Thursday, January 29, 2004

Holy Cow! We have a robot on another planet!
A report from the Geological Society of Washington

by Callan Bentley

This will not be a scientific post. Though I am a scientist, I'd like to share today a sense of my own wonder at universe we inhabit. I'll also get a little bit political in the fourth paragraph.

I attend regular meetings of the Geological Society of Washington, an earth-sciences group in Washington, DC. We meet once a month or so in the yellow faux-marble John Wesley Powell Room at Dupont Circle's Cosmos Club, on the corner of Florida and Massachusetts, Northwest. (Powell, the man for whom the room is named, was a former president of the Society, and the man to lead the first descent of the entire Grand Canyon in a series of wooden dories, a few years after the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War.)

Each G.S.W. meeting consists of (a) some beer, (b) some pretzels, (c) some parliamentary proceedings (reading the minutes of the last meeting, banging of the gavel, etc.), and then (d) a series of three geological talks. Each talk last 20 minutes, followed by a period of time where Society members may ask questions. Yesterday's meeting began with two boring talks, the second one painfully so. I was mulling over leaving early, when the third speaker took the podium and showed his first slide: an image of the robotic Mars surveyor, portrayed in situ on the red planet.

Mars has been in the news a lot recently. Like anyone who pays a bit of attention to current events, I was aware that the U.S. and European space agencies were landing vehicles on Mars this past month. I knew it, but hadn't really paid much attention to it. I am also aware of the recent suggestion by George Bush that the U.S. send a manned mission to Mars, a lofty goal towards which he has put forward additional money to the equivalent sum of a large Hollywood blockbuster: 200 million dollars. As the excellent "Talk of the Town" essay in this week's New Yorker noted, they spent that much on "Waterworld." It certainly won't be enough to get a human to Mars, even if they eviserate the current NASA budget as well. (The fiduciary disembowelment has already begun, by the way -- with the result that maintainence on the Hubble Space Telescope has been cancelled. The telescope, one of the most fruitful scientific tools ever deployed, will deteriorate, wind down, and die within 3 years.) Now, I'm no fan of Bush to start with, but this scheme strikes me as (a) unlikely to succeed without an incredible influx of cash, (b) a shame since it has already killed Hubble, and (c) merely a pump-up-the-voters election strategy that Bush doesn't really care about. For instance, he didn't mention it once in his State of the Union address last week. Grrrr.

The speaker was a tall, white-haired gentleman with an even beard: Jim Zimbelman, of the National Air and Space Museum. Over the ensuing twenty minutes, he treated us to an amazing series of images of the Surveyor robots and the terrain they find themselves in.

Sitting in that darkened hall, I found myself in shock at the amazing feat that had been accomplished. As Zimbelman pointed out, when we see pictures in the news of NASA scientists cheering, it is because they have worked for three to ten years on a project that either proves itself or fails in a few crucial minutes. As you may be aware, the European attempt at a Mars landing have failed: they haven't heard from their device since Chirstmas. The NASA project, though, featured a back-up: they sent two rovers to Mars, and by some miracle, both seem to be working okay. There was a software problem with the first one, but Zimbelman assured the geologist crowd that the issue was on the verge of being resolved. They just had to reboot the robot.

Again, the shock hits me: We put a robot on another planet.

On what appears to be an otherwise lifeless planet, there are two La-Z-Boy-sized robots rolling around, taking pictures, taking samples, doing analyses. Mars is seeing more activity this month than it has seen in a long time.

This little robo-buggies are equipped with stereo vision that can resolve up to 100 micro-meters in size. That's one-tenth of a millimeter, a pretty small particle. They were dropped to the Martian surface from space, protected by a sheath of balloons which allowed them to bounce and roll to a still position. The initial bounce sent them up about 50 meters into the air! And they're full of delicate cameras, locomotion devices, and scientific equipment that all still works after a trip of a gazillion miles across space and then a drop from the height of a 15-story building! That's incredible.

In the pictures Zimbelman showed us, we saw ventifacts -- wind-sculpted rock nubbins. There was also a tantalizing scene of a rock imbued with many parallel lines: layers of some sort. These layers may have been formed by volcanism, or they may have been formed by sedimentary processes. If the latter, that implies water must have been present. If water was present, there may have been life there. If there was life there, then how are we going to deal with that?

What is the Pope going to say, if we find irrefutable evidence of life on Mars? How will that change our religions, our society, our sense of who we are in this universe? Did God create life in multiple locations in the Universe? Did life evolve in multiple locations in the universe? Did life start one place (either by being Created or by who-knows-what) and then spread elsewhere? If so, did it start on Mars, or on Earth, or on some third (unknown) location? These are big questions.

I asked him how this thing moved: was there a scientist in Pasadena steering it around by remote control? Did he have a joystick, like he was playing Pole Position?

No, Zimbelman told me. The Mars rovers steer themselves. The scientists say "Go to that rock," but the rover makes decisions about how best to get there. It proceeds very cautiously. Remote control wouldn't work because the radio signal takes too long to travel between the two planets. If the rover were operated by remote control, it might be heading towards a cliff, and the video of that approach would take 24 minutes to reach Pasadena, whereupon the decision to brake would be made, and the radio signal instructing the rover to brake would be sent back to Mars, taking an additional 24 minutes in transit. The signal would arrive, of course, 48 minutes after the rover rolled off the cliff and crashed. So the scientists stay out of it, and this little robot rover actually decides itself what the best way is to get from Point A to Point B.

