Category Archives: Science

The Falcon has landed

Written by Eike Pierstorff

A piece of the future that has been promised to me in my childhood had finally arrived when the reusable first stage of the Space X Falcon 9 rocket successfully landed upright after the mission successfully delivered a commercial payload to orbit.

There is a bit of a discussion if this indeed a historic event or if Space X merely comes second after Blue Origins successful landing  a few weeks earlier. Needless to say that I side with history on that one.  Falcon 9 was not a prototype tourist spacehopper on a test flight, it is a rather massive orbital vehicle that added an upright first stage landing to an already successful commercial mission.

The stackexchange space exploration site has a nice post discussing the differences. I was a bit amused to see that Blue Origins (and Amazons, evidently) Jeff Bezos congratulated Space X on the landing of its “suborbital booster stage” (as a repartee to Elon Musk congratulating to the suborbital Blue Origins test flight earlier), but really this is a bit petty. Yes, the first stage did not go to orbit (first stages never do – if they could we wouldn’t  need staged rockets at all), but its flight profile was still quite more ambitious than Blue Origins hovering (albeit at great height) in the air.

Next step (well maybe not the next, but it is getting closer): Mars. Other than I imagined as child I will not be on board the future ships that go there, but at least I might live to see the day, and that’s  really quite something.

    I think these judges have a sense of humor

    Written by Eike Pierstorff

    A german woman living in Zürich wanted to force the FRG to shut down CERNs Large Hadron Collider since, as she argued, it might create tiny black holes that would destroy the earth.

    Today, the Federal Constitutional Court dismissed her case. They argued that “zur schlüssigen Darlegung möglicher Schadensereignisse, die eine Reaktion staatlicher Stellen erzwingen könnten, genügt es insbesondere nicht, Warnungen auf ein generelles Misstrauen gegenüber physikalischen Gesetzen […] zu stützen” (source) – to force the government into action it is not enough to issue warnings based on a general distrust towards the laws of physics.

    I really do think that sentence is extremely funny.

      Praise then Creation unfinished!

      Written by Eike Pierstorff

      No, I have not suddenly fallen among the creationists – the headline is a quote from “The left Hand of Darkness”, a superb novel by Ursula K. LeGuin [1]. So it looks like we need a better word for all of the earth and the planets and the moons and stars.. Oh wait. We have one: It’s Cosmos [2].

      But it is a cosmos unfinished: It was born in the Big Bang – not an explosion, despite the name, since ‘explosion’ means that matter violently expands into the surrounding space. The Big Bang was an expansion – it was when space came into existence. And, as one of my favourite podcasts reminded me some time ago, the process isn’t [3] finished – like they say, the universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding, and that’s a pretty awe-inspiring thought if you ask me.

      And of course that means more room for awesomeness.

      1. It’s a strange thing – LeGuin’s stories with  rather plausible ideas of time dilation and hermaphroditism are dismissively called  “soft fiction” or “social fiction” while writers like, say, Niven or Pournelle are called ‘hard sf’ writers while they go on and write about FTL space ships – the idea of Faster Than Light travel is about as scientific as the tooth fairy.
      2. As the Bad Astronomer Phil Plait reminds us, today would be Carl Sagans 75th birthday
      3. And propably never will be.

      Was Hitler democratically elected?

      Written by Eike Pierstorff

      In the comment section of a post in the Pharyngula science blog[1] I found an entry where a man rather emphatically stated “If you think that Hitler was democratically elected you should buy a good history book“. I do have a good history book (in fact, I have a lot of good history books), so I feel rather comfortable when I say that, yes, Hitler had been elected democratically.

      People who say that Hitler wasn’t really elected are usually germanophiles who search for excuses for crimes of the german people in the “Third Reich” (the argument is that a small undemocratic minority oppressed the good people of germany). But since Pharyngula is an american blog the case here might be a lot less sinister. The idea that Hitler wasn’t elected democratically is probably an allusion to the fact that he[2] never got more than 50% of the votes (th e best result was some 44%). Americans, with their “the winner takes it all”-system tend to forget that you can win a german election without winning a majority.

