Cryogenic Testing the James Webb Telescope Mirrors

À la three posts ago (“Tithing for Metaphysics,” 23 July 2010), I was only using the James Webb Space Telescope as a pretext for a tirade on the political economy of big science and discovery being as much a product of labor and capital — just rarified forms — as other endeavors. The James Webb Space Telescope is starting to come together now and this unusual picture from NASA is getting a lot of play. Here are six out of the eighteen mirrors that will together comprise the main reflector of the telescope about to go into cryogenic testing at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Cryogenic testing of 6 James Webb Space Telescope mirrors, Marshall Space Flight Center, November 2010

It’s worth noting here that science inadvertently results in a lot of images that could be considered as art — the various images generated by particle accelerators being a favorite here. It’s also worth noting that an independent review panel recently concluded that the project will go $1.5 billion over budget and run a year behind schedule, unless NASA comes up with $500 million more to get it back on schedule (Gupta, Sujata, “Over-Budget Telescope Threatens Other Projects,” New Scientist, 16 November 2010). That’s another $14.50 per taxpayer, bring our total contributions up to $47.40 each — a small price to pay for photographs of infinity.


Teachers in an Era of Information Abundance

Following on my previous post, my IRL friend Frank posted an excerpt from one of his class syllabuses that I think is a good, updated model of the role of the teacher (“A Note on My Teaching Philosophy,” Too Frank?, 29 August 2010):

I am much more interested in your ability to engage with such questions than I am in your ability to memorize series of facts. Unless specifically noted, you should feel free to consult your notes and texts for all assignments, including exams. Information is widely available. What is less common than access to information is the skill required to navigate, evaluate, curate, and interrogate that information. I am not here to dispense knowledge, but to facilitate learning.

Information Work in an Era of Information Abundance

I’m going to excerpt about fifty percent of David Frum’s review from this weekend’s New York Times Book Review (“Unhappy Days,” 5 September 2010, p. BR20):

Art historians tell us that photography revolutionized painting. Suddenly there was a better way of recording the physical appearance of things, and artists had to discover new purposes for brush and pigment. But for those living through the revolution, the process must have seemed more gradual. Long after the Impressionists and Cubists and Futurists, there must have been serious portraitists who continued to earn a living depicting brides on their wedding day or businessmen made good.

I kept thinking of those backward­looking artists all the way through Laura Kalman’s “Right Star Rising.” As a work of history about the Ford and Carter years, there is nothing seriously wrong with it. The facts are accurate, the writing is clear and the point of view is not tendentious. Once upon a time, such a book might have been useful to somebody.

But the question it raises — and it’s not a question about this book alone — is: What’s the point of this kind of history in the age of the Internet? Suppose I’m an undergraduate who stumbles for the first time across the phrase “Proposition 13.” I could, if I were minded, walk over to the university library, pull this book from the shelf and flip to the index. Or I could save myself two hours and Google it. I wouldn’t learn more from a Google search than I’d learn in these pages. But I wouldn’t learn a whole lot less either.

He gets a little more specific than this, makes a few examples, but that’s about all he has to say about the book. It’s nothing against Ms. Kalman — as Mr. Frum writes, “it’s not a question about this book alone.” The analogy to painting in an era of photography is apt. We live in a time in which our relation to information is changing. Problems of availability have — at least in the developed world — been for the most part solved. So like the painter, how are information workers to make their way in this world?

I’m not going to wind this post up with some pat answer. I think that Mr. Frum is also correct in not making a teleologically overdetermined analogy. “For those living through the revolution, the process must have seemed more gradual,” he writes. Painters only found a post-photography life through protracted experimentation.

I think of Harold Bloom’s idea of the anxiety of influence as much more than a theory of poetry. In an age of mass information, all information workers labor under the anxiety of influence (Jimmy Wales is our Milton). No one should think that a publisher is going to cut down a few hundred acres of trees for more of the same.

The Electromagnetic Sediment of the Noosphere

Regarding the possibility of the Earth remaining hidden from detection by alien civilizations by running silent, New Scientist points out that it’s already too late (Shostak, Seth, “It’s Too Late to Worry That the Aliens Will Find Us,” 3 July 2010):

We have been inadvertently betraying our presence for 60 years with our television, radio and radar transmissions. The earliest episodes of I Love Lucy have washed over 6,000 or so star systems, and are reaching new audiences at the rate of one solar system a day. If there are sentient beings out there, the signals will reach them.

(Related: “The Noosphere Visualized,” 1 January 2009)

“Working Around the Problem”

The IT Mentality:

User: “Help there’s an alligator in my cubical!”
IT: “Do you have to place your bum directly in the alligator’s mouth when you work, or can you work around the alligator?”
User: [reluctantly admits] “Well, the alligator isn’t taking up the entire cubical.”
IT: “Okay, well, I’m going to close this help ticket for now. If the alligator takes a limb, you can always reopen it.”

The Last Days of Nature

In reaction to last week’s The New Yorker article on synthetic biology (Specter, Michael, “A Life Of Its Own,” 28 September 2009, pp. 56-65):

The objective of synthetic biology is the final subsumption of the logic of nature into the logic of capitalism. Capitalism being the logic of human desire, the objective of synthetic biology is — as with the whole of the technological endeavor — the elimination of all intercession between desire and its fulfillment. It is the attempt to return to the purity of the hallucination of the breast, to do away with despised reality testing, the creation of a world of pure subjectivity.

For a cyberpunk rereading of Hegel: Freud as the last of the Young Hegelians.

One Ping Only, Vasili

A few weeks ago I met up with some friends and we were walking through the busy Gallery Place / Chinatown area, all three of us heads down studying our various hand-helds (two iPhones and an Android). I joked that the app that we need is something like the range-finders from the Alien movies, only that does picture-in-picture on our phones so we can see what’s coming without having to look up from our immersion in our respective virtual worlds as we walk through heavy pedestrian traffic.

The absurd extent of the anxiety of influence: not only if you’ve had a good idea can you count on someone having already had it, but if you make a joke about something absurd, you can rest assured that someone is already doing that too. It turns out there is already a sonar app for the iPhone (Frucci, Adam, “iPhone’s Sonar Ruler App Measures Distance Using Sound,” Gizmodo, 21 August 2009).

(Jokes about iPhone apps follow the same formula as jokes about hitherto unnamed but always Johnny-on-the-spot when convenient members of the Smurf village: think of an absurd or inappropriate function, append “smurf”; e.g. Cuckolding Smurf finds life in the Smurf village paradisiacal; or sumrfs keep themselves free of tropical disease by regularly licking Quinine Smurf; In the case of iPhone apps, name an absurd function, then say “There’s an app for that.”)