Fake it till you make it (to the moon)

While I wait to board a flight at my favorite location on earth—Philadelphia International Airport—I figured I might as well blog something to mark the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. (Thanks also to Joshua Zelinsky for a Facebook post that inspired this.)

I wasn’t alive for Apollo, but I’ve been alive for 3/4 of the time after it, even though it now seems like ancient history—specifically, like a Roman cathedral being gawked at by a medieval peasant, like an achievement by some vanished, more cohesive civilization that we can’t even replicate today, let alone surpass.

Which brings me to a depressing mystery: why do so many people now deny that humans walked on the moon at all? Like, why that specifically? While they’re at it, why don’t they also deny that WWII happened, or that the Beatles existed?

Surprisingly, skepticism of the reality of Apollo seems to have gone all the way back to the landings themselves. One of my favorite stories growing up was of my mom, as a teenager, working as a waitress at an Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia, on the night of Apollo 11 landing. My mom asked for a few minutes off to listen to news of the landing on the radio. The owners wouldn’t grant it—explaining that it was all Hollywood anyway, just some actors in spacesuits on a sound stage, and obviously my mom wasn’t so naïve as to think anyone was actually walking to the moon?

Alas, as we get further and further from the event, with no serious prospect of ever replicating it past the stage of announcing an optimistic timetable (nor, to be honest, any scientific reason to replicate it), as the people involved die off, and as our civilization becomes ever more awash in social-media-fueled paranoid conspiracies, I fear that moon-landing denalism will become more common.

Because here’s the thing: Apollo could happen, but only because of a wildly improbable, once-in-history confluence of social and geopolitical factors. It was economically insane, taking 100,000 people and 4% of the US federal budget for some photo-ops, a flag-planting, some data and returned moon rocks that had genuine scientific value but could’ve been provided much more cheaply by robots. It was dismantled immediately afterwards like a used movie set, rather than leading to any greater successes. Indeed, manned spaceflight severely regressed afterwards, surely mocking the expectations of every last science fiction fan and techno-utopian who was alive at that time.

One could summarize the situation by saying that, in certain respects, the Apollo program really was “faked.” It’s just that the way they “faked” it, involved actually landing people on the moon!

75 Responses to “Fake it till you make it (to the moon)”

  1. jonas Says:

    It is also the 75th anniversary of perhaps the most serious attempt to assassinate Hitler.

  2. Raoul Ohio Says:

    The primary value in human spaceflight is as a stunt. And US on the moon first (or, at all) was an all time great stunt in an era when lots of the world thought that the Russians has a “better plan” for things.

    The moon rocks were NOT of “moderate scientific value”. In fact, they totally revolutionized understanding of how planets form. Prior to this, few if any realized that smacking into each other played a major role.

    It is certainly true that robotic fetching of the rocks would have been vastly cheaper, much safer, and almost as good. There is little if any reason for humans to go into space, and it is vastly harder than generally realized. Many otherwise smart enthusiasts allow their childhood love of SF books and movies to disable the critical thinking part of their brain.

    My guess is that a human going to the surface of Mars and getting back alive will NEVER happen. Many of the problems are not amenable to technological fixes — radiation, for example.

  3. kybernetikos Says:

    As Mitchell and Webb said, it’s the catering that clinches it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6MOnehCOUw

  4. Scott Says:

    Raoul #2: Thanks! Just for you, changed “moderate” to “genuine.” 🙂

  5. STEM Caveman Says:

    “it now seems like ancient history … a Roman cathedral being gawked at by a medieval peasant, like an achievement by some vanished, more cohesive civilization that we can’t even replicate today, let alone surpass.”

    That sounds very much like what Boldmug was saying here a couple of years ago: the ratchet of STEM progress is the exception, that lives inside a giant ratchet of civilizational decay.

    It isn’t just the Apollo flights. In the past the USA was able to rapidly mobilize and complete projects requiring coordination of 10^4 (atomic bomb) to 10^7 people (WW2, conquering Terra) coupled to massive resources. Today, it can’t maintain the border or house the mentally ill (“homeless”) despite both the problems and simple and effective solutions being well known for over 40 years. It’s almost as if social entropy were being steadily pumped into the system but the full effect of that is masked by distractions such as Moore’s law.

  6. Douglas Knight Says:

    It was dismantled immediately afterwards like a used movie set

    People always say this and it’s not exactly false, but statements like this left me with the impression that lasted most of my life, probably even most of my adult life, that there was only one landing. But there were 6 human landings, spread out over 3.5 years. I guess the fact that Apollo 13 is a bigger number than Apollo 11 should have been a tip-off.

