Saturday, November 10, 2012

Weekend Post - Where did the moon come from?

My father used to tell me that the Moon was made of cheese.

I didn’t believe him. Just like I’m told I didn’t believe in Father Christmas or any other mythical creatures. Maybe it was because I had the good fortune to be born and be a curious child in one of the historical golden age of science and engineering, the 1960s. In that decade and in the early 70s humanity achieved some remarkable things. The most obvious was the triumph of the missions to the Moon.

The Apollo missions were famously inspired by President John F Kennedy, who, in 1961 told the US Congress of his plan for "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth" before the end of the decade.

There were several reasons for this. One was that Kennedy was desperate to get back in the lead in the so-called Space Race. Only 6 weeks beforehand Russians cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in space, leaving the Americans lagging behind. Although space exploration wasn’t itself a defense priority any perception of weakness or being in second place was going to be a Cold War propaganda disaster for the USA.

The more uplifting motivation behind the program was a simple human one. Like our cousins, the other great apes, perhaps the one thing we have that separates us most from other species is our curiosity. It’s human nature to want to know what’s on the other side of the hill. Exploration of the world and of space has always fascinated humanity and in the 1960s Kennedy encouraged that with resources, money and a very limited amount of time.

Perhaps the most influential of all the reasons for this was the least planned. Out of this spirit of exploration came innovation and inspiration. There were also enormous economic benefits. It’s been suggested that for every $1 the US Government spent on the space program they received $8 back indirectly. The technological developments you and I now have that came from, or were encouraged by the space program is almost endless. Miniaturization of electronics, water purification, scratch-resistant lenses, smoke detectors, improved solar panels, fire resistant materials, radiation protection, air purification, MRI scanners and even sports bras were all influenced by the space program.

c/o Wikipedia
For me the most important thing was the generation of kids (like me) who were inspired to get involved in science and its often neglected cousin, engineering. The program created a genuine sense of excitement with regular launches of the enormous Saturn V rockets and the sense of achievement that resulted when a mission succeeded. There was also a genuine sense of danger, that technology was being pushed to the very edge as with the Apollo 13 mission which so nearly ended in disaster. If ever you want to see a movie that teaches you about creativity, perseverance and leadership watch Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13.

The trouble today’s generation face is that the space race is over. For various reasons, manned space exploration is effectively shut down. This is partially because of the expense but also because of the growing realization that it’s simply not worth the money. The latest exploratory missions have all been robotic, mainly because robots don’t need air, water and food and they don’t ever get bored. They also don’t expect ever to come home to earth. Robotic missions are therefore cheaper than manned ones. The science done by the robotic Curiosity rover on Mars is wonderful but let’s be frank, it’s not thrilling.

c/o Wikipedia
Last week there was fairly widespread news about new findings on the origin of the Moon. Despite stories of it being made of cheese, the new evidence seems to confirm a fairly recent theory that the Moon was formed from the debris following a collision between the early Earth and another planet, perhaps one the size of Mars. The scientists behind this, from Washington University in St. Louis, analyzed a phenomenon called “isotopic fractionation” and looked at fractional differences in the geology of the Moon and Earth.

The details of the research are fairly interesting to those of who aren’t geochemists but the thing I found surprising (silly me) was how little coverage the story received. This was about something meaningful, how our Moon was created. Forget the myths and fables, forget the business about cheese and forget superstition. This is about how it was really created, using the latest evidence.

But perhaps that’s the biggest result of the absence of excitement in Science these days. At the moment it’s hard to get people excited about the one thing that can possibly improve their lives in a genuine, measurable and meaningful way: genuine progress in material, knowledge and well-being.

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