      The problem with this is that, without a majority, you have to form either a coalition with other parties, or  form a minority goverment, or both, and in fact that was the problem that had plagued the Republic from the beginning. To put the results into perspective, the 43,9% for the NSDAP in the 1933 election was the best result any party had ever had in the Republic of Weimar from 1919 to 1933[3] (second best was 37,8% for the Social Democrats immediately after WWI)[4]. Governments were habitually formed without any democratic basis at all, so the result of the 1933 election might have looked like a step forward.

      It turned out that there is yet another way to govern without a majority – in March 1933 the german parliament passed what is known as „Ermächtigungsgesetz“ (Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich), a law that allowed the Nazi/Deutschnationale Coalition to govern without the consent of the parliament. That this was in fact an unconstitutional law is a mere technicality – it was passed with a vast majority that would have allowed to change the constitution in any case, so the parliament skipped a step[5].

      So,since Hitler and the NSDAP had more votes than any other party during the Republic of Weimar and governed on the basis of a law that had been passed by the absolute majority of the parliament is seems reasonable to conclude that he was indeed democratically elected.

      The more important point is that this question is not as such relevant. I’m not sure you can blame the german people for electing or not electing Hitler [6] – after all he didn’t went into the election with the promise of perpetrating a holocaust, and his programme was not much more radical or antisemitic than that of some other parties. The pretty much collective crime of the german people[7] was that they supported Hitler and his party even after they had started comitting unspeakable crimes and that a sizable fraction of the population supported him in comitting those crimes.The difficult thing about democracy is that majorities (pluralities)[8] are sometimes wrong and that you have to decide if and when it is your moral duty to follow the wrong decisions many, or when to fight them.


      [1] Dang, I can’t seem to find the post I’m refering to – no wonder, Prof. Myers writes more blog posts per month than I do in a year. In the post he was (again) adressing the silly contention that Darwinism inevitably results in genocide (actually it doesn’t).

      [2] As a technicality “Hitler” wasn’t elected at all – the Republic of Weimar had a system of proportional representation where citizens elected parties, not persons. In practial terms the NSDAP was in some conservative parts of the electorate probably more a liabilty than an asset to Hitler. The german head of state Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor only after he was reassured that the actual affairs of government would be run by the conservative Deutschnationale (German National) Party.

      [3] Sautter, Udo „Deutsche Geschichte seit 1815: Daten, Fakten, Dokumente“ Tübingen 2004, p.166f

      [4] Incidentally, counted in percentages the NSDAP had a better democratic legitimation than any party in the Federal Republic of Germany for at last 20 years – the best result in this time was 44,3% for the conservative „Union“ in the 1987 election and as the name suggests even this is a (permanent) coalition of two parties (CDU/CSU). For comparison, the elecorate in the Republic of Weimar was about 45 million voters, in the FRG it’s about 60 million.

      [5] To the members of the Weimar parliament such a law looked propably less portentous than to a modern-day democrat; after all there had been already two previous „Ermächtigungsgesetze“ during the term of Friedrich Ebert .

      [6] If anything it is strange that people elected a person who had already served a term for high treason.

      [7] Yes, I know that phrase won’t make me any friends.

      [8] The distinction between a majority and a plurality is much harder to make in german

        Incidentally I’m not stupid

        Written by Eike Pierstorff

        Google sometimes shows excerpts from comments instead from the actual posts in search results. That means that in the Google result list my name is now linked to the ramblings of somebody who thinks that the world will end when the Large Hadron Collider starts working. By the way, this will be tomorrow morning.

        It would be a pity if you simply ignore the event, but it is perfectly safe to do so. The worst thing that can happen is that many textbooks on particle physics will have to be rewritten (of course from a certain point of view this is also the best thing that can happen).  This might lead to some exciting developements in the future, but at the moment it’s basic research without immediate applications.

        No, the LHC is perfectly safe. Among the reasons why I know that is a) said comment (which claimed that earth will be eaten by black holes) has been read and officialy laughed at by a physicist from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam (I have to say I know some really cool people) and b), even more importantly, because the people who built the LHC are sitting right on top of it. As soon as physicst start evacuating Switzerland I will start worrying, but up until then I will get on with my life.

        And while you will find my name linked to stupid comments in Google I am myself not stupid (or so I hope), I thought I rather mention this.

