Sixty Years after Sputnik

On 4 October 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik 1 (“Satellite 1”) into orbit. Its full name was Prosteyshiy Sputnik 1, “Elementary Satellite 1”.

It was 58 cm / 23 in across, about the size of a beach ball, and it weighed 83.6 kg / 184 lb. It had four antennas sticking out of it, and a battery-powered radio transmitter with power 1 watt.

It went into orbit atop a modified R-7 ICBM, going into low Earth orbit: 215 km / 134 mi by 939 km / 583 mi with a period of 96.2 minutes.

It transmitted for 21 days, until 26 October 1957, and it stayed in orbit until it burned up in the atmosphere on 4 January 1958.

Its broadcasts, an endlessly repeated beep, were picked up all over the world by amateur radio operators, though the satellite itself was only borderline visible without a telescope.

It wasn’t much, but it was startling. Large numbers of people watched this first artificial satellite and also listened to it. Many Americans came to believe that their nation was getting behind in the Cold War, since the Russians could now send their nuclear bombs to anywhere in the world in less than an hour.

It also did not help that the Russians successfully launched a second satellite a month later, on 3 November 1957. It carried a passenger, the dog Laika, though that dog soon died. It certainly did not help that the US’s attempt to launch a satellite into orbit on 6 December 1957 was a spectacular failure. But the US succeeded in doing so on 31 January 1958.

However, President Eisenhower and his aides stayed cool. They were following the Russians’ rocketry developments with pictures taken from U-2 spyplanes that flew high above the Soviet Union. So they were not very surprised when the Soviet Union got a satellite into orbit.

I’ve even seen the theory that Eisenhower had a reason for liking the Russians going first. He wanted to establish a principle of international law, that outer space is like international waters rather than sovereign territory, like airspace. He was concerned that if the US went first, the Russians would consider a US satellite flying over their territory to be a violation of their sovereignty, just like a US spyplane doing so. So when Sputnik 1 traveled over US territory, he decided to accept it.

The US increased funding for scientific research, adding to the National Science Foundation’s funding and starting the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, now DARPA with Defense in front), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The US also made efforts to improve education, with its National Defense Education Act.

The “New Math” also came out of that period, but it was an abysmal flop. It introduced a lot of abstraction far too early, IMO. Though mathematicians love abstraction, non-mathematicians often find it difficult, and math curricula should be designed with that in mind.

The US has faced challenges that some people have compared to Sputnik, like Japan in the 1980’s, but those challenges did not present the visceral level of threat that Sputnik did. Sputnik was a demonstration that the Soviet Union could send nuclear bombs to anywhere in the US in half an hour. Japan did not pose nearly that level of threat. It was at most “We will dig your graves” rather than “we will destroy you”, those two interpretations of Nikita Khrushchev’s “We will bury you”.



Go back to where you came from?

Some years ago, someone posted a video in YouTube showing a woman in a tram in Britain yelling at some immigrants to go back to where they came from. (Tram = light-rail vehicle) That video is now gone, but it gave me some ideas. Based on it, I have come up with a summary of the history of Great Britain:

  • 1066 CE: Those Normans should go back to where they came from!
  • 800 CE: Those Danes should go back to where they came from!
  • 450 CE: Those Angles and Saxons and Jutes should go back to where they came from!
  • 43 CE: Those Romans should go back to where they came from!
  • 500 BCE: Those Celts should go back to where they came from!
  • 2700 BCE: Those Beaker people should go back to where they came from!
  • 4000 BCE: Those farmers should go back to where they came from!


Hymn to Donald Trump

What some of Donald Trump’s supporters seem like to me:

Thank you, Trump. Thank you because I am joyful. Thank you because I am well. No matter how old I become, I shall never forget how we received Trump two days ago. Centuries will pass, and the generations still to come will regard us as the happiest of mortals, as the most fortunate of men, because we lived in the century of centuries, because we were privileged to see Trump, our inspired leader. Yes, and we regard ourselves as the happiest of mortals because we are the contemporaries of a man who never had an equal in world history.

