facTotem lives!

February 13, 2010 at 12:36 am (By Amba) ()

The science blog I had the great fun of writing for a while on my employer Natural History magazine’s website is all archived here, thanks to my collaborator, the magazine’s longtime webmaster, Jim van Abbema.  He’s now moved on and the magazine, along with so many print media, is trying to keep its head above water, but in the meantime, Jim has kept the archive of our work together alive by hosting it on one of the domains he manages.

It was the magazine’s publisher, Charles Harris, who had the bright idea of giving me a place to stash the cool links and stories I was stumbling on in the process of fact checking (and overstuffing the footnotes with; they had to go somewhere!).  Since we didn’t yet have blogging software on the website that I could use to post directly, I “had to” work through the webmaster:  I’d supply text, hunt down images, and he would compose and post them.  This apparent inconvenience turned out to be a godsend, as Jim had creative visual ideas (this is probably my favorite) and nifty scripts (click on the images here and see what happens) that I could never remotely have approached.  The arrangement evolved into a true collaboration, of which this extravaganza on the Hubble Space Telescope was undoubtedly the pièce de résistance.

I’ve put a permanent link to the archive into the blogroll here in case you want to poke around in it.


  1. Icepick said,

    From the Hubble story:

    The myopic Hubble became the butt of late-night talk-show jokes and cartoons, such as one showing Mr. Magoo as its designer. It was a low point as low as any in NASA’s history; the very survival of the agency was in doubt. Administrators seriously considered cutting their losses on the $2.5-billion-and-counting project. “[T]he urge to kill Hubble at NASA headquarters was strong,” Zimmerman writes. But the telescope had been designed to be serviced by astronauts in orbit, and diehard astronomers and engineers were already brainstorming a fix. [emphasis added]

    And that is what we will lose with the coming end of American manned space-flight. The engineers will still think of things to do (they’re engineers afterall), but with no one to go do the work they will lose motivation. The end of an era….

  2. amba12 said,

    I can’t believe it won’t come back.

    Someone told me they read somewhere (reliable source, eh?) that the amount we budget for exploration is about the same percentage of the national outlay that Ferdinand and Isabella allocated. It’s in our DNA, dammit.

    (Can’t stop mentioning that NASA’s budget was less than Americans spend annually on pizza.)

  3. Rod said,

    When I was a kid, I was surprised by the delay between discovery of the Western Hemisphere and its systematic exploration. Colonization of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States – an area well suited to European settlement, commenced 115 years after Columbus. Lewis and Clark set out on their journey three hundred years after Columbus. It seemed something as dynamic as two new continents should have proved more of a magnet in the early years. I certainly did not imagine long interruptions in our march into space. After all, it was only 12 years from Sputnik to men standing on the moon.

    What I didn’t understand was the enormous cost of an enterprise of exploration. It made sense when there were clearly identified monetary incentives – such as new trade routes, or military/political motivations such as controlling sea lanes or land for colonial development, or religious imperatives such as evangelizing the natives or getting out of an intolerant environment on your home soil.

    The difficulty with sustained space exploration is that it is hard to identify the incentive. What would you have to find on Mars to make a trip have an economic dividend? What would we trade when the cost of sending a pound of payload to Mars is enormous? We are not aware of any natives to evangelize. We are left with the abstraction of understanding unseen parts of the universe. That is no mean inducement, but there is always a clamor for money for other worthy purposes.

    What made us spend the money reach upwards at the beginning of the Space Age was fear. The Russians had become the first to put a satellite in orbit, and that had serious potential military implications. The economic or military factors may eventually change. We might develop methods of travel through space that are less expensive. We might become concerned if the Chinese develop space weapons or start placing colonies on the Moon or Mars.

    We are unlikely to push hard into space until there is a compelling reason to do so in addition to science for science’s sake.

    One last thought. The breathtaking beauty of the Hubble photos appeals to us regardless of our politics. I doubt that the desire for further manned space flight (or more ambitious unmanned missions) beats any stronger in Republican or Democratic breasts. The awe of photos from the surface of Mars is the same for Catholics, Jews, or agnostics.

    But, manned missions are expensive, and it is hard to imagine a sufficient private sector bankroll for such journeys. I want to see us continue the commitment.
    So, how do conservatives square the massive governmental outlay which would be required? Why (and on what Constitutional basis) should my taxes be raised to pay for space exploration? To liberals I ask, “Will you simply raise taxes for these programs and further debase our currency and financial stability? If not, which social program will you curtail or eliminate to pay for manned space exploration?

  4. amba12 said,


    (Just kidding.)

  5. amba12 said,

    What made us spend the money reach upwards at the beginning of the Space Age was fear.

    Good points all. “Higher” motivations, like curiosity and awe, usually have to ride horseback on more basic ones to get anywhere, to have any force behind them. My guess is that even evangelizing the natives — for all the zeal religion inspired back then — was itself something of an afterthought, a noble gloss applied to the quest for gold and territory

    One argument that has always been made for space exploration is that, like arms races, it spurs technological innovation.

  6. amba12 said,

    BUT — I think it unlikely that we will allow our national security, preeminence, profit, and prowess to be jeopardized by Chinese bases on the moon. We’ll be back.

  7. amba12 said,

    If not, it means the era of our quasi-empire is over, and this is somebody else’s century. That may be. We’ve had so much for so long, we’re no longer as driven to acquire and achieve as other nations.

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