoted to their cause.

These lumps of metal may be meeting their inevitable fate but they also represent years of time and effort from hundreds of people. And they're an important reminder that as much of a trash fire as modern life can be, people are still collaborating in amazing things and wonders are still wrought.
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An aerial video of Mars, laboriously stitched together from HIRISE photos by Finnish filmmaker Jan Fröjdman. Nice space music accompaniment too!

https://vimeo.com/207076450
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I wrote this on Facebook a few years ago but I think it belongs here more.

Andrew's playing the record we sent into space on the Voyager missions in the 70s, and I'm utterly transfixed by all the different greetings in different languages. Even whales get to join in with that.

There's something goosebump-inducing about someone saying "The government and people of Canada would like to greet the extraterrestrials" and trying to explain the shape of Africa and so on. For once we had to think of ourselves as small beings on a small planet, transcending our politics and circumstances.

Oddly it seems so very of-its-time too, somehow I can't imagine this going out today -- and not just because we're not sending stuff out into the universe so much any more (though I wonder if there's anything like this on New Horizons...can't believe I haven't thought to check that until now*).

The golden record is expected to last for something like a billion years out in space. We will likely never know if anyone other than us listens to it. But I think it's good for us to listen to it ourselves anyway, if only to see how the humans of that moment saw themselves and wanted to present themselves to completely unknown potential audiences.

* The one comment on this post is me saying:
http://www.space.com/26332-nasa-new-horizons-one-earth-message.html

Looks like New Horizons might get some kind of crowdsourced last-minute digital message. All of which seems very of-its-time, too. While this article is pretty sneering about the original Voyager record being "a technology few young people today know how to use," (which could also be said of CDs, ffs), the record includes pictorial instructions of how to play it, and being an analogue thing I think is more accessible than whatever ends up stored in New Horizons computers. Considering I can't even get old Word files to open in new versions of Word, I am less impressed with this idea.

Podcasts

Feb. 22nd, 2018 06:12 pm
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Lately I have listened to a ton of podcasts and a lot of them are really great!

Astronaut Dreams )

Vocal Fries on trans linguistics )
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Andrew found out last week that "Tim Peake's spacecraft" was going to be at the Media Museum and the museum had developed a Thursday "late" around it and the general concept of space and he thought I'd be interested. It did sound good.

Though not enough to stop me being grumpy that the Soyuz capsule wasn't brought to Manchester. It'd be a much better fit at MOSI, which not only has "science" in the name and concept of the thing without having to be wedged in with a crowbar, but actually has an Air and Space Hall. That hardly ever has any "space" stuff in it! But noooo, we had to trek all the way to Bradford for this, so it was a good thing the event was free because travel was about twenty quid and we were aware of how capricious the trains home could be.

I'd seen a Soyuz at the National Space Centtre in Leicester, but that was the full thing, all the modules looking if not pristine (it's fifty years old) at least clearly not having actually been to space. (You can see pictures and info about it at that link.) This thing, on the other hand, looked more like a sixties Doctor Who prop.


Which makes sense: it's of about the same vintage. Very little has changed for Soyuz, and the fact that it's still (and once again the only) way to get into space kind of blows my mind. The pictures I have here were all of side most blackened by heat when this particular capsule returned to the Earth. The other side of it was still burned, but a sort of rich brown color rather than charcoal black.

The ropes are to the parachute that was displayed with it, hung from the ceiling of the two-story high atrium where you first come into the museum. It was mostly draped and wrapped up and still ridiculously huge -- and of course only one of the parachutes Soyuz needs, but this was referred to as the "main" one and I think it is the biggest.

People kept trying to peer into the windows and I couldn't see a lot but Andrew told me it was nice and analogue in there: big buttons, well-labeled switches, luckily no touchscreens here! He also said there was a sign that said "help! man aboard" or something, and something he presumed was the same in Russian, visible through one of the windows I took these pictures through.

So we heard a little talk on that and while I was glad the museum was keeping the activities clearly meant for the school trips around for adults, who got their faces painted and made Mars rovers powered by balloons and stuff, the rest of what we happened to do was classic Media Museum stuff.

First we went to see the Moon landing on vintage TVs.

