Thursday, January 7, 2010

Moon Rocks, Mount Everest, and Symbolism

From yesterday's news:
"Rocks From the Moon, Mt. Everest Destined for Space Station" (January 6, 2010)

"Two small rock samples – one from the top of our world and the second returned from another – are ready to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) as a symbol of NASA's continuing mission to explore.

"The space-bound stones – a fragment of Mount Everest's summit and four flecks from the moon – were presented Wednesday to George Zamka, the commander of NASA's next space shuttle mission, by the first astronaut to scale the Earth's highest mountain, Scott Parazynski.

" 'These rocks have already done more than a human being could do in a lifetime,' said Zamka during the ceremony held at Space Center Houston, the public visitor center for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas. 'For four billion years they were on the moon, undisturbed. They went through an ascent on a spaceship traveling to Earth and then Scott took them to the limits of human endurance by climbing up with them on Mount Everest. So they already have a tremendous history. They're about to get a mileage upgrade.'..."
At this point, I could launch into an impassioned diatribe about how shocking and awful it is that resources are wasted - wasted! - on sending rocks into orbit, when they could be used to raise awareness about the California Red Legged Frog. But I'm not. I have no personal animosity toward rana aurora draytonii. I actually rather like frogs.

But I'm all too aware that things change. It'd be nice, I suppose, if the California Red Legged Frog was doing well: but I think it would also be nice to see a live trilobite.

As the fellow said:
"Nothing endures but change."
(Heraclitus, 540 BC - 480 BC)
(from October 29, 2009)
If armadillos, pigeons, rats, or cockroaches are dying off - that would be something to be concerned about. (more: "Change, American Culture, Trilobites, Humanity's History, and the Big Picture," Apathetic Lemming of the North (September 26, 2009))

Where Was I? Rocks and Symbolism, Right!

Back to those bits of rock that are taking a spin around Earth in the ISS.

The article says that they're "a symbol of NASA's continuing mission to explore." Not very practical, right?

No contest there: it's not very 'practical' to send rocks from the Moon to Mount Everest and back into low Earth orbit - just so you can say it's been done. If measurements were being made of the rocks, before and after, or some other sort of research were directly involved: yes, then I'd say the trip had some 'practical' value.

But, just for symbolism? How impractical!

Also, how human.

People, human beings, use symbols. A lot. The marks you see on your screen right now are symbols that stand for sounds, more or less. That's assuming you're reading this page in English. If you use translation software, the marks you see may represent words or phrases. Not all written languages use alphabets.

The sounds, words, and phrases are in turn symbols. "Symbolism," for example, means "a system of symbols and symbolic representations," (Princeton's WordNet) among other things. "Red" can mean electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength near 7,000 Angstroms, or 700 nanometers. Roughly. But "red" isn't electromagnetic radiation: it's a sound in spoken English, and a set of three symbols in written English that stand for that particular set of wavelengths. Or an emotion, or quite a number of other things.

Which is why I think it'll be a while before AI can do a good job of understanding conversational English - or any other natural language. We're getting closer, though. ("Robovie-II and Robovie-IV: Robot Assistants for Store and Office" Apathetic Lemming of the North (January 7, 2010))

I'm getting off-topic. Again.

Symbolic Acts: It's What We Do

Hauling a few bits of rock around aren't important from a practical point of view: but people aren't entirely 'practical.' Or maybe we are. Which threatens to become another topic.

Focus, man, focus!

I think it's entirely appropriate to make a fleck or so of rock from the Moon and a bit from the top of Mount Everest into palpable symbols of NASA's determination to stay on course with its mission to explore.

But then, I'm not among those who feel that 'if God had meant man to fly, He'd have given him wings.' We're perfectly capable of making our own wings - although it took several thousand years to get the technology right.

Besides, there's a long tradition of using hunks of rock as symbols: like the Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, or Stone of Scone. But that's yet another topic.
If you think this post is a bit less coherent than others in this blog: you could be right.

I'm running a significant, although not (I trust) serious fever: and have reason to believe that it may have a slight effect on some of my cognitive functions.

That's my story, and I'm sticking with it.

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