Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The Insanity Parade: Easy Bake Oven Edition

I know it's been quite a while since our last edition of The Insanity Parade, our semi-regular feature to explore the nutballs that populate the internet, but the staff here at Total Drek ("Staff," in this case meaning myself and my three-legged dog) has been hard at work preparing for another episode.

Today's edition of The Insanity Parade comes courtesy of the late William Cooper of the website Hour of the Time, or HOTT. Specifically I will be taking issue with a section of his article entitled MAJESTYTWELVE.

Now, some of you may be thinking that it is in poor taste to go after a man who is presently deceased. (As indicated on the HOTT website, "Bill was killed by the Apache County Sherrifs Department during a raid on his home in November of 2001. He is now buried on a hill in Eagar, Arizona. We will be updating this page with more current information shortly (Spring 2003).") This would, largely, be true, but I am not, in fact, attacking Mr. Cooper. I am attacking his stated beliefs, which are still posted on the internet and, thus, available for public debate and criticism. I mean no disrespect to the man himself, even if I think his claims are laughably absurd. Thank you.

So, to return to the article in question, we are confonted with a conspiracy theory of truly epic proportions. It seems to claim that everything that has happened in the past century or more has been the result of covert action by the Freemasons. Oh, those pesky Freemasons! Always getting into trouble. My grandfather was a Mason, as it happens. As I recall, the most devious thing he ever did was to accuse the Shriners of being the "Playboys of the Masons." I'm not exactly sure what that means, especially since in my childhood, given the demographics of the group, I thought "shriner" meant "old, wrinkled man," but I digress.

I also suppose that by admitting that my grandpappy was a mason I've just invalidated my own arguments here in the eyes of everyone who thinks the masons are running a secret world-straddling conspiracy. Fortunately, given my readership, I don't think that should be a huge issue. As a side note: Masons, if you are running a huge conspiracy, and would like to reward me for protecting your secrets with this post, I accept cash, check, or major credit cards. No Discover. Christ, does ANYONE take Discover?

*Ahem* Anyway, there is far too much to this MAJESTYTWELVE article, henceforth to be referred to as M12 since it's a pain to keep looking for the capslock, for me to cover it all so I will concentrate on a small portion of it. Specifically, I'm going to concentrate on the sections where it is argued that the Apollo moon landings were faked, and even more specifically on the author's assertions about heat.

For those who are amazingly uninformed, the Apollo missions were the manned lunar landings conducted by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration during the late 1960's and the early 1970's. They represented the culmination of a lengthy period of escalating competition between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. in space and have never been repeated. While most people seem to believe that the Apollo missions happened, there is a small but vocal minority who believes that these flights were faked. Usually it is assumed that the results were created using a hollywood soundstage and desert areas in the American southwest. These claims have been so persistent that a television special on the subject was aired by the Fox network in 2001 (Apparently the network decided to take a break from its lengthy string of "When Animals Attack!" and "We Like Breasts!" specials) and a whole host of websites devoted to either supporting or debunking the fake landing hypothesis have popped up. A number of these sites can be accessed here.

So, it comes as no particular surprise when M12 claims that, "No man has ever ascended much higher than 300 miles, if that high, above the Earth's surface." Indeed, what follows is a lengthy argument for why such a trip is now, and always has been, impossible given our level of technology. In fact, a further claim is made that, "Any intelligent high school student with a basic physics book can prove NASA faked the Apollo moon landings." Hey! I'm of at least average intelligence! I went to high school! Hell, in college, I TAed an astronomy course! I bet that means I can debunk the Apollo hoax. Let's find out, shall we?

Cooper rests the majority of his argument on the issue of heat. Now, most of us have a sort of operational understanding of heat, but space is a fairly exotic place, so we'll need a technical understanding as well. Cooper provides a good technical definition, so we'll use that:

Heat is defined as the vibration or movement of molecules within matter. The faster the molecular motion the higher the temperature. The slower the molecular motion the colder the temperature. Absolute zero is that point where all molecular motion ceases. In order to have hot or cold, molecules must be present.

A couple of quick corrections/additions to the above. First, heat isn't the vibration of molecules within matter, but the vibration of molecules OF matter. This is likewise the case for atoms, which are sub-molecular, and sub-atomic particles. Heat more or less equals motion. So, a hot object is one in which the constituent particles are moving more rapidly. He is also more or less correct when he says, "In order to have hot or cold, molecules must be present," however, it would be more accurate to say that hot and cold are meaningless concepts without particles.

