The New Horizons spacecraft was part of a program initiated in 2001 and was launched on January 19, 2006 to begin its approach and fly by of the Pluto system some nine years later on January 15, 2015. On July 14, 2015 it began it’s exploration of the dwarf planet, and this past week, 469 days hence on October 25, 2016 its final images of the July 14 exploration was received by NASA.
Some 50-Million gigabits of data from New Horizons have now traveled the 3.1-Billion miles back to Earth. Consider that: 50-Million giabits of data is the equivalent of 6.25-Million Gigabytes. Your couple year old notebook computer may have a 500-GB harddrive.
Consider the possibilities: For the first time in Human history, we’re seeing up close pictures of a terrestrial body more 3-Billion miles away from us. On that July day in 2015, something built on and launched from our little planet Earth soared 7,750 miles above the dwarf planet Pluto taking pictures. The distance between Boston and New Delhi, India is a little less than 7200 miles. New Horizons was about the radius of our planet away from Pluto.
Our solar system contains three zones: the inner, rocky planets; the gas giant planets; and the Kuiper Belt. Pluto is one of the largest bodies of the icy, “third zone” of our solar system. In the early 2000s, the National Academy of Sciences placed the exploration of the third zone in general – and Pluto-Charon in particular – among its highest priority planetary mission rankings for the coming decade. New Horizons is NASA’s mission to fulfill this objective.
We’ve learned Pluto is far more complex an environment than we’d imagined. Pluto and Charon combine into a “binary system,” and while relatively common in the galaxy, we’d never explored one. We have more information that suggests is more water ice on Pluto than we had thought and we know that the red cap at the north pole of Charon is trapped methane gas.
When I was growing up, I thought of Pluto as this strange, far flung rock of a planet, perhaps not unlike the Star Wars ice planet of Hoth. My boyhood imagination was captured by space and the thoughts of space travel. That there may be other worlds on which to put our feet down. We are still years, decades away perhaps, from landing a man on Mars – a grave disappointment for a middle aged man growing up with thoughts of intergalactic travel – but it’s so incredible to me to be able to see photographs of a planet so far away. It makes it so concrete and real that in this age of almost instantaneous communication that it could take over a year to send images from one place to another.
NASA describes this data as a treasure-trove. I submit its far greater than that; I submit that it is the cause of generations of people to look toward the sky and dream of what still further treasures lie beyond that 3.1-Billion miles waiting to be seen by us.
Paul Baran was an immigrant, an engineer, and a really bright guy. He joined the RAND Corporation in 1959 and by the account in Walter Issacson’s The Innovators was still trying to figure out what was his life’s mission.
As he was looking through military requests for products, he seized upon building a communication system capable of surviving a nuclear strike and realized that successful completion of such a system could actually avoid nuclear war, by reducing the likelihood of a first strike. Follow the logic:
If either the US or USSR believed that war was imminent, they may be inclined as to strike first to knock out communication hubs of the other to avoid their communications from being struck. In other words, he realized the most important strategic element in a catastrophic war would be means of communication. If there was a system capable of surviving a strike, or strikes, then one side or the other would be less likely to preemptively attack to avoid their communications being cut.
At this time, American military communications used high frequency connections which could be put out of action for many hours or permanently disabled by a nuclear attack. Baran realized that a distributed relay node architecture – one where messages were broken up into pieces, sent along different routes and pieced back together – would created a system that would not be easily disrupted and would be scalable.
How visionary was this? Consider this anecdote from the Rand Corporation website:
In an interview with Wired magazine, Baran discussed his vision of how the new technology might be used. “Around December 1966, I presented a paper at the American Marketing Association called ‘Marketing in the Year 2000.’ I described push-and-pull communications and how we’re going to do our shopping via a television set and a virtual department store. If you want to buy a drill, you click on Hardware and that shows Tools and you click on that and go deeper.”
