Monday, July 20, 2009

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

(With apologies to Robert Heinlein) 40 years ago today humans accomplished the greatest engineering feat since that first bronze-age inventor learned that round objects make moving things easier. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo 11 lunar module on the surface of the moon. Mankind had reached across the emptiness of space and walked on land not attached to their home planet. The Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, Hoover Dam - they all pale in comparison to this achievement. It makes me proud to be a member of the human species, and to have been fortunate enough to have been alive when it happened. I have no doubt that this event, and the entire space race of the 60's & 70's are directly responsible for my decision to become an aerospace engineer.

And so, I hope you will understand why I take it very personally when I see that the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 has also brought out some of the most ignorant humans I have ever had the displeasure of meeting. I am, of course, talking about the conspiracy theorists who claim that the moon landing was an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the US government and maintained for the last 40 years. Believe it or not, these mental midgets have not only been around since shortly after Apollo 11, but they have thrived and grown dramatically in the internet age.

I'm not going to use this medium to show and debunk their claims - there are many, many sites on the web on both sides of this issue. Instead, I would like to discuss these clowns from my own cynical viewpoint, and give a little explanation of why I am personally offended by their obnoxious ignorance. I will say this much - every single one of the "inconsistencies" they claim as evidence of the hoax is complete and utter nonsense. They have absolutely no understanding of basic physics, engineering or the space program, and there is NO credible basis for any of their claims. We absolutely DID land on the moon in 1969!

I was recently on a well-known audio discussion forum where a thread was started that asked members to vote whether they thought the moon landing had been faked, and to then state why. Over the next several days I debated post-for-post with some people who were adamant that it was all an elaborate government conspiracy and hoax. The poll results indicated ~18% of the 180 respondents believed the moon landings were fake. As usual with lies, d@mn lies and statistics, I think those poll results do not really represent what they seem to show. Don't forget that an internet poll is not truly random. It would be heavily skewed toward representing those people who have strong enough feelings about the subject to actually cast a vote. What the results really mean is: ~18% of the forum members who were interested enough in the belief of fake moon landings voted that the landings were a fake. But what that discussion did clearly show me was some of the fallacies and misdirected ignorance that is prevalent in our "modern" society. It was really an incredibly depressing display!

One of the very surprising observations was just how incredibly close-minded the conspiracy crowd can be. They are very willing to put forth a claim of evidence of the hoax, but when their own evidence and very basic scientific principles are used to debunk their claim, they will simply ignore your counter-claims and dismiss your use of science as your own opinion. They simply cannot be convinced to see anything other than their own beliefs. No amount of logic, physics, experimental results or mathematical proofs will cause them to waiver in their basic belief that the conspiracy exists, therefore anything counter to that belief must be part of the conspiracy. They have boxed themselves into a corner, and their own ego-driven paranoia will never let them out of that position.

It also became very clear that one of the reasons that they could hold so tenaciously to their beliefs is because they are simply ignorant of basic physics and engineering. For example, one of their claims is that the many photos and videos taken during the moon walks could not have been accomplished, because the "surface temperature" of the moon can reach up to 250 deg F, and that would have melted the film used in the cameras. There is a simple explanation: the moon is not like the Earth. The moon is airless. On the Earth, the "surface temperature" heats the air above the surface through both convection and radiation. The air and the earth's surface are in contact, and that quickly heats the air to very nearly the surface temperature. Anything located in the air is then heated by the air via convection, as well as by the radiant heat from the direct sun and the surface reflections. But that is not the way it works on the airless moon. Since there is no air, there is no convection heating. The camera is heated only by the radiant heat from the surface and the sun. By insulating the camera, and keeping it out of the direct sun and not in direct contact with the surface of the moon, the astronauts were able to keep the film from becoming too hot. In fact, the cameras contained temperature sensors so the astronauts could make sure they did not have problems. But the hoax believers would NOT accept this explanation. They refused to acknowledge the difference between convection and radiant heating. Why? I think it is because they are simply ignorant of the basic concepts of heat transfer that are taught to every first year physics student. Since they did not have this basic knowledge, they could not understand the counter argument. Once again, their own ego-driven paranoia prevented them from recognizing that physical principles may exist that are outside their level of understanding.

It is precisely this ignorance of their own limitations that makes me the most frustrated and depressed. No one can explain to them how a complex problem can be solved with engineering and science if they are unwilling to learn the engineering and science! If I say that acceleration is the second time derivative of distance, should they believe me? My statement is true, and I could show it by experimentation, but linking the experiment to the math requires that THEY (not me) understand the concept of a time derivative, and that requires them to understand the first chapter of any calculus text book. If they aren't willing to learn these concepts, then they will never be convinced, because any explanation will ALWAYS be just words that can be doubted. Peeling away the rhetoric, we find a basic problem - they do not believe that a properly trained engineer may be able to solve a problem that is too complex for they themselves to understand. Good grief, how egotistical is that?

Consider a few of these questions:
  • Can an engineer design a way for the human eye to see a person sitting in a completely dark room?
  • Why does a shower curtain get sucked *in* to the bathtub when taking a shower?
  • Is it possible for an engineer to design an object that can be heated to 1000 deg C and then picked-up with your bare hand a few seconds later?
Could you answer these questions? If you couldn't, does that mean these problems cannot be solved and that anyone who claims otherwise is part of a conspiracy to defraud you?

In order, here are the answers:
  • Absolutely - it could be done easily using an infrared sensor. The person sitting in the room would be much warmer than the surroundings, and the sensor could easily pick them out.
  • This is actually a bit tricky. When I was in college, I was taught that it was due to the Bernoulli Effect. In 2001, a physicist created a computer simulation demonstrating that the Bernoulli Effect did not fully explain the lower pressure, and that there is also a vortex effect due to the swirling droplets. Either way, like many things in the real universe, this simple phenomenon has a not so simple explanation.
  • You betcha - this is exactly how the space shuttle tiles are designed to operate.
There are plenty of things that I don't understand that I take for granted because I trust that other, smarter people *do* understand those things. I like to think that I *could* understand most of them if I really tried, but I certainly would never think they can't exist just because I do not understand them. I don't know how an LCD monitor works, but that doesn't stop me from believing in laptops. I also don't know how or why a plant uses Nitrogen, but that doesn't stop me from believing that fertilizing my lawn will make it greener. The guy at the nursery store said it would, and I believed him and bought the fertilizer. The size of the problem shouldn't matter - I either believe others can solve complex problems that I don't understand, or I don't. But it's up to me to make the effort to learn!

The people who say we could never have landed on the moon are saying that all of the engineers and scientists who accomplished this incredible feat are frauds and that they were not smart enough or talented enough to have done it. That is personally insulting and simply another example of their own gargantuan egos. Solving complex problems is what engineers and scientists do - and they absolutely did it in this case. The incredible amount of new technology that came out of the space program is staggering. Astronaut James Lovell said it very well when he was asked about Bill Kaysing, one of the first moon hoax kooks:
The guy is wacky. His position makes me feel angry. We spent a lot of time getting ready to go to the moon. We spent a lot of money, we took great risks, and it's something everyone in this country should be proud of. - James Lovell

D@mn Skippy! So, on this day, be proud of what we once accomplished. Do not let the wacky conspiracy kooks take this day away from you. Finally, go out and hug an engineer - there's no telling what they may come up with next!

No comments:

Post a Comment