  7. Mitchell Porter Says:

    “no serious prospect of ever replicating it”

    Isn’t NASA now talking about a moonbase? And what about all these billionaires with their private space programs? And there are *many* countries involved in the space race now.

  8. Malcolm Says:

    “Why do so many people now deny that humans walked on the moon at all?”

    My 2 cents: it’s the sort of thing that’s sensible to doubt! If you forget everything you know about science and engineering, what makes the moon landing different than a religious miracle? It’s in conflict with your direct experience of the sorts of things that happen in reality, it happened before your birth, and you _definitely_ can’t go there yourself to directly experience that it’s possible.

    The Beatles are on the opposite end of the scale. You can go see bands in concert, and you can play in a band yourself if you like. Bands are the sort of thing you confidently know exist, so it’s easy to believe that any particular band really existed. For plane travel, also an engineering marvel, you can take a plane flight yourself and then it’s hard to deny that it’s possible.

    Video footage is helpful but not a slam dunk. There’s video footage of Bigfoot. And fictional movies, of course.

    (In case it isn’t clear, I believe the moon landing definitely happened. I just think that skepticism is justifiable. The thing is, the correct response to skepticism is to dig into the details and come to the the conclusion that, yes, this did actually happen.)

  9. Scott Says:

    Douglas #6: Yes, I’m well aware that there were 6 landings. 🙂 Indeed the later ones were able to do better science than Apollo 11, for example by giving the astronauts a rover and by including a professional geologist in the last one. I wonder if the public at the time would’ve paid more attention to the other five (or rather: the other four, besides 11 and 13), had they understood that it was going to be the last hurrah for quite a long time (possibly forever)?

  10. Scott Says:

    Mitchell #7: Yes, they’re talking about a moonbase—with emphasis on the “talking”! 🙂

    Presidents and NASA directors, one after the next, have talked about building a moonbase and sending humans to Mars for half a century now. But the funding (including today) is never more than a tiny, symbolic fraction of what it would take, and what Apollo did take.

    My UT colleague Steven Weinberg is grateful that it remains all talk, since he regards manned spaceflight as a colossal waste of money (as, from many points of view, it is).

  11. Scott Says:

    STEM Caveman #5: Look, I acknowledge that in many ways that matter to me, the world has gotten significantly worse in the last half-century. As one example, we seem way less able to pull off huge, collaborative engineering projects that involve manipulating the physical world—whether that means sending humans into space, or (more importantly) building trains and subways and nuclear power plants. I’ve sometimes wondered whether, if only we could recover the ethos of the 50s and 60s—of all those nerds in the Houston space center with their slide rules and pocket protectors—we could solve climate change in about a month. (Some evidence in favor: back then, incredible though it seems today, it was right-wing Cold Warriors, like Teller and von Neumann, who most clearly foresaw that too much CO2 in the atmosphere would eventually become an existential threat.)

    On the other hand, I depart from “Boldmug” in insisting, with Steven Pinker, that in many important respects, things really are better now than they were then. Poverty and child mortality are way down. The food is generally better. Alan Turing would no longer be chemically castrated.

    And of course, there have been advances in computing and communications that, in many ways, go beyond what sci-fi writers in the 60s dared to imagine. You might claim that this is just a surface phenomenon, masking a “deeper” technological decline. But there’s an opposing view, according to which virtually all technological progress eventually converges toward progress in algorithms and software—the reason being that the computer is not just another machine, but a universal machine. If this view is upheld, then of course it’s no surprise that the technological advances of the last half-century, impressive as they are, seem so concentrated in that one area.

    Personally, I hold the “all technological advances converge toward CS advances” view on some days of the week. Other days, I’d still sort of like there to be a human habitation on Mars. 🙂

  12. Shmi Says:

    Actually, there was a successful Soviet robotic mission to bring back moon rocks, at a fraction of the cost of the Apollo space program: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luna_16. It succeeded barely a year after the Apollo 11 landing, and could have happened even before then, if not for unlucky six failures in a row prior to it.

  13. Peter Erwin Says:

    Actually, there was a successful Soviet robotic mission to bring back moon rocks

    There were several. But…
    From this excellent site:

    The total weight of all the Moon rock samples collected by the Russian robotic probes is 326 grams (11.5 ounces); the American samples weigh over a thousand times more…. Apollo 17 alone brought back 110 kilograms (242 pounds) of samples.

