Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The new Saturns, rife with design problems.

I was just reading an article about Saturn cars, in the context of the Detroit Auto Show. A bunch of people at Saturn are engaging in much hand-wringing about why they aren't selling as many cars as they had hoped. I hope some of the hand-wringers are reading this, because I'm going to tell them why they're not selling: they stopped making cars people wanted to buy. This isn't circular logic. At one time, Saturn made some cool cars. The SC's were great; I own one, my brother owned one. We thought they looked cool, they're affordable, they're a comfortable ride, and they get (relatively) good mileage. Mine's got 120,000 miles on it, and it hasn't needed major repairs of any kind. New tires, brakes, and oil changes are all I've done. Mike's had a brake problem, and they fixed it for free even though they weren't covered by the warranty. Every year the designers fixed problems: the '94 model year fixed the road noise problem, the '95 fixed the door leaks, the '96 fixed the trunk hinge problem, et cetera. They even introduced that cool third door in the 2000 model year, and that was an engineering feat. People bought Saturns because they were reliable, stylish, and practical.

Then, in a fit of insanity (probably driven by marketing guys), they decided to drop the SC series and replace it with the Ion. Looking at a 2002 Ion, I think their principal design philosophy was to take an SC, make it look more like a Dodge Neon, and make it boxier. They ditched the third door, and instead came out with absolutely the dumbest special automotive feature ever: interchangeable roof rails. Really, this was their idea for a feature that everyone would want. You could now customize your Saturn with silly-looking roof rails in a very limited set of colors. And, they regressed on some problems they had already solved; the Ion has the road noise problems, trunk leaks, and other problems they had solved in the SC. And nobody bought them. You see more '93 and '94 SCs (the ones with the pop-up headlights) on the road than '01 thru '04 Ions.

I mostly mention this because I just finished looking at the new Ion coupe for 2005, and my first impression was favorable. It seemed like Saturn finally figured out what they were doing wrong, and redesigned the Ions back to the S-series. I was even beginning to start figuring out how we could afford one when I started looking at the interior pictures, and saw this. The instrument panel is placed in the center of the dashboard, between the driver and the passenger. It's new and different, sure, but maybe the reason nobody else designs the dashboard like this is because it's a bad idea. Note: I've since figured out that they stole the idea from Mini Coopers. I can think of a bunch of little reasons why this is a bad idea, like the fact that the gauges aren't designed to be read from the side. And if they did redesign the gauges, everyone else in the car will be reading them drastically wrong. You can no longer conveniently read the gauges with your bifocals. And, given the placement of the panel, it's a prominent feature in everyone else's view.

The thing that worries me about the dashboard design isn't so much that it's in the wrong place, though. The dashboard design is a warning flag. It says, "I was designed by clueless people." If someone is incapable of putting the instrument panel in a convenient location, they probably did a pile of other equally unwise things that aren't so obvious. A lot of different, innovative design ideas don't work; it's unlikely that this is the only one in the car.

Monday, January 03, 2005

A little science

I recently got an e-mail from my friend Doug. He read an article online about the mysterious slowing of the Pioneer 2 spacecraft as it left the solar system, and sent the article to an engineer friend of his for explanation and clarification. The engineer, Tim, didn't actually do any explanation; he spent his reply venting on why, in his fundamentalist Christian estimation, science and scientists in general are full of shit. Doug bounced his reply to me for comment. I quote Tim here:
I've never heard of this one. Sorry to disappoint, but thanks very much for the forward!!

I do have some rather strong views on the concept of "Dark Matter", but even if I WAS willing to believe in the stuff, it doesn't seem to provide ANY possible explanation for this anomaly. Dark Matter is not science. It is a hair-brained idea that was spawned a couple of decades ago to attempt to explain a number of other gravitational anomalies and some problems with the evolutionary views of the age, structure, and expansion of the universe. The pet theories regarding the age and expansion (and ultimate fate) of the universe weren't working out with the accepted total mass numbers - by a factor of 10:1 at least! So the solution of the so-called "scientific community" was to propose that there must be 10X more "matter" (gravity causing stuff) in the universe, but somehow 90% of it is undetectable. It doesn't have any physical presence to block, bend, or refract light, but it DOES (somehow or other) generate gravity like "visible matter" (the normal stuff we all know, love, and happen to be made out of). By it's very nature, this is NON-SCIENCE. It's actually defined as something that is UNDETECTABLE. This immediately kicks it out of the realm of science (remember Jr. High and the "scientific method":
1. Question
2. OBSERVE
3. Hypothesize
4. TEST
5. Etc....
By defining this stuff as "undetectable", it is impossible to design any tests or mechanisms for observation - thus science can say nothing about it. It is pure fairy tale and extremely irresponsible for any "scientist" to suggest such a ridiculous definition. Yet the "theory" (it does not fit any definition of a valid theory) appears everywhere. And every time a new problem with gravity pops up - "Dark Matter" is the magic fudge factor that is thrown in to make the equations work again and then everyone can sleep at night.