The Mars rovers have a 90-day planned lifespan. The only issue is power, and they are powered by solar panels. The problems is dust, which is slowly but surely settling on the robots' solar panels. Once a certain load of dust builds up, there won't be enough sunlight getting through to power the vehicle, and it will shut down. It occurs to me that this is pretty short-sighted. If you can get a machine safely from one planet to another and give it all kinds of techinical ability, then how much trouble would it have been to equip its solar panels with a pair of windshield wipers to keep them clean? Or a blower device? Nonetheless, the rovers are experiencing less dust than predicted, and NASA hopes to have them operational until November.

I was really impressed with NASA's achievement with getting these functional devices to Mars. They deserve our unqualified kudos. As a geologist, it makes me giddy to think of a whole new planet to explore, learn from, and appreciate. On a small budget, and with no risk to humans, NASA has acheived something wonderful.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Organic Funk at a Huge University
University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland

by Callan Bentley

This is the Co-op, with its day-old bagel bins, press-pots of good coffee, hot smell of the industrial food service toaster, punk rock music in the early morning, anatomically-diverse staff, its humming display fridges of three-bean salad, microwave vegan burritos, and expensive juice blends. Proud source of organic vegetarian cuisine to the University of Maryland community, the Co-op is the College Park conduit for brown rice, bulk granola, blemished fruit, tofu, and oatmeal cookies. Subverting carnivory, the Co-op is the boisterous coterie of radical young eaters.

Shopping at the Co-op for the first time, youíre likely to be struck by the tremendous variety of millinery displayed on the heads of those who work there. Co-op workers wear hats as a concession to their licensure as a restaurant. They obey the letter of the law, but not the spirit. While the health code regulators who delineated covered heads were probably imagining hairnets and surgical showercaps, the Co-op opted instead for funky haberdashery. They wear bandanas, baseball caps, beanies, berets, bonnets, boaters, conductor caps, chapeaus, fedoras, fezzes, floppy sunhats, helmets, lids, Panamas, pillboxes, skimmers, skullcaps, sombreros, Stetsons, stove pipes, ten-gallons, toppers, and wooly toques.

They are braless hippies, punks, lumberjacks, Dead Heads, vegans, anarchists, genteel and dignified Rastafarians, students, ardent nutritionists. They wear beards, nose rings, dreadlocks, overalls, tattoos, bell-bottoms, blue jeans, Carhartts, hooded eyelids, shining smiles.

Perusing the frozen fruit juice bars, your eye may be distracted by the Xerox photo of a naked Indian man labeled ìEat well, be wellî or the placard promoting Beckís newest album or ìHot Water Sign #2.î DÈcor in the Co-op is eclectic and haphazard. One gets the sense that items are posted in spontaneous appreciation their content, be it liberal propaganda, humor, or New Age satisfaction. There is no cohesive plan to the clippings, posters, foreign currency, and photographs that adorn the walls. A skull on a poster with the letters I.M.F. and the words ìMorally Bankruptî. There is a collection of mis-spoken quotes from Bush. There are informational signs as well, handwritten in magic marker, helping customers towards a smoother shopping experience. Every informational sign on the wall ends with this endearing phrase: ìLove, the Co-op.î

In addition to their motto of ìfood for people, not for profit,î a cultivated sense of irreverence is the Co-opís main shtick. One the door is a hand-lettered cardboard sign. Once side says ìHell, Yes! Weíre OPEN.î The reverse: ìGo Away! Weíre CLOSED.î On a Thursday morning, a new sign is up, apparently in response to some Wednesday incident: ìYo, customers!! Donít be a jerkface! If you open a drink, 4 oz. snack, etc., YOU BETTER BUY IT, ëcause if we catch you, we reserve the right to be phenomenal bitches and kick yer cheap ass out of the store. Love, the Co-opî

A covey of bagels: in each pigeon-hole, a different flavor perches. Blueberry, Onion, Banana-nut, Plain, Salt, Garlic, Sun dried tomato basil, Vegan chocolate chip, Cinnamon-raisin, Granola, Sesame, Poppy, Everything. Across the room, the spreads are spread: cream cheese comes quarried from a massive block, each slab individually hand-swaddled in Saran Wrap. Butter comes in squat organic tabs separated by squares of wax paper.

The typical trappings of a health food store? The Co-op has your Powerbars, Clif Bars, Luna Bars, chocolate bars from Tropical Source and Paul Newman, holistic hazelnut caramel energy bars; your ricemilk, soymilk, bottled smoothies, mango juice, yogurt, ginseng iced tea; your honey wheat, oat bran, onion dill rye, peasant white, and country wheat loaves of fresh-baked bread.

In the sandwich line, mouths silently work as the Co-op workers scan the menu and mentally add up the value of the selected ingredients. The sandwichís total worth is notated in grease pencil on the wax paper it is wrapped in.

The Co-op is a popular place. At lunchtime, it is host to an orderly mob of professors, graduate students, undergrads, campus staff, lined up for the hot entrÈe, the sandwiches, the toaster, and ultimately, the cash register. Payment is in cash or the Terp Express debit card. The Co-op does not take credit cards. The Co-op will take your personal check, but there is a ì$15.00 charge on bounced checks. Love, the Co-op.î

The lines to check out routinely back up into the aisles. Single-file, customers cradle their sagging dishes of hot tofu peanut stew and their precision-crafted sandwiches in wax paper. To stand in line is to be in good company. Crasser and more superficial elements of University society are upstairs in line at McDonaldís or Taco Bell. Balancing your meal, you are surrounded by fleece, Gore-Tex, corduroy, plaid, woven hemp, wool sweaters. There is the comfort of a hungry liberal envelope, as in the lap of Mother Earth herself.

Love, the Co-op.