    Then there’s quality. The Soviet “rocks” are actually little more than coarse grains like the one shown below, which is 2.5 millimeters (one tenth of an inch) long. It’s smaller than a grain of rice. Moreover, the Soviet samples were not selected in any way.

    By contrast, the highly diverse Moon rocks returned by the United States weigh up to 11 kilograms (24 pounds) each. Some are core samples taken by drilling up to 3 meters (9 feet) into the ground. The best the Soviets managed was a core sample weighing all of 170 grams (six ounces). It was the only sample returned by the Luna 24 mission, and this was achieved in 1976, seven years after Apollo 11.

    I’m not sure late 1960s robotic technology could actually have retrieved the kind of samples the Apollo astronauts did. (And lunar robots probably wouldn’t have been able to spot and retrieve odd things like the “orange soil” that got the Apollo 17 astronauts so excited.)

  14. Peter Erwin Says:

    even though it now seems like ancient history—specifically, like a Roman cathedral being gawked at by a medieval peasant

    Well, to be a bit pedantic: almost everything we call a “cathedral” was built long after the Romans, by medieval peasants (or their urban cousins).

    (But, yeah, there’s a famous 8th or 9th Century English poem called “The Ruin” which generally thought to be about the Roman ruins of Bath, and which expresses those sentiments pretty well: “the work of giants is decaying…”)

  15. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Peter Erwin #14

    For another concrete sort of example of this see the various “Devil’s bridges” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil%27s_Bridge . Throughout Europe there are bridges which are attributed to being somehow connected with the Devil, and the thing they all have in common is that people had trouble imagining them being built by conventional means. Some of these bridges were built by Romans but others were built later.

  16. Canmore Says:

    PE #14:

    Well, to be a bit pedantic: almost everything we call a “cathedral” was built long after the Romans, by medieval peasants (or their urban cousins).

    The early big European churches (among them cathedrals) of the 6th to 11th century, are, I believe, referred to as “Romanesque” architecture in English (in German “Romanisch”), followed by the Gothic style. It is probably not uncommon to hear/read Roman when Romanesque is meant (but yes, this was probably not the case here). One genuine Roman church that fits the bill would be the Hagia Sophia. Maybe the Pantheon, which was turned 609 AD into a church, but not referred to as a cathedral. These two structures would have caused the awe that Scott tried to bring across with his remark, as the ability to build these domes was lost for a long time.

  17. Douglas Knight Says:

    Presidents and NASA directors, one after the next, have talked about building a moonbase and sending humans to Mars for half a century now. But the funding (including today) is never more than a tiny, symbolic fraction of what it would take, and what Apollo did take.

    Are you saying that NASA directors lie?
    Do you think that might be a problem?
    Don’t you worry that it might be distorting your view of what it would take?

    Funny you mention Teller, because his last large-scale engineering project was accused of being fake.

  18. Canmore Says:

    Which brings me to a depressing mystery: why do so many people now deny that humans walked on the moon at all? Like, why that specifically? While they’re at it, why don’t they also deny that WWII happened, or that the Beatles existed?

    Absolutely not trying to perpetuate the conspiracies, but I think the big difference compared to the examples given is the sheer number of eye witnesses. Tens, no, hundreds of millions of people witnessed and survived WW II individually. Same with Beatles concerts. So many independent concert goers around the globe. In both cases, massive live participation. To fake this seems impossible. The big difference for the moon landing was that once the astronauts took off, it was only radio comms and TV pictures for everyone, even the people in the control room. That, in principle, suddenly does open the door to all sorts of manipulations. Accordingly, 9/11 or Area 51 lend themselves naturally to conspiracy. No survivor was present when the terrorists (OK, let’s be real: it was the CIA, but they didn’t realize that they were set up by MI5, who were unbeknownst to them just puppets of the – you guessed it – Mossad) took the controls. And even if there were a few survivors, it would not be completely incomprehensible to mind-control them, just like a small group of astronauts who were clearly drugged, so they truly believe they went there. The faked landing was carried out in a studio at a nuclear test site: Previous tests created the the lunar landscape backdrop, and the next nuclear test was conveniently used to dispose of all actors and equipment involved in the fake. Genius.