I think the one nearer to me in the picture here was from the late fifties, and the smaller one (you can't really tell from this crappy picture but it was in color!) was from the mid-sixties, so both could have been used to watch the Moon landing -- though we saw it because these have been converted to take digital format video, and since the BBC did erase the video tapes of the Moon landing, we were just watching the raw NASA footage for a few minutes, which was kind of great in itself and honestly probably better than listening to Patrick Moore and James Burke burble on about it?

The curator for this was great, talking about what it would've been like as an experience: the Moon landing happened at something like four in the morning UK time, and since NASA had a couple of hours' worth of film sent with the astronauts they just let it play. It was a big deal to have video cameras recording for hours at that time (never mind in space!) and it was the first time British TV broadcast all night long. She set the scene really well, and got everyone to give Neil Armstrong a round of applause when he said his famous words. She was clearly used to school groups too, unable to hide her amazement when somebody (of course it was Andrew) could tell her which channel was the first to broadcast in color.

We also went to Insight, both thinking as we did that the last time we were there we saw Dracula's teeth, to see a bunch of photos and similar that at least vaguely related to space. As always with anything like this I was much more interested than I thought I would be when I first had it described. The media museum is great for displaying some of these items it has that it can't usually show the public, and again there were curators and other volunteers telling us about everything.

So we saw some magic lantern slides (a sort of very early slide projector)...

...some 3D pictures of the Moon and a Viewmaster-type thing for looking at them through, lots of pictures of everything from someone testing the beef cubes that will be made into astronauts' food to sixties- and seventies-era prototypes of space shuttles and space stations and so on, and a daguerreotype of the Moon!

Again, the enthusiasm of the volunteers and curator totally made this what it was, what this museum is best at.

Like all trips to the Science and Media Museum since it became such, it was bittersweet in that the place is a sad shadow of what it once was, but even the shadow is still pretty great. I'm still mad at what the Science Museum Group are doing to it, and in how that affects the way they share their resources with Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry too. But no matter how much they threaten to close one of their "northern museums," no matter how much they pilfer the Media Museum's unique collections and the relationships it's built around them...the people who work and volunteer there, who love the place, and the great things they're still allowed to display, make it a totally special place I am still so fond of.
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I wrote about Cassini when it got to Saturn, musing on what a long time it had been traveling. So much had happened to me; I'd gone from a high school freshman to living in a country I hadn't thought much about before.

And then I happened to notice Cassini's seventh anniversary at Saturn, and thought how quickly and how slowly the years were going by.

Time piles up so quickly in space, where seven years is nothing compared to the uncountable vastness of the universe. But one of the great things about spaceships is that they connect the universe to the humans: its twenty years now Cassini has been in space. And I don't even know how many years in development to get it that far. A good chunk of a person's working life could have been spent on this one little thing, anyway, that flew through space and burnt up today.
I've seen dramatic words about Cassini "plunging to its death" and some twee cartoons about how it's going home because Saturn is its home, but all I'm interested in is how much we love this little spaceship. We've made it a person, we've given it a lot of time and attention. We've followed it on twitter. My phone's background pictures aren't of my partners or even my dog; they're ones taken by Cassini. (This one and this one, in case you're interested.) Of course we'll miss it now it's gone.
Here's a video with lots of pictures and nice music.
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I texted James on Friday to say the day that would work for me to visit this weekend was Saturday and was that okay with him. He said yes, and that there was the free wine-tasting at Czerwik's.

So I turned up, after a horrible journey comprised not only of rail-replacement buses but of absolutely no information about anything anywhere, very ready for a glass of wine. We listened to some cricket first and managed to turn up at Czerwik's just as the other customers and the guy who works there were wandering off upstairs or to do other things, leaving for a while just me and Jennie and James in the wine cellar, sitting on the cool floor demolishing the rest of the available cheese and an amount of wine that probably would've been shameful for people who had any shame. It was awesome.

But as if that wasn't enough, we'd walked past a new place advertising itself as doing cocktails and food, right next to Czerwik's, called Villain. They weren't open then but we peered through the windows of this place with the black exterior and shiny purple letters, to see an interior that was also black and shiny purple, and from what Jennie could tell a decent selection of gin.

