SpaceShip Two crash was due to pilot error, but …

July 30th, 2015

The National Transportation Safety Board has released its report on the crash of SpaceShip Two and determined the proximate cause was due to the co-pilot triggering to early the spaceship’s feathering system designed to slow it down during re-entry. But there were other issues revealed in the report.

The NTSB has published the full ruling, and says that there also wasn’t enough done to either prevent this mistake or educate pilots about what would happen. Even the FAA is partly to blame, since it didn’t check to make sure that the requirements behind a hazard waiver were implemented properly. In other words, the co-pilot’s slip-up was the last piece of a larger puzzle.

Former Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale has much more to say about this on his blog.

When doing an accident (or close call) investigation, I’ve been told to ask ‘why’ seven times before getting to root cause. The root cause, for example, can never be “the bolt broke”; a good accident investigator would ask “why did the bolt break”. Otherwise, the corrective action would not prevent the next problem. Simply putting another bolt in might lead to the same failure again. Finding out the bolt was not strong enough for the application and putting in a stronger bolt, that is the better solution – and so on.

The Russians had a spectacular failure of a Proton rocket a while back – check out the video on YouTube of a huge rocket lifting off and immediately flipping upside down to rush straight into the ground. The ‘root cause’ was announced that some poor technician had installed the guidance gyro upside down. Reportedly the tech was fired. I wonder if they still send people to the gulag over things like that. But that is not the root cause: better ask why did the tech install the gyro upside down? Were the blueprints wrong? Did the gyro box come from the manufacturer with the ‘this side up’ decal in the wrong spot? Then ask – why were the prints wrong, or why was the decal in the wrong place. If you want to fix the problem you have to dig deeper. And a real root cause is always a human, procedural, cultural, issue. Never ever hardware.

So it is with pilot error. Pilot error is never ever a root cause. Better to ask: was the training wrong? Were the controls wrong? Did the pilot get briefed on some other problem that cause distraction and made him/her fly the plane badly?

Corrective actions must go to root causes, not intermediate causes. Really fixing the problem requires more work than simply blaming the pilot.

Where Are All the Aliens?

July 28th, 2015

Although Hollywood would like you to think otherwise, the universe doesn’t seem to be populated with Little Green Men, or any other sort of aliens. Despite more than 50 years of searching, we’ve failed to detect any conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial civilization. This article is one of the best overviews of the situation that I’ve come across in quite a while.

So there are 100 Earth-like planets for every grain of sand in the world. Think about that next time you’re on the beach.

Moving forward, we have no choice but to get completely speculative. Let’s imagine that after billions of years in existence, 1% of Earth-like planets develop life (if that’s true, every grain of sand would represent one planet with life on it). And imagine that on 1% of those planets, the life advances to an intelligent level like it did here on Earth. That would mean there were 10 quadrillion, or 10 million billion intelligent civilizations in the observable universe.

Moving back to just our galaxy, and doing the same math on the lowest estimate for stars in the Milky Way (100 billion), we’d estimate that there are 1 billion Earth-like planets and 100,000 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.[1]

SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is an organization dedicated to listening for signals from other intelligent life. If we’re right that there are 100,000 or more intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, and even a fraction of them are sending out radio waves or laser beams or other modes of attempting to contact others, shouldn’t SETI’s satellite array pick up all kinds of signals?

But it hasn’t. Not one. Ever.

The Five Biggest Threats to Human Existence

July 27th, 2015

I seem to be in an apocalyptic mood recently – maybe it’s because I’m about half way though Neal Stephenson’s excellent Seveneves.  Anyway, here’s another article describing different ways that the human race could be wiped out. Oddly, it doesn’t list climate change; although that might not be a threat to the human race per se, it certainly is a threat to civilization in the long term.

In the daily hubbub of current “crises” facing humanity, we forget about the many generations we hope are yet to come. Not those who will live 200 years from now, but 1,000 or 10,000 years from now. I use the word “hope” because we face risks, called existential risks, that threaten to wipe out humanity. These risks are not just for big disasters, but for the disasters that could end history.

