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SCIENCE SALON # 75

Michael Shermer with Charles Fishman — One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew us to the Moon

One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew us to the Moon (book cover)

On this July 16th, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, Michael Shermer speaks with veteran space reporter Charles Fishman who has been writing about NASA and the space program for more than 30 years.

In One Giant Leap he delivers an all-new take on the race to the Moon that puts Apollo into a new perspective in American history. Yes, the Apollo astronauts are the well-known and well-deserved public heroes of the race to the Moon. But the astronauts didn’t make the trip possible. It took 410,000 people to make the moon landings achievable. Every hour of spaceflight for Apollo required a million hours of work by scientists, engineers and factory workers on the ground — the equivalent of 10 lifetimes of work back on Earth. Fishman tells the story of the men and women who did the work to get the astronauts, and the country, to the Moon and back. Fishman and Shermer discuss:

  • When President John F. Kennedy rallied the nation to go to the Moon in 1961, the task was impossible. None of the technology or techniques existed to do it. Engineers, scientists and factory workers in every state in the USA created that technology in just 8 years. They invented space travel on a deadline.
  • Apollo is sometimes judged a disappointment because it didn’t usher in the Jetsons-like Space Age we thought it would. Fishman argues that the success of Apollo is the age we live in now — it opened the world to the digital revolution in ways that have never before been appreciated or written about. “The race to the Moon didn’t usher in the Space Age; it ushered in the Digital Age,” he writes. “And that is as valuable a legacy as the imagined Space Age might have been.”
  • Secret tapes JFK made of meetings about space, along with other overlooked information from the Kennedy Administration, indicate that Kennedy himself was losing enthusiasm for the Moon race and the Moon landing by the fall of 1963. Had he not been assassinated, it’s not at all clear that Armstrong and Aldrin would have walked on the Moon in July 1969.
  • The on-board computer for Apollo was the smallest, most flexible, most powerful, most user-friendly computer ever created when it flew the astronauts to the Moon — and it did its mission with less computing power than your microwave oven has today.
  • Much of the most critical work to make the Moon missions possible was done by hand: the spacesuits were sewn by hand; the parachutes were sewn and folded by hand; the computer software was woven by hand; the heatshield was applied by hand, using a specialized version of a caulking gun.
  • The iconic image of astronauts unfurling an American flag on the Moon almost didn’t happen. NASA had not even thought about carrying a flag on the Moon missions until just weeks before the first mission blasted off.
  • Shermer ends by asking Fishman about the reputation of Wernher von Braun, the Nazi rocket scientist who built the mighty Saturn V rocket that took the astronauts to the moon: how can we reconcile his genius and vision with his Nazi past, especially his involvement in the slave labor that built the V-2 rockets that rained death down on England in the final year of the war?

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What is Mental Illness, Anyway?

In Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness,1 Harvard historian of science Anne Harrington concludes about American Psychiatry that “firm understandings of major mental illnesses and their underlying biology continue to elude the field” (p.272). Harrington cites hundreds of published articles and books demonstrating her major conclusion that the biology of serious mental disease remains a mystery. Such a pessimistic verdict is paired with the implication that treatment of emotional disease has shown little progress, largely as a consequence of inadequate biological comprehension. In Chapter 1, Harrington describes questionable early-20th century psychologically based treatment efforts for hysteria and traumatic psychic war disability. In 1913, Treponema pallidum bacteria that caused Syphilis were found in the brains of patients suffering from the neurological psychiatric disease “General Paresis.” Later antibiotic remedies that destroyed Treponema also ended Neurosyphilis. Surely, one would think, the same kind of scientific advance could generate a cure for schizophrenia or depression? Alas this has not happened even by today.

Mind Fixers: Psychiatry's Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness (book cover)

But the book extensively describes the time period after 1910 when influential Swiss neurologist and emigrant to America Adolph Meyer emphasized that psychiatrists must study mental illness from a biological perspective. The following year (1911), psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler also Swiss who coined the term “Schizophrenia” agreed. He claimed that although this disabling disease had psychological characteristics its origins was organic pathology of the brain. Both physicians asserted that understanding mental illness required more than investigation of pertinent lifetime social and mental data, and must include the actual inspection of brain specimens and the study of heredity and genetics.

In Part I of her book, “Doctors’ Stories,” Harrington examines the history of concerted efforts by American Psychiatry to identify the biology of mental illness. Her comprehensive examination of research findings convinces her that most seriously ill patients whom we treat certainly do have a genuine disease. As a physician I too have no doubt that this is so. For her — and for me — this is certainly why Vladimir Horowitz, probably the finest classical pianist of the 20th century, couldn’t perform between 1953 and 1965. He suffered from a profound Depression Disorder, recovery from which was achieved only through repeated electroshock therapy.2

In Part II, “Disease Stories,” Harrington reviews theories about the alleged brain causes of three disabling major mental illnesses: Schizophrenia, Depression, and Mania-Depression. These diseases afflict millions of Americans and lead to severe personal suffering, in addition to the large societal and economic cost from lost work and impaired social engagement. However, there is a serious omission in this section of the book: the necessary exploration of a fourth major mental disease, addiction. This disorder has caused 200,000 American opioid overdose deaths over the past 15 years3 and its absence from Mind Fixers is notable because of these drugs’ lethality. Even more relevant is that our understanding of the biology of addiction is considerably better than any of the three illnesses included in Harrington’s survey. Naturally occurring brain chemicals such as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), glutamates, and dopamine have been identified as critical neuro-substances in this psychopathology. Their inhibitory and stimulatory functions, chemistry, and neurological substrates are well understood. As a consequence of this scientific advance in knowledge, effective medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone have been successful in ameliorating the ravages of both legal and illegal opioid substances.4 Also this comprehension during the last half century has generated sleeping medicines in the form of benzodiazepines that are far safer than barbiturates which were a major source of accidental overdose deaths during the 20th century So in this scientific medication domain, there has indeed been considerable progress. […]

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MONSTERTALK EPISODE 194

The Mapinguari is Not the Territory

Editor’s Note: We’ve officially hit a decade of MonsterTalk. Our first episode aired in July of 2009. With this episode, we’re announcing the end our decade-long partnership with Skeptic Magazine and the Skeptics Society. This was a difficult decision, but we are proud of the work we did together and are very happy with the support that Skeptic has given us during our relationship. Details about the future of MonsterTalk are provided after the interview segment in this show. Thanks again to all the people at Skeptic for their support in the growth of our audience, and our continued shared mission of promoting critical thinking and scientific skepticism.

In this episode we get “old school” and talk about the legendary Mapinguari, and how cryptozoologists have tried to explain the folklore of this massive South American animal by claiming it to be a kind of Bigfoot creature, or even a Giant Ground Sloth. We take a deep dive into what Paleontology can tell us about the real historical records of Giant Ground Sloths (Megatherium) and see how well these creatures line up with the legend of the Mapinguari. Our guest is Uruguayan paleontologist Dr. Richard A. Fariña.

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Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

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