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Faux Outrage

Literally the most important blog in the universe since 2010.

Category Archives: Science!

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On July 20th, 1969, Two very important things happened as a result of the Apollo 11 mission:

  1. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon.
  2. Children began to reasonably expect that by the time they became adults, they would own rocketpacks.

I can’t help but feel a deep, nerdy empathy for the 10-year-old who, with tears welling, watched Armstrong and Co. touch-down and romp around in the Sea of Tranquility.  That child had fantastic expectations about his future that made perfect sense at the time, but that we know today to have been completely misguided.

Though our instincts might be to partially place blame on an overly optimistic star-gazing youth, it is impossible to ignore the incredible amount of rocketry-related technological progress that had taken place during his sentient lifetime.

Yet from the perspective of that 10-year-old at the time, it wasn’t incredible at all.  In 1966, just three years before the manned mission, the United States had sent its first unmanned missions to the moon’s surface.  Only 4 years before that was the United State’s first spacecraft to reach another celestial body.  The pace was incredible, and no scientifically-inclined individual in those days — child or otherwise — had justifiable reason for pessimism.

It was just life.

Of course we are shooting rockets into space.

Of course there are people standing on the moon.

Of course I’m going to have a rocketpack.

What were the reasons to believe otherwise?

To be sure, my generation dabbled in the promise of rocketpackery, but oddly, though I was born more than a decade after the moon landing, I never felt that I was destined to carry a rocketpack. My friends and I more closely associated the technology with science fiction than the obvious end-result of our current scientific pace.  We never lived in a time — like those kids who watched the moon landing — when strapping a jet engine to our back seemed plausible, let alone the logical conclusion of the direction we were headed as a society.

At least I had video games.

Let me be clear: It’s not unusual or remotely interesting that a 10-year-old in 1969 has a vastly different impression of how the world was going to progress by the time he became a grownup compared to the impressions a 10-year-old in 1992, but the promise of a rocketpack is an interesting case.  Usually, a modern child would have a more optimistic sense of what is possible given the advances that had occurred in his lifetime on top of whatever the child from a previous generation knew/understood.

Not so in the case of the rocketpack!

As time went on, while the desire to fly around via one’s own personal rocket remained constant, the reasonable expectation that it would happen in our lifetime diminished with gradual-to-great speed.

Ironically, full-scale globalization and unrelenting world-wide media is what distracted wide-eyed kids like myself from the planet earth.  By the time I was cognizant, national attention had shifted from space travel and exploration to military technology.  Growing up, I was far more likely to hear reports of the Patriot missiles and “bunker-busters” of the (First) Gulf War than anything resembling the optimism inherent in the Apollo missions.  I feel this is true despite fond, specific memories of watching the sun rise one morning in Florida in hopes that we would see (what turned out to be an aborted) Endeavor launch.

So here we are, even further from July 20, 1969.  Do any of us still feel as though rocketpacks are in our future?  Do kids today have any optimism whatsoever about rocketpacks?  I know there are a bunch of prototypes floating (!) around, and I know that investors are always “working on a new fuel source,” but we landed on the moon over 40 years ago and the best we have to show for it are jetpacks that hover for around a half minute.

I’ve had sneezing fits that lasted longer.

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Color me unimpressed.

In any event, my generation lucked out.  What we lack in rocketpackery we make up for with the Internet.  Sure, we don’t have any fancy astronaut heroes, but there are over a billion search results for “cat videos” on Google.  Yeah, it’s true that we never really experienced what it was like to root for our country in a purely scientific, progressive context (as opposed to military and athletic prowess), but now we can order a pizza without picking up the telephone!  And our telephones don’t even have cords anymore!  No, we won’t get to watch US citizens walk on the surface of Mars anytime soon, but hey, did I mention the cat videos?

I’m turning 30 in a few months and I’m starting to believe/fear that I’ll never own a rocketpack of my own.  Maybe it’s for the best, though.  A rocketpack would seriously cut into my Internet time.

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It was the bottom of the fifth inning in what could only be described in those days as “your standard Rochester RedWings game.”  The score was not close, the customers in the Team Store — unlike the mosquitos outside of it — were not biting, and the weather was as unspectacular as our lead-off man’s batting average.  And yet for some reason, among the fans at the stadium, there was no aura of dread or shame.

Those of us who live “Way Upstate” seem uniquely well-equipped to extract whatever happiness that our sports teams provide us while ignoring the obvious and potentially painful downsides.  Like when we smilingly admire the blinding sunlight that is reflecting off a glistening pile of snow that barricades us into our homes three days before Halloween, we are able to hone in on the goodness in any situation — even if no reasonable person would choose to endure the suffering from which it stems.