Not everyone has ignored the long future though. Mystics like Nostradamus have regularly tried to calculate the end of the world. HG Wells tried to develop a science of forecasting and famously depicted the far future of humanity in his book The Time Machine. Other writers built other long-term futures to warn, amuse or speculate.

But had these pioneers or futurologists not thought about humanity’s future, it would not have changed the outcome. There wasn’t much that human beings in their place could have done to save us from an existential crisis or even cause one.

We are in a more privileged position today. Human activity has been steadily shaping the future of our planet. And even though we are far from controlling natural disasters, we are developing technologies that may help mitigate, or at least, deal with them.

Some common sense on the coming ice age

July 26th, 2015

There’s been quite a  bit of press about a recent study that predicts a “decline in solar activity” starting around 2030. Unfortunately, most of what you’ve probably read about it is wrong, as this article points out. The decline is in the number of sunspots, not solar output, and the effect on climate is likely to be small. What we have here is a giant failure to communicate.

This month there’s been a hoopla about a mini ice age, and unfortunately it tells us more about failures of science communication than the climate. Such failures can maintain the illusion of doubt and uncertainty, even when there’s a scientific consensus that the world is warming.

The story starts benignly with a peer-reviewed paper and a presentation in early July by Professor Valentina Zharkova, from Northumbria University, at Britain’s National Astronomy Meeting.

The paper presents a model for the sun’s magnetic field and sunspots, which predicts a 60% fall in sunspot numbers when extrapolated to the 2030s. Crucially, the paper makes no mention of climate.

The first failure of science communication is present in the Royal Astronomical Society press release from July 9. It says that “solar activity will fall by 60 per cent during the 2030s” without clarifying that this “solar activity” refers to a fall in the number of sunspots, not a dramatic fall in the life-sustaining light emitted by the sun.

The press release also omits crucial details. It does say that the drop in sunspots may resemble the Maunder minimum, a 17th century lull in solar activity, and includes a link to the Wikipedia article on the subject. The press release also notes that the Maunder minimum coincided with a mini ice age.

But that mini ice age began before the Maunder minimum and may have had multiple causes, including volcanism.

Crucially, the press release doesn’t say what the implications of a future Maunder minimum are for climate.

28 Animes to Watch If You’ve Never Seen Anime

July 26th, 2015

I first encountered anime back in the mid-1980s when I moved to Toronto and fell in with the local SF fan community, many of whom were big-time anime fans. At that time, about the only way you could find it was to trade video cassettes with people in Japan, who were happy to exchange cassettes full of anime for cassettes full of North American shows. Now, of course, it’s much easier to find, especially if you don’t limit yourself to the mainstream services like Netflix.

BuzzFeed has put together a list of 28 anime shows to watch if you’ve never seen any anime. It’s pretty hard to imagine anybody these days who hasn’t seen at least some anime, even if it’s in the form of movies like Pacific Rim that have incorprated elements of anime into mainstream culture. Of the 28 shows in the Buzzfeed list, I’ve seen about half a dozen, with my favourites being Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell. The list is annotated and includes a “great if you like” line that helps to select shows based on genres you might like.  Now pardon me while I try to find Outlaw Star and Last Exile.

James Hansen’s scary paper

July 25th, 2015

So James Hansen is stirring the pot again. His latest paper suggests that even a 2C warming may cause much higher sea level rise than predicted by the IPCC. This is not good news for anyone, especially those living in coastal regions. The Washington Post article has a link to the full paper, if you want to read it.

It has been widely discussed — but not yet peer reviewed. Now, though, you can at least read it for yourself and see what you think.

A lengthy, ambitious, and already contested paper by longtime NASA climate scientist James Hansen and 16 colleagues appeared online Thursday in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussion, an open-access journal published by the European Geosciences Union. The paper, entitled “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 ◦C global warming is highly dangerous” is now open for comment — peer review in this journal happens in public.