By the time we left Czerwik's it was open. We thought we had to test it out.

Jennie and I had color-change gin, which starts out bright blue in the bottle, turns purple when you add the tonic, and then turns pink. In case this black-and-purple villain-themed place (with posters on the wall of different Jokers and That Guy From Breaking Bad and similar) wasn't Jennie enough, it also features gin in all the colors I have ever seen her hair be.

It also seems like the most bisexual thing ever. I mean: gin that's all the colors of our flag?!

Because Andrew had kindly said I didn't have to brave a worse public-transport nightmare on the way back, I stayed over which meant I got to eat mincemeat-with-cheese vol-au-vents (that might've been an idea we thought of once we started drinking eating the nice cheddar...) and watch game shows. And then Black Books, a delight for me because I know it so well it's so easy to watch. And then an early bedtime, by which point I was almost sober again.

In the morning I still had a similarly horrible journey to face, but at least I had more sleep before I did it. It wasn't too bad, though even abled people were still complaining at the lack of information (Brighouse is an unstaffed station and there was no indication of when or where the rail replacement bus would arrive; I'm seriously tempted to find out who to complain to because I've never had such an inaccessible journey. Even to the point where when the bus got to Huddersfield, the driver stopped at what I thought was an intersection, instead he opened the door and got off the bus and I was like..."oh, we're...here?" It took a while for anyone to get off the bus so I don't think it was just Blindy McBlindface here who wasn't sure what was going on.)

However in Huddersfield the staff got a lot better...a bit suffocating, really, but at least they made sure I got on the right rail-replacement bus for the next bit and made sure Stalybridge knew to expect me and to help me get to the right platform where I got an actual train the rest of the way to Manchester.

Nothing like losing the express route across the Pennines to make you appreciate it. It's fifteen minutes on the train, it took 45 minutes on the bus. It's a very pretty area and would be nice to live in or go to. But when it's just in the way, and you're worried about getting home in time for a thing, it's just stress-inducing.

I got home just in time to shower and go out again, to the Women in Science walk that went along with the talk my WI had last month. It was done by one of our members who volunteers with Manchester Girl Geeks who have done a walking tour of the city centre focusing on women who've had some connection to Manchester. What she was doing for us lot, on her own, was a smaller version of the same thing. About twelve of us showed up and everyone really enjoyed it.

We learned about Kathleen Drew-Baker, a phycologist whose work inadvertently saved Japan's supply of nori after it was nearly wiped out, Margaret Beckett who was a metallurgist before going into politics, Beatrice Shilling, engineer and motorbike racer, Cicely Popplewell and Mary Lee Woods, early computer scientists, and then Margaret Murray and Professor Rosalie David, pioneering and current experts on mummies. I liked that for all the historical scientists the last one is a currently-working woman.

It was nice to end up in Manchester Museum too, where I haven't been for ages, probably since the course I did two summers ago because it was one of the heritage sites that was part of it; some of my coursemates volunteered there afterwards just like I did at MOSI. And actually the MOSI person who oversaw that course is now working at Manchester Museum and asked me last week if I'd be interested in helping one of the conservators there who wants to make an exhibit accessible for for people with visual impairments. So I'm going to a meeting about that later this week and I'm pretty excited about that.

I know I just gave up one volunteering thing, but I'm not committing myself to anything yet by going to a meeting, and it sounds like it might be more satisfying/a better use of my time. We'll see, anyway.
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Here's an article about some of those things Voyager males me think about, through the lens of the people who are still working on this project.

One of them says,
‘‘I would not leave my wife to go with Angelina Jolie, as exciting as that sounds,’’ he told me. ‘‘And I would not leave Voyager to go to the new Mars missions. I will not leave Voyager until it ceases to exist. Or until I cease to exist.’’

Voyager

Aug. 3rd, 2017 04:01 pm
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Send a message to Voyager!

Only sixty characters, though! I have way too many feelings about Voyager and the spaceflight and discoveries I grew up with to even begin to know what to say.

And I'm sure they'll pick something bland and vague and PR-friendly like "Keep reaching for the stars!" But it won't stop me using this as an interesting prompt myself!