It is exactly the same kind of pseudo-science that generated the theory of the "Oort Cloud" ... the magical mystical cloud that lies "just beyond our ability to detect" that provides "new comets". I always have a heyday with this one when I teach Evolution v. Creation cosmology & astronomy. You see there is this fundamental problem in astronomy regarding short-period comets. Short period (ones that come around in cycles less than 100 years) comets get the most abuse. Every time a comet comes through the solar system it gets pulverized by solar wind & the higher-density "atmosphere" of space inside the confines of the system. They lose a lot of their mass every time through - this is what the "tails" are made up of ... all that pulverized mass streaming off the comet core. The ones that come through on short cycles don't last very long (relatively speaking). We actually got to see one come apart completely last decade. Very spectacular. And extremely cool for us creationists who are making this argument. The problem is, if the universe (and solar system) has been around for as long as everybody wants to think it has, then there should be NO short-period comets LEFT. They should have been obliterated billions of years ago. But there's plenty of them. In fact, MOST comets are short-period. There are literally hundreds of them on record and we're constantly finding new ones. So the evolutionists are stuck! They have to come up with a way to MAKE NEW ONES to explain where these come from. You'd be amazed at the incredible ideas some have offered. My favorite was that volcanoes on other planets periodically "belched" them out into outer space.

But the most common "explanation" is that there exists this magical "cloud" of comets out there beyond the solar system and "beyond our ability to detect" that - every so often - for some also-unknown reason - decides to hurl a new one into the mix and send it in toward our sun to be captured in a short-period orbit. Again NOT SCIENCE!!!

But I digress. For the dark matter argument to even begin to help explain this, you'd have to have a whole bunch of it located in exactly the same place as the sun. Or in other words, the Sun itself would have to be composed (probably in this same 10:1 ratio) of mostly "dark" (undetectable) matter. But this is a new concept even for the dark-matter "fundamentalists" (couldn't resist). The last I heard, they think this stuff is evenly distributed, not associated with other massive bodies. The orbit of the known planets is very well understood. In fact, as I understand it, the Sun's mass is calculated based on the planets' orbits. You can't have the planets only affected by the visible matter, but the spacecraft affected by BOTH the visible matter of the sun AND some dark matter. They can't have it both ways!! Follow me?

It's just another fine example of a bunch of yahoos who like to call themselves scientists grasping at straws and the press picking it up and running with it. In fairness though, we may well be hearing a whole lot more PRESS than what the scientists are actually thinking and saying amongst themselves. It's very difficult to sort out the media from the real ideas and statements without reading the actual journals. Either way, we can safely (IMHO) throw out the "dark matter" foolishness.

I think they did a good job of highlighting why this is almost certainly not a "systemic" problem (spacecraft breakdown or result of known forces that weren't taken into account. This is still a possibility, but I suspect it goes deeper than that. The physical universe as we know it consist of exactly 4 forces so far as we know. We've come up with pretty good working theories for three of them. But the one we don't understand at all (and, as the article said, is consequently the one that is studied the most) is Gravity. Einstein gave us a good model of what it does on a "macro" or astronomical scale. But as yet, nobody has come up with any idea at all of how the force works on the "micro" or quantum scale. We've got nothing. The search continues for the elusive "graviton", but none has yet been found. "String Theory" provides for the existence of a graviton, but, like the Oort Cloud and Dark Matter, String Theory has never been proven. It's predictions have never been "seen" in the laboratory, but the search to find the particles predicted by this "theory" is fast, furious, and extremely expensive! In fact, this is the primary reason (as I understand it) why CERN is building their new accelerator in Europe.

So the bottom line is that nobody - NOBODY knows what gravity is - how it works - where it comes from. It doesn't really surprise me that much then when someone discovers that our "working theory" about how it behaves is also flawed. I'm not saying it is - but it wouldn't surprise me at all to find that it is if this thing turns out to be something new.
Needless to say, I found this line of reasoning a little irritating; it seems like this Tim guy learns exactly enough about science to debunk it, not to actually understand it. Or, more likely, he can parrot what some fundamentalist writer says about science. I responded with some actual science:
I've got my own theory about the slowdown of the Pioneer craft: dirt. Start with a 259kg spacecraft. Now, assume you're making head-on elastic collisions with little tiny dust particles and hydrogen atoms as you go. You're starting at a speed of 350,000,000 km/year and losing 13000 km/year. The equation for velocity in a head-on elastic collision is: Vf=Vi((M1-M2)/(M1+M2)), where Vf is the ending velocity, Vi is the initial velocity, M1 is the mass of the spacecraft, and M2 is the combined mass of the dust particles (I've cut the chunk governing the resulting velocity of M2 out of the equation, for simplicity). I'm assuming that lots of tiny collisions will have the same effect as one big collision, which for purposes of a rough estimate will be close enough (and has the added bonus of letting me avoid doing calculus). You can solve the equation for M2 to get M2=M1((Vi-Vf)/(Vi+Vf)). Substitute numbers, and you get the mass to be around 3 grams per year. Assume the spacecraft has a front-facing surface area of 1 square meter (which I think is actually on the small side of the true measurement), and this works out to be .0000000000085 grams per cubic meter of the 350,000,000 km yearly voyage. Is this reasonable? It's the equivalent of 5 trillion hydrogen atoms per cubic meter. Or, another way of looking at the same density: picture a cube of empty space a kilometer long on each edge, with a human hair three inches long floating around in it. I'm not sure about the density of space within a solar system (which is orders of magnitude denser than deep space), but it seems realistic to me.