  19. Scott Says:

    Douglas #17: Well, “lying” is a strong word. Let’s say wildly overoptimistic projections. 🙂 NASA still has lots of extraordinarily talented people, who I’m sure do what they can with whatever resources they’re given. But personally, I would MUCH rather have an enthusiastic, lavishly-funded program of robotic exploration of the solar system (including a sample-return mission to Mars), than a half-hearted, half-assed human space program that costs ten times as much and never amounts to more than a sad shadow of Apollo.

  20. Scott Says:

    Canmore #18: Yes, good point.

  21. Ehud Schreiber Says:

    They don’t also deny that WWII happened – but many people deny the holocaust happened during the war.

  22. David R Says:

    “One could summarize the situation by saying that, in certain respects, the Apollo program really was “faked.” It’s just that the way they “faked” it, involved actually landing people on the moon!”

    This reminds me of that joke about how NASA hired Stanley Kubrick to fake the moon landing but his perfectionism made them film it on location.

  23. BungalowBill Says:

    “Which brings me to a depressing mystery: why do so many people now deny that humans walked on the moon at all? Like, why that specifically? While they’re at it, why don’t they also deny that WWII happened, or that the Beatles existed?”

    Well, there was the whole conspiracy about Paul being dead, and Ehud Schrieber rightly points out holocaust denial. Perhaps once the people who experienced one or both first-hand disappear, we’ll see an uptick in each. Denying that the Second World War happened would probably be a bit of a stretch for even the most paranoid person, since it provides a pretty convincing answer to questions like “Why are there many old pillboxes strewn throughout the southeast English countryside?” and “Why do some European/Japanese city centers have so much old architecture, but not others?”

    “It was economically insane, taking 100,000 people and 4% of the US federal budget for some photo-ops, a flag-planting, some data and returned moon rocks that had genuine scientific value but could’ve been provided much more cheaply by robots.”

    Maybe that’s part of why so many believe it never happened. Also, only a dozen people have walked on the moon, compared to millions who saw the Beatles/McCartney live and millions more affected by the holocaust. As far as conspiracies go, a fake moon landing just seems more doable.

    Hysteria and belief on conspiracy theories also aren’t necessarily limited to cranks on the margins of society. Look at the Cold War-era fear in the US and Canada that homosexuals in the civil service and military represented a huge threat to the west due to blackmail by the Soviets. This lead to vast resources being spent trying to identify and push them out their jobs that continued into the 1980’s, even though I’m not aware of any such blackmail being particularly effective for the KGB.

    In some sense I think conspiratorial thinking is a sign of laziness. Being a real honest to god expert in anything requires a decade or more of devotion to that particular goal. I’ve never run across a conspiracy theory that required more than a long weekend’s worth of web browsing to really understand. Everything after that is just fitting evidence to the conspiracy theorist’s preconceived notions.

  24. BungalowBill Says:

    On the other hand, some things that sound like conspiracy theories are actually true(think the Cambridge Five and Alger Hiss). A couple of interesting fiction books related to this post are:

    Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco and
    Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

  25. BungalowBill Says:

    Re Canmore #16: It boggles my mind(and speaks to Scott’s point about modern societies failing to pursue massive projects) that the Hagia Sophia was built in under six years, using 6th century technology. Though I’m sure the health and safety standards were pretty lax by modern standards.

  26. john mcandrew Says:

    I’m pretty sure Scott knows perfectly well that ideological competition between the American way of life and Soviet Communism was massive during the 60s, as pointed out in the second comment by Raoul Ohio. Scott teaches students from around the world, including communist China, so I’m guessing he can’t raise this obvious point himself without Antifa turning up outside his office waving placards of “American fascist” and demanding his removal.

  27. Peter Gerdes Says:

    I think you misunderstand the psychology of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theorists aren’t rational Bayesians conditioning on evidence who start with deeply implausible priors. That’s why explaining away their arguments or presenting more evidence tends to reinforce, not undermine, their conspiratorial beliefs.

    As such the death of people in the Apollo program won’t increase the number of moon landing conspirators. Indeed, if anything as it fades into history the motive to hold a conspiratorial view about it fades. I mean there are holocaust deniers but no one bothers denying the atrocities Rome committed against Carthage.

  28. amy Says:

    I was around for Apollo 11, but since I was only just learning to talk then, it must’ve been a later manned mission that precipitated an existential crisis in me: apparently I asked about the suitcases and other gear and was told that they had to take air with them, because there was no air on the moon. The idea that there were places that had no air shocked me so deeply that for some time I refused to go into rooms (including rooms where I’d been recently) without standing on the threshold, leaning in, taking a big gulp of air, and announcing to all: “There’s air in here!”