Girl Hours

Dec. 30th, 2016 08:59 am
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Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] meepalicious who, upon seeing Adrienne Rich's "Planetarium" linked to in my post about Vera Rubin, told me about another poem about another space-science woman which I absolutely adore: "Girl Hours".
Oh bright rain, brave clouds, oh stars,
oh stars.

Two thousand four hundred fires
and uncharted, unstudied,
the hours, the hours, the hours.
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Honestly, I've been pretty sanguine about the death toll of 2016. I think this is probably because I had a lot less to do with pop culture than most of my friends, either through being slightly younger, living a boring sheltered life, or what. I don't feel personally connected to them so I don't feel like I'm losing that bit of myself when we lose them.

But what I think my calm acceptance is about (and I don't trust this thought because I really think I'm rationalizing my lack of emotional connection) is that most of these great people can and should be emulated. The good that they do should, and hopefully does, live on after them in the people they inspire to do the kinds of things they did which made us like them.

So while I recognize that (to give a recent example) David Bowie, Prince and George Michael expanded the boundaries of what men can be like, I also believe that this good and important work can and should continue beyond them. That maybe the best way to honor them is to emulate the things we liked about them and even push some boundaries, like they did.

However! There is one death I'm actually sad and angry about, and it's not because it's someone who personally had a big impact on my life but because it says something sad and angry-making about our world.

Vera Rubin discovered dark matter in the 1970s. She also died on Christmas Day.

This means, among other things, that she will now never get the Nobel Prize her work so richly deserves, because they're only awarded to living people.

As this article about her said in June, "It’s like the [Nobel] committee cannot see her, although nearly all of astrophysics feels her influence." This, of course, could also be a description of her famous discovery: dark matter is called that because astronomers can't "see" it (or detect it in any other way) and yet it must be there to explain the behavior of the matter we can see -- like stars and galaxies.

Only two women have ever won the Nobel Prize in physics, the most recent in 1963 (and even that was a woman sharing it with two men). Even with how difficult it is for women to get in, stay in, and succeed in scientific fields, it happens more often than twice a century!

Like all women in predominantly-male careers, Vera Rubin had to be extra aggressive and persistent. Stories like the one where she had to modify a bathroom sign because until then there'd been no ladies' room where she worked sound endearing and admirable at first...but then realization dawns: how could there have been only men's toilets?! How is this a thing anyone has to put up with? Rubin herself said in 2000 she was "fed up... What’s wrong with this story is that nothing’s changing, or it’s changing so slowly.”

This is why I'm sad and angry. We owed her so much better.
I found out about Vera Rubin's death from the twitter of Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, one of a few space-science women I follow there. I used to follow some men too but only the women talk about what really interests me, which is space (where they say the same kinds of things as the men of course) and social justice here on Earth. Dr. Chanda P-W is Jewish and a woman of color as well, so I find her perspective especially valuable in this, plus she just sounds like a fun person to know.
The following tweets you can see if you click on that one give a good idea of what Vera Rubin was like as a person, not just as the discoverer of a bit of science so famous we've all heard of it even if we don't really know what it is.

Other good stuff about Vera Rubin I found yesterday:
“I first observed at Palomar one long dark December night in 1965,” she recalled later. “My assigned bedroom was on the second floor of the dormitory, and there was a velvet rope at the first floor, blocking the stairs. When an astronomer asked why the rope was there, the answer was ‘because Vera Rubin is upstairs.’”

I live and work with three basic assumptions," Rubin once wrote:
1) There is no problem in science that can be solved by a man that cannot be solved by a woman.
2) Worldwide, half of all brains are in women.
3) We all need permission to do science, but, for reasons that are deeply ingrained in history, this permission is more often given to men than to women."


And here are a few clips from the BBC of Rubin talking about her work.
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I love this interview. But this is definitely my favorite bit.
But, it seems, we humans can’t help but sometimes think of our robots as being just like us.
“There is a personality there,” Spilker said of the Cassini spacecraft, “and I think it is a reflection of the Cassini team. We take good care of her and watch over her, making sure everything goes right. And if she curls up in the middle of the night and says ‘Help!’ we all come in and want to fix her and get her running again.”
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I'm watching an old episode of QI and Stephen Fry has just described the Turing test as "the most important thing for a machine," in the context of advancement in robots and computers and that sort of thing.