          Large Hadron Rap

          Written by Eike Pierstorff

          The Large Hadron Collider, located at CERN in Switzerland, is a doomsday device constructed from blueprints some aliens projected to earth in the form of crop circles and mutilated cattle anuses (or whatever the plural of anus is) which, when activated, will rip a hole in the fabric of space and time and unleash monsters from another  dimension that will bring this world to an end by 2012, as predicted by the Maya several thousand years ago.

          Or so some people want you to think, more or less.

          In fact the LHC is a particle accelarator that will hopefully give answers to some unresolved questions in physics (like “why do things have mass”, which is a pretty big thing not to know) and which will undoubtly create a lot more new questions in the process.

          This raises the question, if science always comes never to an end and increases rather than decreases the number of unknowns, then why do we keep doing it, instead of saying “Goddidit” or “I don’t know or care” ?

          There is a long answer to that which involves the fact that, while we’re a far cry away from knowing everything we at least know something, and not the least that we have an idea about how much we don’t know. But there is also a short answer that rather involves the fact that you needed to be a man of straw or a lump of dirt not to be interested in the world around you: just being alive is simply not good enough.

          Science is a way to find out about the world; its companion, Art, is a way to cope with what you find out. And sometimes the two celebrate a happy union, like in this, right, rap video, which is not only tremendously funny but also explains (did I say ‘also’ ? That’s the fun of it – ) in rather simply Terms what the LHC is and what it does. The credit for this evidently belongs to science writer Katherine McAlpine, and I hope many many people will look at it.

            Check this out

            Written by Eike Pierstorff

            The Japanese space agency has published an amazing animation made from data from their Kaguya/Selene probe. This is a virtual tour through moons Tycho crater (named after astronomer Tycho Brahe, 1546 – 1601 [Wikipedia]). Phil Plait as badastronomy.com explains a bit about Tychos features (and links to the stunning lunar picture of  the day, a picture of Tychos central mountain).  Note that these are not actual movies/pictures, but are constructed from the data of Selenes instruments.

            With that I wish you a happy weekend, I will attend a family festivity over the weeekend and will be offline ’till sunday.

              Leo got the axe

              Written by Eike Pierstorff

              The german moon mission LEO – Lunar Exploration Orbiter – has now been officialy cancelled, according to the news magazine Tagesschau (Ludmilla Carone at scienceblogs.de (german) had already written about that). The given reason is the cost, although at 350 mio Euro from the federal budget doesn’t seem all that much for a moon mission.

              As far as I can tell the german, and actually the european policy on space projects is to fund projects that promise immediate return on investment (or at least allow to channel large amount of money to companys that must not be subsidized under european law. Maybe the people behind LEO should next time plan for a mission that allows to dish out a couple of billions to private companies to improve their chances).

              One might argue that an  “If we can’t eat it will won’t pay for it” attudite makes economic sense, but then we germans once believed that potatoes are inedible. Like the potato maybe the moon deserves a closer look.

                Ice on Mars

                Written by Eike Pierstorff

                Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today (pretty much the best ressource for space news) has an article about a presse conference by the team of the Phoenix Mars lander that gave some great news: They confirmed that a white substance that has been visible in some Phoenix photos is indeed water ice.

                Water is a prerequisite for life. Some people think that at some point there has at least microbacterial life on Mars, and this has just become a little more probable. Just as important, if humans ever want to build a permanent base on Mars it would be a lot easier if they haven’t to bring their own water from earth.

                Here is the original article from the phoenix web site.

                  The Long Night of the Sciences

                  Written by Eike Pierstorff

                  It’s “Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften” – The Long Night of the Sciences – in Berlin and Potsdam; the Universities and Science Institutes in the two cities will open to the public with dozens or even hundred of shows, speeches, discussions and exhibtions, ranging in theme from social sciences over languages, history, geography and medicine to mathematics, chemistry, physics… well go see for the self, you’ll find the complete list of events (in german) if you follow the link above.

                  I caught a cold during a motorbike trip and don’t feel quite fit, but I will nip out to catch at least a talk about the history of quantum mechanics and the related exhibition about Max Planck.

                  The Long Night of the Sciences is a pretty cool event – the width of topics covered is nothing short of amazing. If you’re in Berlin today you shouldn’t miss this.