The second preparatory section for his argument deals with the interaction of vacuum and heat:

A vacuum is a condition of nothingness where there are no molecules. Vacuums exist in degrees. Some scientists tell us that there is no such thing as an absolute vacuum. Space is the closest thing to an absolute vacuum that is known to us. There are so few molecules present in most areas of what we know as "space" that any concept of "hot" or "cold" is impossible to measure. A vacuum is a perfect insulator. That is why a "Thermos" or vacuum bottle is used to store hot or cold liquids in order to maintain the temperature for the longest time possible without re-heating or re-cooling.

So, an object in a vacuum is insulated by the vacuum from either gaining new heat from outside the system or releasing heat. It is correct that vacuum makes a pretty decent insulator because there is no material with which heated particles can collide, and thus transfer a portion of their kinetic energy. He is, further, correct that vacuum is the insulator used in thermos bottles to allow them to keep liquids either hot or cold for as long as possible. Of course, a thermos can't be perfectly insulated (partly) because the inner vessel and the outer vessel have to actually be connected somehow, but the concept works all the same.

Next Cooper introduces us to the concept of radiation in space:

Radiation of all types will travel through a vacuum but will not affect the vacuum. Radiant heat from the sun travels through the vacuum of space but does not "warm" space. In fact the radiant heat of the sun has no affect whatsoever until it strikes matter. Molecular movement will increase in direct proportion to the radiant energy which is absorbed by matter. The time it takes to heat matter exposed to direct sunlight in space is determined by its color, its elemental properties, its distance from the sun, and its rate of absorption of radiant heat energy. Space is NOT hot. Space is NOT cold.

This is largely right, but we have a little issue to go over. "Color" is not really the relevant detail here. What is important is the object's albedo or tendency to reflect incoming radiation, rather than absorb it. This is related to color, in that light-colored objects typically have higher albedo's than dark-colored objects, but color is too restrictive a concept since only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum is actually visible to humans. An object that might look quite dark to us can actually have a very high albedo. It's also important to remember that "radiation" means in this case "photons" which are particles of light with a particular frequency, or packages of energy. Matter is heated by radiation because the incoming photon strikes an atom or molecule and adds its energy to that system, usually exciting the electrons which pushes them into an orbital at a higher energy level.

Now we come to the crux of the argument:

Objects which are heated cannot be cooled by space. In order for an object to cool it must first be removed from direct sunlight. Objects which are in the shadow of another object will eventually cool but not because space is "cold". Space is not cold. Hot and cold do not exist in the vacuum of space. Objects cool because the laws of motion dictate that the molecules of the object will slow down due to the resistance resulting from striking other molecules until eventually all motion will stop provided the object is sheltered from the direct and/or indirect radiation of the sun and that there is no other source of heat. Since the vacuum of space is the perfect insulator objects take a very long time to cool even when removed from all sources of heat, radiated or otherwise.

So, in other words, because the Apollo capsules were suspended in a vacuum, and were constantly exposed to the heating effect of sunlight, and because that vacuum would prevent the capsule from cooling itself, the astronauts would have been boiled alive inside their spacecraft. Ick! Sounds pretty bad, doesn't it?

Well, it would, if it weren't total bullshit. First, before we think about the Apollo example, let's think about another example: Earth. The Earth is a large object suspected in a vacuum constantly exposed to the radiant energy of the sun. If, as Cooper claims, an object in space cannot cool itself unless it is removed from sunlight, then the temperature of the Earth itself should always be rising.

Hey, you, way in the back who just muttered about "global warming." Yeah, YOU! Shut the hell up. You're an idiot. Considering the age of the Earth (Calculated at four-plus billion years by most reputable sources) if Cooper was right about all this our planet would be molten by now. It ain't global warming.

So, we already have some solid observational evidence arguing that Cooper is wrong about something here. But what? What can he be wrong about? Well... the first thing is something called "black body radiation." Put simply, although you can go find a more complicated version if you like, when materials are heated they release the heat not just through friction as Cooper argues, but by emitting electromagnetic radiation. This is why a metal rod placed in a fire will eventually turn red- as its temperature rises it begins to radiate more and more heat away on a wider and wider array of wavelengths. A red-hot object is just one that is hot enough that it radiates in a spectrum we can detect with our eyes. Putting it more technically, those electrons that were knocked into higher energy states by the incoming photons are unstable and tend to emit a new photon to get rid of the extra energy, allowing them to drop back into their "normal" orbitals. The amount of energy that is released determines both the number of photons and the color of those photons. This principle actually underlies a process called "emission spectroscopy" which allows us to use the specific combinations of colors in this photon emission to determine what elements are present in the heated material. For more on this, check out the really neat online spectoscopy lab located here. You'll need Macromedia Shockwave, though.