Now, I said he was a pretty bright guy, and to wit, it took some time to conceive, test, and demonstrate proof of concept but that was accomplished by 1960. He spent the better part of the 1960’s trying to convince industry of the idea. Sometimes entrenched interests are harder to conquer than technological challenges.
This work basically set forth the structure under which data – think email – is distributed through the modern internet today. Baran helped set the building blocks of how we get work accomplished today with his desire to stop nuclear annihilation. Consider for a moment how important this would have been to someone who emigrated from Poland – then controlled by the Soviet Union and indeed the part of Poland from which he came had actually been annexed by the Soviet Union and is today part of Belarus.
Indeed his personal mission was so important to him that he resisted efforts to have his work classified because in his conception, it would work best if the Soviets had technology that would ensure their communications remained in tact as well. No one would have an incentive to launch a first strike.
Baran stands, to me, for the power of one person taking stock of his talents and knowing where his moral compass lies and finding a connection in the two. Sometimes, just sometimes, having a larger meaning leads to amazing things. Over a half century later, his work (and the work of others to be sure) allows you to communicate instantly across the globe, but could arguably have prevented nuclear war as well. Consider that for a bit.
Ada Lovelace Day
Ada Lovelace , daughter of Lord Byron, is considered to be the first computer programmer, albeit not without some controversy around that moniker; because Babbage’s ego was too big to allow her credit, or perhaps more precisely too big to allow a woman to share credit . She is, however, the first person to write an algorithm to be carried out by a computer – in this case Charles Babbage’s analog general purpose Analytical Engine. Oh, and by the way, this was in the early part of the 1800’s.
Her mathematical prowess enabled her to annotate a transcript of Babbage’s seminar at the University of Turin, annotations that were vastly longer than the transcript itself. The notes, categorized A-G, were published along with the transcript. Note G in specific is known for being the first algorithm to be written specifically for a computer to carry out.
She died at the age of 36 of uterine cancer, a diagnosis which today can often be cured. In 1852 however, it was a painful, terminal disease.
October 11 is Ada Lovelace day – a day dedicated to women in Science and Technology with the stated purpose of increasing awareness of the contributions of women to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathmatics) sciences and promote the hard sciences to young women considering their future.
ALD as it’s abbreviated, is based in the UK, but the mission and belief system should be universal. Why wouldn’t you want to invest in young women making a difference in hard sciences?
About 20-years ago, my last op/ed article – “The Columnist Manifesto” – ran in my college newspaper. Besides the fact that I can’t quite believe it was that long ago, what really astounds me is just how much the acts of writing and publishing has changed. Consider the way the process looked back in the early-1990’s.
Now to be sure, this was by no means the stone age. I spent exactly no time chiseling my pictograms onto stone tablets, nor did I have to sharpen my own quills and mill my own paper. I used a Brother WP-1400 word processing typewriter, for which I paid the astronomical sum of $400. The Dell notebook computer on which I am writing this article, cost just slightly north of that. I saved my columns on 3.5″ floppy disks, probably the most state of the art media of the day. The only thing was that the Brother used proprietary formatting, so one could only use the data on it in other Brother word processors. I will say that I was fortunate to have had that machine: besides being somewhat of a novelty to the others on my floor, it absolutely revolutionized how I thought about my writing tasks.
It had a small LCD screen where I could review my work, spell check, and edit before taking to actually printing it out. Printing consisted of the type-wheel whirring and clicking away. To someone who may not have known I had a fully automated typewriter, they would have heard typing going on at some 80-flawless words a minute.
I would then walk my type-written manuscript across campus to the newspaper office, where the paper had retained the services of a retiree to transcribe the work of the papers’ authors onto a Macintosh Classic computer. Quite impressive, really. The paper had 4-of these $1000 machines, although I’m pretty sure they were shared with some other campus club. Those machines had 9″ monochrome CRT displays ‘” not much better than the screen on my Brother although I’m pretty sure the processing speed of my Brother was probably better.