    Why do people insist that the landing was faked, or that the Earth’s 4000 years old and flat, or any of these things? Oddly enough, I was just thinking about Chris Hayes’ weird, repeated self-mocking confession that he has a deep need for attention, belonging, and praise — he also insists that this is normal and that people need these things, and I’d been thinking about that and wondering why I seem to be happy without them, also non-anxious, not wracked by impostor syndrome, not easily embarrassed by not knowing things, etc. Essentially as long as I can pay my bills and everyone close to me is reasonably healthy and safe, I’m in good shape. But your question also reminds me of the guy with the Creation Museum, the one Bill Nye debated — I had no idea what that place looked like till I started watching the Netflix thing about Bill Nye. And that Creation Museum guy — there’s a guy who gets what Chris Hayes is talking about. The whole place is this ridiculous temple to a guy who’s managed to turn himself into this creationist apostle. All eyes on him, all applause for him, everyone comes to see his show, he’s a highly respected guy in that place.

    Suppose you’re just some guy with sales talent, rather than someone with the brains to do well-respected and highly fundable scientific work, and you know perfectly well that the way things are set up, you can look forward to an exciting career in real estate, hunting your 6% house after house for 35 years. And you’re a little fascinated by kooky ideas anyway, and selling actual real estate or insurance or whatever bores you stiff and doesn’t really give you the position you figure you can have, so why not? You don’t care about science, and it doesn’t matter to you whether some idea is true or not. Why not start your own religious/paranormal/etc. shtick? (If Trump were capable of staying on-message, we’d have seen this from the White House already.) Deny something that all right-thinking people agree on, claim it’s a pernicious hoax, and you are guaranteed a following of people who’re pretty sure things are rigged against them but aren’t sure how.

    Or even just imagine you’re the guy with nothing who gets no respect, and here’s your chance to be master of some subject in the stockroom. You know all about how the moon landing was faked. Any time there’s a barbeque, any time someone new shows up, someone’s going to egg you on to tell this story about how there never was any moon landing. There’ll be a lively debate among three or four guys with a bunch of listeners if only because life’s incredibly dull and this is a little interesting, a little exercise for the mind, and by the end of it the assembled will decide that maybe there’s something to it, because honest to god none of them could care less, but the guy who brought the conspiracy theory put on a good show, and it’s fun to think about, if by thinking you mean not really thinking but just imagining the process of the fake and some fragments of who had what to gain, like a true crime thriller.

    Will people forget and misread? Sure. For reasons like that, for innocent reasons, for career-making. Several years ago I realized that if things go well, you live long enough for people 20 years younger than you to grow up, get their doctorates in things to do with times you lived through as an adult or near-adult, and write monographs getting those times and events very, very wrong. As in yes, they’ve managed to collect factual information, but their reads are Martian and fail to capture the spirit of the time because they weren’t there for the spirit of the time, and apparently aren’t sensitive to it. However, they’re now the experts in your time, not you: they’ve got the PhDs and the monographs, the podcasts, the whatever it is. Meaning, for instance, that I now get to hear people who don’t know what a shortwave radio is explaining life behind the Iron Curtain at me. Happily, they don’t seem to be all that interested in 80s club life.

    And it gets worse the farther back you go. A few years ago my daughter wondered how people thought to to invent agriculture, how they actually invented it. So I assigned it to her as a summer research project (she’s slowly learning about the wisdom of asking questions near me), and eventually what she found was that we don’t really know: there’s some stuff that looks to be evidence, but the interpretations of that evidence put forth decade after decade are excellent reflections of the preoccupations of each decade.

  29. Ori Vandewalle Says:

    While crewed spaceflight has certainly seen a decline since Apollo (although the ISS ain’t nothing), NASA’s exploration of the solar system has been both tremendously successful and large scale. Voyager, New Horizons at Pluto, Cassini at Saturn, Galileo at Jupiter, all the Mars orbiters and rovers, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter… just to name a few. These are extremely significant missions that have greatly expanded our knowledge of the solar system.

  30. amy Says:

    Oh — one thing I haven’t been seeing in the 50th-anniversary stories: people really went moon-crazy for years. A wonderful effect of the program was the sudden appearance of moon globes in classrooms and libraries all over the place. The children’s room at my library had a massive moon globe — must’ve been a couple feet in diameter. And you had the sense that you were looking at something completely mysterious and serious — there was something 16th-c cartographic about them. But you had the surprise of the moon also having a globe, with places mapped, and this made tangible the idea that the other planets were also Earthlike in that sense.

