Saturday, March 21, 2015

A spectre is haunting me in Huntsville

Having recently had great fun watching a satellite launch in Cape Canaveral, we decided to spend this spring break visiting the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.  Unlike Cape Canaveral, Huntsville is a plausible driving distance from Iowa City, at about 10 hours on the road, which made it a much better option than competing for airline seats at spring break fare levels.  Huntsville isn't quite so beautifully warm and spring-like as we'd thought it would be---apparently Northern Alabama has a lot more climatically in common with the Midwest than the Gulf Coast.

From our hotel, you could see the giant Saturn V moon rocket (mockup) looming up over the trees, and overall, the museum did not disappoint.  Harriet did space-walk dances beneath the shuttle, and delighted in the "blast-off ride" for little kids that shot them up in the air and then bounced them up and down and up and down on their way back to the ground.  She also loved the recordings of the Saturn V engine tests, which shook the whole area around where they played.
Harriet on her highly-favored "blast-off ride"
The Space and Rocket Center is also where Space Camp is, and so all the time that we were there, we were surrounded by floods of school-kids of various ages, going from place to place, learning the history of space and rocketry, doing experiments with balloon-and-cardboard landers or hand-launched rockets, learning about reorientation training by being spun around in giant hoops, and generally being highly enthusiastic at the top of their lungs.
Learning about space beneath the Saturn 1B
Reorientation training in a three-axis tumbling machine
I found, to my surprise, that my feelings were much more mixed than they had been in Cape Canaveral.  The thing is, the Space and Rocket Center is quite conscious of its history of being just as much about rockets as space.  This is where von Braun and the rest of the Nazi scientists from Operation Paperclip were brought to continue their work, and the collection also includes V-1 and V-2 terror weapons, quite a number of US military missile systems, and even an attack helicopter from the Vietnam era.  Walking through the museum entry, after you pass the case of model space shuttles and the "Mars Climbing Wall," you confront a bunch of Army future combat system prototypes and publicity models: a humvee with some sort of laser targeting pod, air and ground combat drones, air-to-air missiles, storm-trooper mannequins in badass green camouflage.
Learning in the shadow of  a V1 "Buzz-bomb"
Army surface-to-surface missile systems
I shouldn't be uncomfortable with this, I think.  I'm basically OK with the idea of military systems, used responsibly, and my research is mostly funded by the military.  So why did it bug me to have such a fusion of space and military, to find that overhead there seemed to be practically always a military helicopter passing by in some direction on an errand in the sky?  Clearly, the people of Huntsville did not have any such qualms.
One of the ubiquitous overhead military helicopters
So why was it this way for me?

I think that I want to feel that our venture into space is part of the best part of humanity, the reach after better dreams and visions.  It is in space where we first truly learned to look back on the Earth and to learn how fragile and unified it is, a gut-level grasp of the meaninglessness of national division.  Seeing the Earth from space helped to kick-start environmentalism, and to get us past the Cold War.  So I want space to be tied into that well-spring of good things, feelings I can rightfully feel warm and fuzzy about.

Military technology, on the other hand, while I feel it is reasonable and necessary, I also feel reflects the worst aspects of human nature.  We need these types of technology because we haven't figured out any way to have a society (or system of societies) in which there is not also conflict and strife.  So we need safety and defense, and defense can so easily become offense and oppression and war.  Even now, living in the safest period of human history, we are killing one another, and our high technology does nothing ultimately to change that fact, and indeed can enable us to become more callous and distanced from the effects of the choices we make as a society.

At Kennedy Space Center, the military side of space is not particularly visible, and neither is the nationalistic side.  It has all been brushed under in favor of the international and positive side, the aspirations that drive one major side of the drive to orbit and beyond.  The crowd is international, and the tone is of a united humanity.  But the satellite launch we watched while we were there was a US military communications satellite, and its existence actually directly impacts the scenarios that I am working with in my research now.

In Huntsville, you know that the two are intertwined, and you know that they are proud that it was the United States that went and did these things.  They aren't shy about von Braun's Nazi past.  They don't hide the fact that we performed animal testing before we ever sent humans up: in fact, there is a very uncomfortable-looking mannequin of a monkey restrained in a complex steel contraption, to show just how Able and Baker were sent up on their historic flight.  I also eat meat.