The paper’s clerk would then spend hours “processing” the writing contributions for the week, whereupon the editors would lay the paper out manually, and then send the paper off to the printers.
Consider the amount of work and time that went into that process. My simple article was written, printed, re-typed, printed, and manually laid out. Today, that article would be saved to “the cloud” somewhere or at the least emailed, where it would be received, imported into Quark or some other desktop publishing application, and emailed to a printer; that is if I didn’t just publish it to a blog while I was sitting in Starbucks using their WiFi.
I was so conscientious about saving my work, and yet I was saving it to these proprietary disks that were worthless absent the Brother machine; today it would be saved to GoogleDocs, to my hard drive, and my “sent items.” Our retiree clerk would simply have nothing to do, as would the majority of the editors.
At the time, I’m sure the whole process was hi-tech. Today, it seems like it could be a scene from “Mad Men” or from the 1950’s ‘Daily Planet’ newsroom. I may as well have been sharpening quills, in comparison to what can be accomplished today.
I have been collecting music for exactly 30-years. For my 12th birthday I bought my very first record – a 45 RPM record of J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold”, a record I still possess. Yes, my parents clearly didn’t understand the lyrics behind the music…truthfully, nor did I.
Over time, my 45 collection came to number in the 100’s, LP’s came to number in the 100’s, cassettes which came to number hundreds more some of which duplicated my LP purchases, then CDs which came to number over 500 at various points. Over time this amounts to a lot of “stuff.”
Music collecting had become more about collecting “records,” and it is that distinction that I carried with me into my late 30’s. On the other hand, the “Gen-Y” crowd has grown up with digital music – and their collections are digital files. They carry their entire music collection (as distinct from “record collection”) with them in the form of iPods and the other varied and assorted MP3 players.
As a “Gen-Xer,” I was slow to adopt the “music” collection over “record” collection – if I couldn’t feel, touch, or otherwise experience the packaging as well as the music it didn’t “feel” like owning a copy of a work. It almost every other aspect of my life, I had long since adopted the digital medium and while I may not be the “digital native” of Generation-Y, I’m probably one of the most technically literate people going of either generation. But music…music was something different.
However the “stuff” in my life came to be somewhat burdensome. Over the course of time, these things came to be misplaced, given away, or otherwise just stored away as the rest of life’s “stuff” came to be more important. At one point, I would have preferred a Bang and Olufsen system over having an automobile, but somehow over time I found I’d prefer a sofa or a kitchen table. Over time, those things came to dominate my home and managing my records came to be more hassle than it was worth – especially given the limited amount of time I actually took to pull a disc out and play it.
And so it came to be, this stodgy Gen-Xer came to adopt digital audio. I ripped each and every one of my CDs to MP3 – and I realized how many of these discs I really don’t care for anymore, but I kept the digital copies. I bought a USB turntable and ripped copies of my old vinyl to MP3 with varying results. Fully armed with my iPhone, I can carry with me my entire “music” collection and pull up any given song I want at any given time. If I so choose, I can pull up a copy of a partially warped record, complete with cracks and pops – there’s something about the remastered Rolling Stones music that makes the music seem hollow and sterile next to a copy of a somewhat time-worn record.
And so it is, 30-years later, I can literally fit most of my life’s important music into my pocket and take it down off the wall, the CD holders, the display case – what have you. Now, I still haven’t been able to pry my books out off the shelves in favor of a Kindle or Nook, I am a big fan of audio books played on the very same iPhone on which I carry my music – there’s something sacrosanct about the feel and smell of the paper that just can’t be replicated on a Kindle, something completely different than the compulsion to own a “thing.”
I have come to feel comfortable “owning” digital copies over the physical object of a record, and because I can sort through them, build lists, and shuffle I have rediscovered so much of the soundtrack of my life. So, I have come to be free of possessing that physical object for the sake of possessing it, and have come back to enjoying that which I wanted that object for in the first place.
One Thousand Songs In Your Pocket