Thus, it becomes apparent that even in a vacuum the Apollo capsule could still radiate away heat. This is even more pronounced when we consider that only half of the capsule was exposed to the sun at any given time. This isn't some neat engineering trick, it works for the same reason that only half of the Earth is exposed to the sun at any time. One side blocks the sun from the other side. This allows one side to radiate away heat more rapidly because it is not simultaneously being heated by an outside energy source. As it happens, NASA deliberately rotated the Apollo capsule in flight to facilitate this process. Cooper admits his awareness that this was done:

The same laws of physics apply to any vehicle traveling through space. NASA claims that the spacecraft was slowly rotated causing the shadowed side to be cooled by the intense cold of space... an intense cold that DOES NOT EXIST. In fact the only thing that could have been accomplished by a rotation of the spacecraft is a more even and constant heating such as that obtained by rotating a hot dog on a spit. In reality a dish called Astronaut a la Apollo would have been served. At the very least you would not want to open the hatch upon the crafts return.

But Cooper seems entirely unaware of the implications of black body radiation. NASA wasn't relying on the temperature of space to cool the ship, but rather the ability of the ship to radiate away its heat like every other object in the universe does.

Next, let's consider that the capsule itself was finished like a mirror, rather than being painted a dark color. The smart kids have already mouthed the word "albedo," here, as in, "So it had a high albedo and didn't absorb nearly as much of that radiant solar energy as it might have otherwise." Right. For the curious, NASA fashioned the modules to be highly reflective in part to make the process of rendezvous and docking easier for the astronauts who actually landed on the moon's surface. Finally, let's consider that astronauts were breathing atmosphere from a tank they brought along with them. Now, for obvious reasons, this tank of air would be under pressure, however this has an effect on its temperature.

We all remember from high school physics that as a gas increases in temperature it increases in volume. This is the principle underlying hot air balloons and should come as no surprise. However, what happens when the volume increases without the gas first being heated? As a matter of fact, the temperature of the gas goes down. See, as the pressure on the gas goes down, the molecules slow, thus reducing the temperature of the material. If you don't believe me (And I don't know why you should believe me) think about it the next time you're blowing on your coffee or hot soup. Do you do it with your mouth wide open, or with your lips pursed? Why, with them pursed. So why do you do that?

Because, silly, when your breath, which is a gas composed largely of carbon-dioxide and oxygen, escapes from that narrow opening in your lips it EXPANDS and therefore cools. If you didn't purse your lips your breath might be similar enough to the temperature of the material you're blowing on that the cooling effect would be negligible.

I just love kitchen science.

So, given that the astronauts were breathing oxygen that was stored under pressure, the effect of releasing that gas from pressure to breathe it would COOL the atmosphere. This is particularly true since the atmospheric pressure in the Apollo spacecraft was kept lower than atmospheric pressure at Earth sea level; since the amount of cooling is determined by the size of the change in volume, this would make the chilling effect of the air relatively greater. In short, because of all of the reasons listed above, the Apollo module could, indeed, have been a very cold place to be.

Cooper also makes an argument that the astronauts' moon suits would have been equally deadly to their occupants, saying that:

NASA claims the spacesuits were cooled by a water system which was piped around the body, then through a system of coils sheltered from the sun in the backpack. NASA claims that water was sprayed on the coils causing a coating of ice to form. The ice then supposedly absorbed the tremendous heat collected in the water and evaporated into space. There are two problems with this that cannot be explained away. 1) The amount of water needed to be carried by the astronauts in order to make this work for even a very small length of time in the direct 55 degrees over the boiling point of water (210 degrees F at sea level on Earth) heat of the sun could not have possibly been carried by the astronauts. 2) NASA has since claimed that they found ice in moon craters. NASA claims that ice sheltered from the direct rays of the sun will NOT evaporate destroying their own bogus "air conditioning" explanation.