We are Buffalo Bills fans, after all.  We live in a perpetual state of standing at the threshold of the Promised Land listening the gods tell us — over and over again — that our people don’t really need to be bothered with all of that milk and honey.  And that’s fine, we guess, so long as housing prices stay low and Wegmans stays open 24 hours.  We get our milk and honey there, anyway.

So it’s no surprise that, given the Rochesterian’s propensity for unapologetic optimism, no one at the stadium that day was interested in buying our novelty rose-colored glasses: Most folks were already wearing a pair.

It was my first summer working at the RedWing’s Team Store, so my responsibilities were (understandably) limited to making change, wiping down the glass countertops, and directing frantic mothers and their potty-dancing kin to the nearest restroom.  However, on this particular day, in the bottom of the fifth inning, I was presented with a completely new, exciting task.  (In retrospect, I realize that my excitement was born entirely out the task’s newness and had nothing to do with any objective scale we use to measure excitation.)

I was instructed to go into the stands (!) and estimate how many people were left in the stadium.  If the crowd had sufficiently dissipated, for score-related and/or weather-related reasons, an employee or two would be sent home (!) a few innings early.  Everyone was counting on me, and all I had to do was count everyone.  Since I managed to get through a year of AP Bio with Mr. Hall, I didn’t see any reason why I wouldn’t be able to handle some large-scale eyeballin’.

I left the store, passed through the main concourse.

Veni.

I scanned the stands.

Vidi.

I returned to my post.

“4,000ish.”

Vici.

“That’s it?  Alright, well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

Veni, vidi, vici.  

No sweat.

Frontier Field (Rochester, NY)

As planned, I did see my boss the next day.

She told me that there were over 10,000 people in the stadium.

Oops.

I guess I’m pretty bad at estimating.

For awhile, this fact bothered me.  I don’t seem like the kind of person who would be terrible at estimation.  I’m interested in science, I’ve always had a knack for mathematics and critical thinking.  I can take apart a computer and put it back together.  I can even walk and chew gum at the same time.

So why am I horrendous at estimating?

And just like that, as if I were asking a rhetorical question (and since what I lack in estimation abilities I make up for in misplaced arrogance and self-deception) I realized something:  It is not my fault at all.  Not being able to estimate must be the natural progression of human evolution.  In fact, so far as I can tell, the less able a person is to estimate, the more evolved that person is according to me — errr — to Darwin!

What a relief.

It’s all about self-preservation, a fundamental tenant of natural selection.

Back when we (humans) were without language but overtaken by our primordial will to survive, estimation was fundamental to subsistence.  We had to guess which vegetation was safe to eat, we had to eyeball each type of animal to determine whether their potential deliciousness was outweighed by its possible dangerousness (sorry, cows).  We had to guess at which humans were friendly and which were worthy of our skepticism.  On the whole, it was important — some would say “crazy important” — that we were good guessers.

However!

As time went on, as we gained communicative abilities and moved from a society of hunter-gatherers to a more of a collectivist approach, estimation became less important.  Other skills were favored: language skills, cultivation skills, community skills, nunchuck skills (much later).  The ability to hunt prey and determining which leaves are poisonous (sumac) and which merely taste like poison (also sumac, but still) were still utilized but less important for the survival of the species.  Instead, those that practiced the art of estimation — by attempting to kill dangerous animals with pinpoint accuracy and make educated-but-risky choices  — were less likely to survive in the world of natural selection.

Nowadays, the folks who are the most talented estimators find themselves engaged in unnecessarily risky behaviors.  For example, a person who correctly recognize that there is a 0.001% chance of dying from some dangerous-though-not-necessary action are perfectly reasonable when they engage in that particular behavior.  More often than not, people do not die from driving recklessly, taking illegal drugs, or even going to war.

But what about the person who, because of his/her biological desire to “remain alive,” completely miscalculates and overestimates how dangerous that activity is?  That person does not engage in the behavior at all and, in a world where the activity is not actually a requisite for life, has a 100% chance of survival.  In other words, the person who is less able to estimate the danger associated with a particular activity is more likely to survive given our species’ fear instinct.

Ergo, one’s ability to accurately estimate should be seen as a biological weakness.

So the next time you’re trying to figure out whether potential mate has genes worthy of passing on to future generations, just ask them how many fingers you’re holding up.

If you’re lucky, they’ll estimate somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000.

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