The men of all ages will call on thy name, which is strong, beautiful, wise and marvelous. Thy name is engraven on every factory, every machine, every place on the earth, and in the hearts of all men.

Every time I have found myself in his presence I have been subjugated by his strength, his charm, his grandeur. I have experienced a great desire to sing, to cry out, to shout with joy and happiness. And now see me–me!–on the same platform where the Great Trump stood a year ago. In what country, in what part of the world could such a thing happen.

I write books. I am an author. All thanks to thee, O great educator, Trump. I love a young woman with a renewed love and shall perpetuate myself in my children–all thanks to thee, great educator, Trump. I shall be eternally happy and joyous, all thanks to thee, great educator, Trump. Everything belongs to thee, chief of our great country. And when the woman I love presents me with a child the first word it shall utter will be : Trump.

O great Trump, O leader of the peoples,
Thou who broughtest man to birth.
Thou who fructifies the earth,
Thou who restorest to centuries,
Thou who makest bloom the spring,
Thou who makest vibrate the musical chords…
Thou, splendour of my spring, O thou,
Sun reflected by millions of hearts.

Edited from a translation of the original by A. O. Avidenko, a translation reproduced in Hymn to Stalin: Internet History Sourcebooks



What looks like a stream of light between the ground and the clouds, and sometimes inside of clouds. It is followed by thunder, a loud noise.

Lightning can be very frightening, to the point that psychologists have invented a word for the fear of it: “astraphobia”. Lightning can also be dangerous. Lightning can injure and even kill, it can split trees, it can damage buildings, and it can start fires. It can also damage electrical components, and knock out electricity-distribution systems.

Not surprisingly, many people have considered it a weapon wielded by some deity, and sometimes even a deity itself. Wikipedia has a big list of lightning and thunder gods. The Greek god Zeus is well-known for throwing lightning, and the Germanic god Thor makes lightning with his hammer. We also find in Psalm 18:14 that the God of the Bible also throws lightning. Looking away from western Eurasia, some North American First Nations people considered it the flapping of a supernatural bird, the Thunderbird.

But something changed. What was it?

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Food cubes: New or old?

In some science fiction, we will be eating cubes of food that are nutritionally complete but not very tasty. But are food cubes really a new thing? Or an old thing?

I will now try to clarify the concept. One can make food cubes by cutting some larger food item into cubes, but that is rather trivial. What is more interesting is some food item that can be given a cube shape as it is made. If it can be given such a shape, then it can be given other shapes, and we may more generally talk about shapeable foods.

The first known shapeable food was likely bread. Middle Easterners domesticated wheat around 11,000 years ago, and grinding stones are not much younger. This means that they were making flour, and likely also making bread from the flour. The first breads were likely unleavened breads or flatbreads, with leavened kinds following later. There are now numerous kinds of breads and breadlike foods, including crackers, biscuits, pretzels, cookies, pancakes, piecrust, cakes, and pasta, and breads have been made from other grains, like rye and American corn.

The next one is cheese. It was likely invented as a way of making milk edible and storable, and cheese-making tools go back 7,500 years. Some domestic animals are conveniently milkable, like bovines, water buffalo, sheep, goats, horses, and donkeys, and bovines, sheep, and goats had been domesticated not long after the domestication of wheat.

Advancing into recorded history, we find that tofu, soybean curd, was invented in China about 2,000 years ago. Advancing further to the Industrial Revolution, we find the invention of a variety of candies, like chocolates, and also gelatin desserts like Jell-O.

Most recently, Quorn have been developed. It is made from the mycelium of a soil fungus grown in a vat — that’s the strands that make up a fungus’s “body”. That may seem unappetizing, but there is a commonly-eaten fungus part. Mushrooms, which are the fruiting bodies of various fungi.

So it’s completely feasible with present-day technology to create nutritionally-complete food cubes. Start with cheese or tofu or gelatin or Quorn and fortify it with missing nutrients like vitamins.

But they don’t seem to be very popular, and I’ve yet to see anyone advertise their nutritionally-complete food-cube recipes.