But there are problems here as well. First off, the suits, like the capsule, were constructed to have a high albedo. This means that a considerable amount of the energy striking them from the sun would not be absorbed. Secondly, as with the capsule, the gas the astronauts used to breathe was under pressure, thus providing a cooling effect. In combination, these factors might easily reduce the amount of cooling necessary to within attainable limits, especially given that water has quite a high specific heat allowing each drop of water to absorb, and carry off during evaporation, a substantial amount of energy. Finally, contrary to Cooper's assertions, there is nothing inconsistent about the cooling system described by NASA and the presence of ice in shaded craters. The relevant issue isn't the sun, but rather heat. In the case of the craters, the only source of heat is the sun since the moon is geologically dead. Therefore, the ice will not evaporate if it is not exposed to the heat of the sun. In the case of the cooling system, heat is provided by the coils themselves whether the coils are in sun or not. Therefore, the ice will evaporate even in shade if the coils themselves are hot.

After examining Cooper's claims with the mind of an intelligent high schooler we find those claims to be flawed. Cooper's arguments show a pronounced lack of understanding about physics, and call the remainder of his essay into serious question.

So what's the moral here? Is there one? Well, longtime readers know that I am decidedly amoral, so you shouldn't be too confident that there's an ultimate point here. Nonetheless, I can be troubled to offer a sort of summary thought. Mr. Cooper states that, "Any intelligent high school student with a basic physics book can prove NASA faked the Apollo moon landings." This is, of course, another way of stating that it is obvious that NASA faked the Apollo moon landings. I would argue, however, that a background in high school physics should make it "obvious" that Cooper's arguments are nonsensical. And this brings us to the real issue: that none of this is "obvious" at all.

If I was asked what the single most over-used term in argumentation is, or even the most over-used concept, I would have to say "obvious." So why is that? Well, obvious more or less means that something is readily apparent, so apparent that it does not need to be discussed. The problem is, what is truly "obvious" will rarely be the subject of debate or discussion.

For example, it is "obvious" that the Human race has at least two sexes: male and female. There may be MORE than two, given that individuals with indeterminate or intermediate genitalia do exist, but that there are at least two sexes is something so obvious that it is beyond argumentation. (Note that I am referring to biological sex here. I am uninterested in discussing gender at the moment, which is socially constructed and therefore considerably more flexible) Similarly we have other obvious bits of knowledge like "the sun is bright" or "water is wet." Something that is obvious is so clearly true that the very idea of questioning it never comes up.

Certainly right now a number of you assholes are preparing to write comments contesting the inherent truth of "the sun is bright," but you're just hoping to show off what smarty-heads you are, so sit the fuck back down.

So, when we come to the current article, it is "obvious" to Cooper that the Apollo missions were faked, just as it is "obvious" to me that his arguments are feeble at best. That we are both convinced of our own points is indisputable, that we are convinced of these points by our experience and understanding of physics (I would argue mine is better, but that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. No doubt were he alive Cooper would have some way of arguing with me, possibly by denying that black body radiation is accurate. Man, would I love to see THAT argument...) is clear, but that either one of our perspectives is "obviously" true is bullshit. It's a simple principle: if you're arguing about it, it isn't really obvious. Truly obvious things nobody argues about because... wait for it... they're obvious.

Is it a problem that we use the rhetoric of obviousness? Well, yes and no. On the one hand it's just that- rhetoric. Calling something obvious is just a way of reinforcing your point. On the other hand, saying that your point is "obviously" correct has the effect of backing your opponent into a corner. Once they're there the only way out is to fight, or to admit to being an idiot. As we've discussed before this is not a useful position to force someone into. By playing the obvious card, not only are you ignoring the fact that the issue isn't obvious, but you're ultimately prolonging the conflict.

Science is rarely obvious, politics is rarely obvious, morality is rarely obvious. To treat any of them as such is to minimize the issue and to cheat us all of the serious consideration issues deserve. We all make light of things from time to time, I do as much as anyone else, but to make light of the debate itself is a mistake. It may appear obvious to you that abortion is wrong, or that Bush is a lousy president, but if others disagree then it probably isn't really that obvious, and you need to understand why if you want to make a difference. It will be difficult to rein in the use of the term "obvious" in debates, but ultimately the effort will be worthwhile.

And, in the meantime, The Insanity Parade will march on with the drunken joy that has characterized it thus far.

So, that's all for today. Tune in for the next episode of The Insanity Parade when we ask the question: "Holy shit, have you even HEARD of friction before?!"


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