I know that I'm not comfortable with this intertwining of dreams of a better civilization with the realities of military use, but that doesn't mean it is or was the wrong thing to do.  In fact, I know that in fact it may be best to have a person like me who is uncomfortable involved, because I am not going to take the morality of the research that I am involved with for granted.  Or at least I hope that can remain the case.  I sometimes wish I didn't have to see the truth, but not to see it would be worse, I think.

Our visit to Huntsville haunts me, and I am comfortable with that.
Saturn V: the dream at dusk

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The secret to avoiding jet-lag on red-eye flights

OK, folks, here it is: the secret to avoiding jet-lag on red-eye flights.  I learned this from Patrick Winston, who claimed to have learned it from his time serving as a research advisor for the US Navy. The US military, of course, has a deep interest in all things related to sleep, including jet lag, and has invested quite a bit into learning how to best manage it over the years.  The bit that I remember, and have successfully deployed on many occasions, is this:

First, you must understand the principle: your body keeps its circadian rhythm entrained with the cycle of day and night by having a natural rhythm that is slightly longer than a day, and resetting it on encountering bright light in the morning.  Artificial bright light, however, is all around us, including in the LCD screens that dominate our modern environment.  So when you stay up late in artificial light, that makes your body think the day is longer, and drag you "Westward" in your rhythm.  Red-eye flights, however, are generally East-bound, and so if you follow the natural course and try to stay up, your body thinks it is a super-long day, runs out of patience and tries to put you to sleep in the middle of the day, gets very confused, and you end up completely screwed up with jet-lag.

Instead, you want to convince your body that it is a super-short day.  For this, you need to shut out all light, so you need one of those sleep blinders.  It doesn't need to be fancy, just to shut out the light and be sufficiently comfortable that you can keep it on all night without ever removing it: you can generally get a decent one for less than $10.

As soon as you get on the plane, get comfortable, buckle up, and put on the blinder.  Do it before takeoff.  Skip dinner, skip the movies, and don't take the blinder off until you smell breakfast.  Just relax and rest---sleep if you can, but resting will do OK even if you can't sleep, and you'll probably drift in and out.  Your body, deprived of light, will think it's a short day and move your rhythm "Eastward"---not all the way, but enough that you won't have to fight sleep in the middle of the day, can be quite functional immediately, and will be fully adjusted within another day or so.

I find this works quite well, and have added one more filigree of my own: I go stir-crazy if I'm sitting in the dark but not asleep, so I need something to occupy my mind.  For that, I listen to audio books, and in particular, on a red-eye flight, I always listen to an audio book that I have already listened to, preferably multiple times.  This does two important things for me: 1) it's not new for me, so it's not exciting enough to stay awake for, and 2) I can have a vague sense of how long is left in the flight without looking by the progress of the story.

With audio books and a blinder combined, I find that I can manage pretty much any red-eye comfortably and effectively, with minimal jet-lag, and I strongly recommend them to you as well.

Good luck, and happy traveling!
Chicago O'Hare airport at dawn

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cutting it Close

"If you've never missed a plane, then you are spending too much time in airports."  This was a saying about travel that I have come to appreciate, which I heard from Patrick Winston, one of my graduate advisors. He is also the one who taught me the secret of avoiding jet-lag on overnight flights, so I take his advice quite seriously.

So far, I am still apparently spending too much time on airplanes, but today was closer than I've ever been before, leaving MIT at 4:50pm to catch a 5:55pm flight at Boston Logan.  Fortunately, traffic wasn't too bad, and I even had 5 minutes at the gate before I boarded, but it reminded me why I do still spend more time in airports than Patrick would suggest: the cost of missing a flight and getting home too late is just too much for my preference.  These days, I err instead on the side of shaving things close in my presence at meetings, and omit the time I might have allocated for touring or getting to know my environment, because I don't want to spend the time away from home and those I love.

How young is too young to fly with me to a conference?  I don't yet know, and I'm not sure I'd want to put Harriet through the absolute boredom that my packed traveling days would generally entail on her behalf (I never even get full nights of sleep when I'm traveling professionally), but I keep thinking about it, and trying to figure out when and how I can make it sane for her to join me and get to see the world as her father does.

Sunset takeoff at Boston Logan