Some Creative Writing

Some time ago, I decided to do some thought experiments about various hypotheses, and I decided that the most convenient way to do that is to compose stories about them. Thus, my adventures into fiction writing. I think that it’s fair to say that a lot of science fiction qualifies as storified thought experiments, so I’m not alone.

I’ve published my stories at both Wattpad and FictionPad; I’m lpetrich in both places.

In “Watching a Supernova Up Close”, I imagined myself watching a red supergiant star as its core collapsed and made it explode as a supernova.

“Tunguska and the Titanic” is inspired by one of more far-out hypotheses about the Tunguska event. Some object hit the Earth’s atmosphere on June 30, 1908, and it exploded a few seconds before when it would have reached the ground. No macroscopic fragments of it have ever been found, despite very diligent searches. Various people have invented numerous hypotheses. A meteorite. A comet. A chunk of antimatter. A mini black hole. A gas eruption from the Earth’s interior. An experiment with a radio-frequency electric-power transmission system. An extraterrestrial spacecraft.

I found that latter hypothesis rather interesting. UFO contactee Billy Meier has an ET-spacecraft scenario that I found rather inelegant. Another UFO contactee, Elizabeth Klarer, briefly mentioned it as an ET spacecraft crashed. But I couldn’t find anything by George Adamski or Desmond Leslie on Tunguska. That left me with an idea. What if George Adamski found out about the Tunguska disaster when he was going on one of his trips with his alleged ET friends? How might it play out?

Here’s my favorite bit of it. One of GA’s ET friends says about it:

When our investigators arrived at the scene, they found a huge explosion site, with trees knocked down for miles around, and with nothing remaining of the ship. Nothing.

Then GA brings up the sinking of the RMS Titanic at almost the same time, in 1912. His ET friends ask about that, and they find that they have something in common.

I also wrote a sort of sequel, “Contact across the Solar System”, in which I try to rationalize some of GA’s odd notions. I think that I was at least half-successful. Unlike the other two stories I’d mentioned, it grew to novella length, with lots of adventures on the Earth and elsewhere. I also have a lot of people disliking GA’s ET friends when they decide to manifest themselves in a very obvious fashion.

Some Xian Fundies: No ET’s

David A. Weintraub has written a book, Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal With It?. Google Books gives us some snippets of it, and they include some other fundies’ arguments. Advanced ET’s imply a big no-no among fundies: evolution. Then ET’s having advanced wisdom or conquering death being a challenge to Xianity. Then the Fermi Paradox and then how Genesis 1 implies that the heavenly bodies were not created to be homes for ET’s. Then how belief in ET’s is supposedly a result of belief in “evolutionism”.
Would Finding Alien Life Change Religious Philosophies? about David Weintraub’s book.

Public polls have shown that a large share of the population believes aliens are out there. In one survey released last year by the company Survata, 37 percent of the 5,886 Americans who were polled said they believed in the existence of extraterrestrial life, while 21 percent said they didn’t believe and 42 percent were unsure. Responses varied by religion: 55 percent of atheists said they believed in extraterrestrials, as did 44 percent of Muslims, 37 percent of Jews, 36 percent of Hindus and 32 percent of Christians.

Some of these variations may be due to the demographics of the various groups — it would be interesting to try to sort that out.

Weintraub found that some religions are more accommodating to the idea of E.T. than others. Those with an Earth-centric spiritual point of view are the most likely to be made uncomfortable by questions about the discovery of aliens. Certain evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, for example, are of the opinion that God’s sole intent was to create people here on Earth. Some believe that if God created life anywhere else, it would say that in Genesis, Weintraub said.

But other fundies may disagree. David Weintraub notes the speculations of the founders of Seventh Day Adventism. But present-day SDA’s may not agree, and they may be closer to the anti-ET fundies. Something that also applies to the various SDA offshoots, like Garner Ted Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God and its offshoots.

Catholics and mainline Protestants tend to have much less trouble with the idea of ET’s, and believers in other Abrahamic religions and also Asian religions also have little trouble with the idea.

After the fold: lots of fundies on how there are no ET’s.

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