Notice my method. I start with a theory, then apply numbers to it. What I actually did, you'll notice, was use the data of the Pioneer craft's velocity loss to deduce the average density of particles in space. This, then, is something that's easily checkable (if not by me, it's at least a physical number that can be tested). If the number's wrong, so's the theory. If the number's right, the theory is possibly correct. In any case, the math works out and I got a vaguely reasonable answer (If my answer would've come out to 4kg per cubic meter, then it wouldn't be reasonable). I start with numbers, do math, and end up with numbers. I didn't leave my chair to measure anything. That's why it's theory. (ask me about measuring the tower sometime; it's a different topic, but a good story).

On that subject, this is where your friend is off-base about dark matter. There was a time when people actually watched something happening, and did experiments to explain it. This is still what scientists do, except now it's all with math. F'rinstance, Einstein theorized that light is affected by gravity, because it was the only way the numbers worked out. It wasn't until years later, when people did measurements of stars near a solar eclipse (observed position, versus the expected position that they knew the stars to be at), that they had experimental evidence to back it up. It really didn't matter, though; they knew it had to work, because math is inviolate. Dark matter is similar; theoretical physicists know there's something like dark matter, because it's the only way the math works out. Just because we haven't found a way to capture any in a jar doesn't mean it's not there. I think he assumes it's "non-science", as he says, because it doesn't involve dropping balls from the leaning tower of Pisa. And, as a side note, it's not the gravitationally-attractive mass of the dark matter that they theorize might be slowing the spacecraft; it's more of a drag effect caused by moving through a fixed attractive mass. And as it concerns Pioneer, everyone knows it's a wild-hair theory anyway; nobody has a better explanation, so they're looking at a lot of wild-hair theories. It's not a "bunch of yahoos who like to call themselves scientists grasping at straws"; this is how science works. You encounter a phenomenon you can't explain, then you express it in numbers and try to make sense of it, to see if there's something testable in your math. If there's something testable and you're wrong, it's an invalid theory. If the test proves you right, it's no longer theory--it's fact. And, if you haven't found a good test but the math is valid, it's a valid theory. That's what dark matter is, and superstrings as well; valid math to explain physical phenomena, waiting for a good testing method.

He also doesn't have much of an understanding about the oort cloud. I'll explain in layman's terms. You're familiar with asteroids, chunks of rock in space. Asteroids float around in relative peace. When, through an accident of kinetics, an asteroid bounces out of its place and falls into the gravity well of a planet (like Earth), they fall to the planet and (usually) burn up via atmospheric friction (or, if the body has no atmosphere, they hit; that's why the surface of the moon looks the way it does). Or, more often, the gravity well of the planet just diverts their course a little. This happens all the time. Comets are similar. There are big chunks of frozen stuff floating around in space all the time, in relatively close proximity (in astronomical terms) to the solar system. Usually they just do that: float around within a light-year or so of Pluto's orbit. And they can do this basically forever, just like asteroids. Every so often, a collision or accident of gravity bounces one into the gravity well of the solar system. Usually, they just pass through (or, occasionally, hit a planet; remember Shoemaker-Levy?). Occasionally, gravity catches them just right and they fall into a regular orbit (like Halley's comet). It doesn't have to happen very often, since they tend to last a long time (in human terms). These are the comets we tend to notice, because we see the same ones over and over again. "Most comets" AREN'T short-period, but most of the ones we see regularly are, by definition. The oort cloud is just a way of saying that there are lots of comets out there that we haven't seen, and that occasionally one wanders our way and becomes visible. Inside our solar system, we can see comets most easily by the cloud of comet fragments that surrounds and trails them; it also helps that they're mostly ice, and therefore reflect a lot of light (or, in science terms, they "have a high albedo"). Outside our solar system, it's too dark to see something that small. We can't even see Halley's comet for a good chunk of its orbit, even though we know exactly where to look. None of this is "pseudo-science" or "magic"; it's physics.

Now you know more about the "oort cloud theory" than your friend Tim does. :-) BTW, "ort" means "piece of scrap", usually used in reference to leftover food. The name "oort cloud" implies a big mess of little cometary scraps left over from the solar system's beginning, little chunks that haven't been "eaten" by a solar system or planet.
So, there you are: a little math and science. No superstition.

I'm irritated that this Tim guy apparently teaches a class about "Evolution vs. Creation astronomy and cosmology". I'm sure his class is packed with lots of poorly-understood, incorrectly-explained, non-factual garbage which he presents as "current scientific theory". It's standard practice in such classes to use bad pseudoscience to construct a straw man, which he labels Science and proceeds to tear apart. He's demonstrated his ability to do so above. I can imagine an entire class that sounds a lot like his writings here. And, he's an engineer; for people who don't understand the job, he's instantly credible about all matters of science!