I know a lot of stuff about stuff

Sometimes, it is what you know that’s important after all.

Ken Piper, July 30, 2016

I know a lot of stuff about stuff. I know this because I have a diploma that my sister gave me that says so.

The only diploma I ever hung on the wall.
The only diploma I ever hung on the wall.

When people find out I have a doctoral degree, they say, “Oh, you must be so smart!” I guess I should just be flattered. But the truth, I must say, is that getting a degree is more about perseverance than about being smart. I am sure I am right about this, and not just for me; there are certainly a lot of people who have fancy degrees who don’t seem to have much sense.

Yes, I know a lot of stuff about stuff, and some of it is useful stuff, like knowing how to build an automobile engine from a box of parts. (It’s not so bad really; just start with the longer bolts.) I also know all the things you need to know to build a house, although I have yet to put them all together and actually do so. I know a lot about plants, too, and I’m always learning more, but that does not stop me from killing a bunch of them along the way.

Some of the stuff I know is not so useful after all, such as knowing where and how much oil and gas you might be able to find off the Pacific Coast (some of you might recall an article I previously wrote “My job was safe and secure, but it did not satisfy my soul”). And, I know a bunch of trivial stuff that is only useful for annoying or embarrassing my kids. For example, I know a 1950’s commercial ditty that includes the address of Stanley Chevrolet. (I know you’re dying to know ” … two blocks off the Santa Ana Freeway, 11980 East Firestone…”). I remember the name of Barney Google’s racehorse, and can recite “Springtime in Alaska” to the tune of “Springtime in the Rockies” – yes, throw your underwear away.

Knowing about stuff can come in handy. I bought my first two cars for a total of $47 and put them together to make one working car. The choice of those cars may not have been the best. On the outside, they looked the same, just one model year apart. I assure you, there is a big difference between SAE and metric.

Then again, some stuff may not seem useful to you, but may be very important to others. A good friend of ours spends a lot of time checking in on certain kinds of birds. He knows the difference between a Piping Plover and a Snowy Plover, and between a Willet and a Wandering Tattler. This may seem trivial to most of us, but for the shorebirds and those who want to protect them from beachgoers and their dogs, this can make a big impact on their survival.

Sometimes it is what you know, not whom you know that’s important. What stuff do you know that’s useful in your life?

The Martian

Ken Piper, July 23, 2016

I recently saw the movie The Martian for the second time. It is one of my favorite science fiction movies. I emphasize “science” because sci-fi covers a wide span, from mostly fiction with little or no science to mostly science with some scientific oversights in order to be more engaging. This one falls into that latter group. Yes, I know the Martian atmosphere is too thin to generate a storm like in the movie. And, there are lots of other things to nitpick about, if that is your desire. The story has a nice mix of humor and suspense that makes it fun to watch. But its importance may be in its possible effect on U.S. space policy.

I read an opinion that it is the biggest boost NASA has gotten in decades. The movie has brought to the world’s attention that we still have not gotten to Mars. The movie 2001 (1968) envisioned a lunar base and a manned mission to Jupiter. At that time, the space program was still in fast track mode, in order to get to the Moon before the end of the decade. Since that time, NASA has been low on our list of priorities, an especially easy target for cost cutting.

But the Moon program was during Johnson’s Great Society and the war in Viet Nam. Somehow we found the money to do it, and, it can be argued that the technological advances were worth the cost.

The writers of Martian were clever in their inclusion of China as a partner in the rescue attempt. And, in fact, one of the astronauts in the follow-up mission Ares 5 looks like he could be Chinese. As is the case with the International Space Station, international cooperation helps with the cost and has the added benefit of fostering cooperation among nations. A mission to Mars would be much more costly, and, wouldn’t it be nice if the nation with the second-highest GDP was a part of the team?

Now, if we could just get Congress to stop doling out the goodies to buy everybody’s votes, maybe we could afford to support a real space program.

Image: Fox Movies, via Google Images