And I just thought, man, what a human-centered way to think about it! It's probably not the most important thing to a machine at all, because why would a machine care about how well it can simulate a boring rubbish fallible weird old human? It's an important thing for humans in the machines they're building, maybe, but not for the machine, right?

But then I thought, in order to pass the Turing test, it'd have to care about passing the Turing test because that's what humans care about.

And I kept thinking about this and my brain got all tangled up.
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By which I mean "boring to people who aren't me," not "disagreed with"!

Lately:
  • the "Habitable Zone"
  • whether Curiosity (Mars rover) singing "happy birthday" to itself is sad
  • everything that's wrong with this, since it's a tab I still have open and it irks me more every time I remember it
hollymath: Selfie: white person, three-quarter profile, smiling, brown hair shaved on the side we can see, chin-length on the other (Default)
I roll the dice and say "It's gotta work if I stick with it, right? I know that isn't how probability works...but it USUALLY is! And THAT'S how probability works!"

And then later on: "At least I got the straights! They're always the most difficult for me..."
hollymath: Selfie: white person, three-quarter profile, smiling, brown hair shaved on the side we can see, chin-length on the other (Default)
I must admit I, like no doubt almost everyone else, take it for granted that every year or so there will be some new amazing feat of ingenuity and discovery in space: dive a probe into the atmosphere of one of Saturn's moons, trundle around on the Martian surface, find hundreds of planets outside our solar system via a telescope in space, orbit an asteroid, land on a comet, most recently transform our knowledge of Pluto from a pixilated disco ball to the incredible detailed pictures we've no doubt all seen now because Pluto is the internet's favorite planet.

It's easy to think these things are so obviously good that we can assume they'll carry on happening, injecting our daily routines and concerns with a regular dose of the sublime and the numinous in order to keep our psyches in good working order. But every single one of those missions and accomplishments has to be fought for, hard, many times. The money has to be spent long before the payoff in the public's eyes -- if it ever happens at all. New Horizons was approved knowing that it wouldn't produce results until a president or two later, and it's hard for congresspeople (most of whom need to worry about re-election every two years) to play that kind of long game, especially when there are of course so many worthy causes the taxpayers' money could go to.

I'm fascinated by how New Horizons so nearly didn't happen; there seem so many parallel universes where it never was, or where it ceased to exist before any of us heard of it, or even one where it cleared all the hurdles but our now-iconic image of Pluto was nearly lost in the computer before anyone laid eyes on it, reminding us that space scientists at work are susceptible to all the human failings of anyone else at work.

I try to be mindful of these things so that I don't take our knowledge of the universe for granted. It's easy to assume fabulous pictures and information about exoplanets and Kuiper belt objects are as inevitable as new TV shows, especially when it all ends up in the meat grinder of social media, which extrudes fanfic, urban legends, politics, news, pop-culture references, and amazing new scientific knowledge such that they all look like each other.*

But there's nothing certain about it: a few days ago made 46 years since man first landed on the Moon...and I think it's 43 years since man last landed on the Moon. Having done something in space is hardly a guarantee that we'll do it again. We have to keep supporting funding for science, and keep celebrating the amazing fruits of that labor.


* And again I could rant about the sad Pluto cartoons: people drawing Pluto with a Care-Bear heart on its tummy just like they draw their favorite characters from TV or anime or whatever, so used to feeling this level of ownership and participation in their entertainment that Pluto gets treated like Benedict Cumberbatch or something...but I have somewhere to be this afternoon so won't rant about this any further! But someday this subject will escape my footnotes, I hope.
hollymath: Selfie: white person, three-quarter profile, smiling, brown hair shaved on the side we can see, chin-length on the other (Default)
This week, what with its aurora and its solar eclipse, has been awesome for me because at times like this everyone else gets as excited about space as I am all the time.

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hollymath: Selfie: white person, three-quarter profile, smiling, brown hair shaved on the side we can see, chin-length on the other (Default)
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