Friday, March 20, 2009

It's Called Terraforming, Michael !

It's unfortunate, not to mention ironic, that The Michael Medved Show, consistently one of the two most intellectually-satisfying programs in all of commercial newstalk radio syndication, also so often attracts some of the genre's more knuckleheaded callers.

(I won't deny that occasional contributor "Bryan in Seattle" is arguably one of those numbskulls; I'm just grateful Medved allows me on at all, perhaps evidence he enjoyed the experience when he graciously—and perspicaciously—guested on KIRO's Bryan Styble Program in August 2007.)

RadioactiveSeattle has rhapsodized several times previously about how Medved's program is always informative and frequently trenchant. But today his "Open Mind Friday" hour had a doozy of a call.

I shan't rant on how unwise it was for Medved a few years ago to whittle down by two-thirds his weekly open-line feature, but I sure will spill that he sometimes humors wrongheaded but well-meaning contributors. But this exchange flattered neither caller nor host.

An excited conservative global-warming skeptic named Tony made air from suburban Seattle, though one of his more left-leaning fellow Seattleites might term him a "denier". Port Orchard Tony was exasperated, exercised about how downright mad and "literally insane" some scientists are nowadays. Why? Because last night he was watching a National Geographic Channel documentary, with footage of some expert theorizing about adjusting the atmosphere of Mars to make it more hospitable to human life.

Never mind that the term "insane" should be, literally, restricted to that unfortunate handful of individuals lacking the reasoning faculties the rest of us are lucky enough to possess. But it's chutzpah for a sarcastic fellow who sounds like he'd be stymied by a simple quadratic equation to render a judgment of irrationality upon a scientific professional.

Now, I missed that NatGeo doc last night--the Batvision monitor here in the Batcave is on the fritz (and Alfred the butler, who doubles as my TV-repairman, is on his annual vernal vacation). But the types who generally end up being interviewed as scientific experts on that often first-rate network tend to be people who've navigated a rigorous technical curriculum while earning their Ph.D.s. in whatever. I'm not saying no cable documentary has ever aired an interview with a crackpot, but Tony came off as one of those guys who never made it much beyond 8th grade general science class.

The host sounded bemused by his caller's earnest but simpleminded lament. But more important, Medved seemed to have never heard of what set the guy off while watching NatGeo. In fact, it's an idea that's been discussed by astrophysicists for decades, and I'd even wager was first
broached by sci-fi writers sometime early in the 20th Century.

It's called terraforming, and it's a complex atmospheric process which, perhaps, man can someday successfully trigger on another body in our solar system. Or eventually, on some world in some other star system's planetary collection, if you prefer to peer far enough down the space-faring road. The goal is obvious: to effect eventual permanent atmospheric change to human advantage.

Whether we could ever end up having anything but a minuscule effect on a planetary scale is, of course, the central terraforming question...just as it remains the biggest global warming question. But many people who've looked at the chemistry and engineering challenges involved think it's feasible. While it may not ultimately turn out to be practical even should it ever be attempted on Mars or some larger planet's moon, it is an intriguing idea which might even work sometime in the distant future. Yet Medved treated the notion as if it were something which scientifically-literate people dismiss as flatly impossible, like perpetual motion or time travel into the historical past.

Tony didn't seem to understand is that this is a process that is figured to require at least a couple centuries for a planet the size of Mars. And, interestingly, that's about the same time-frame—macro by human standards but merely momentarily in the history of our atmosphere—on which global warming, which so concerns so many scientists, is theorized to work. Point is, terraforming ain't just Coast-to-Coast AM with George Noory-style malarky—it's serious, if hugely speculative, science. And it's a subject callers actually raised a couple or three times on my overnight KIRO open-line broadcasts.

Of course, I really ought to go critically easy on Medved for a while. As his listeners know, he just lost his father, Dr. David Medved, an accomplished nuclear scientist whom I gather was a remarkable man in several regards; he certainly raised at least one remarkable son.

I met the senior Medved on what turned out to be his final American book tour. And I was even privileged to talk physics with him for a good while alone in a side room prior to his cosmology lecture at the Discovery Institute a couple years ago. And as it happens, what claimed him at age 83 on March 11th in Jerusalem—lymphoma—is also the disease which killed Lewis Stibal ["Rush and McNabb, Tied Intelligently" archived 11/19/2008] at 64 on February 19, 1986 in St. Louis.

Oh, and while I've got astronomy on your mind: Happy Vernal Equinox. As you may know, it happened this morning, instantaneously sometime during the minute of 4:44 am Pacific Time.


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