    The lunar missions also drew our attention away from Earth in a way I haven’t known since. We don’t look out the way we did then. But that question of how far it would be possible for a human being to travel, even faster and faster, and whether you could get much farther if only you could collapse space, fold it — and then the drab, but still lovely and romantic, stopgap of sending these spidery gold-sail emissaries, the Voyager missions and other unmanned spacecraft, with signals going out and back, farther and farther away, and increasingly tenuous and hard to make out — with the understanding that they’d still keep traveling on their own forever, whatever that might mean, after the outer limit of communication…we haven’t looked out like that, and looked back, in a very long time, I think.

  31. Scott Says:

    john mcandrew #26: What?? You really think I didn’t explicitly mention the competition between the US and the Soviet Union because I was afraid of antifa—rather than because it’s a completely obvious part of the historical record that’s known to everyone? If antifa ever came to destroy my career, it would be over something else, not this. 😀

  32. sgt101 Says:

    #18 “As one example, we seem way less able to pull off huge, collaborative engineering projects that involve manipulating the physical world—whether that means sending humans into space, or (more importantly) building trains and subways and nuclear power plants.”

    Have you factored CERN and ITER into your thinking? Also the international space station (have a look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Space_Station#Assembly). I think that the lack of the US organising on the scale of WW2 is also rather heartening 🙂

    Outside of the US there has been siesmic change of a scale unprecedented in human history – 1Bn people have been lifted from extreme poverty (https://qz.com/india/1385642/after-china-india-pulled-most-people-out-of-poverty-since-1990/). Life expectency is at record levels (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy#/media/File:LifeExpectancy.png)

    I reflect on the following question. Say that the USA, Russia or China or even ESA could go to the moon for $10Bn in 2025. Is that investment justified in any way? If that money were to be spent on fusion or climate change, or cleaner faster civil aviation, or renewable energy research, or lower energy computer architectures, or AI, or cancer research, or rare disease research, or pain control research, or better medical imaging, or even, dare I say it.. QC… I think that that money would be better spent. Don’t you?

  33. sgt101 Says:

    I forgot a point about the list of things!

    The cost of a manned luna mission would go a long way towards investigating what’s going on on the icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter, and it would be pretty good to have orbiters for Neptune and Uranus too – as we know (to use an English term) effectively mince about these two huge planets.

    Lets throw a followup for James Webb into the mix while we are here!

  34. Scott Says:

    sgt101 #32: I guess I believe

    (1) there’s no good reason at present to send humans back to the moon,
    (2) it’s far from obvious that our civilization still has the capability even if there were a good reason, and
    (3) point (2) is kind of depressing in spite of point (1).

    Indeed, if I wanted to argue the case for civilization still being able to pull off massive engineering projects (outside of software and integrated circuits) near the frontier of knowledge, the LHC would be one of my first examples. Recall however that the LHC succeeded at something (discovering the Higgs boson) in 2012, that most particle physicists hoped and expected would be done by the 1990s, but that was set back decades by the cancellation of the SSC after years of cost overruns and political battles.

    Meanwhile, the fact that we in the US can basically no longer build functional trains and subways would boggle the imaginations of earlier generations. Of course it’s not exactly that we’ve lost the relevant knowledge—it’s more that political and economic conditions have changed to the point where we can no longer coordinate to apply the knowledge.

    Maybe the closest analogy is software bloat. There are surely many features that would’ve been taken a programmer one afternoon to add to an operating system in the 1970s, but that would now take a large team working for months. But the reason clearly can’t be that everyone forgot how to code—rather, it probably has to do with the exponential growth in the amount of “ugh” that any new code has to interact with.

  35. Michael Says:

    @BungalowBill#14-I don’t think that assuming homosexuals were susceptible to blackmail was a conspiracy theory in the same sense that assuming that men never walked on the moon. John Vassell WAS blackmailed into being a spy for being gay:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Vassall
    Rather, that’s a combination of two fallacies- the Chinese Robber fallacy and assuming that because something happened once, it’s a COMMON occurrence. Both of those things can be destructive but I wouldn’t consider them true conspiracy theories.

  36. ML Says:

    Canmore #18: If a guy believes WW2, and not the moon landing (ML), because of a difference in the number of witnesses, then a more fundamental problem is his combination of intellectual laziness and fear. Laziness in his willingness to outsource his reasoning to others; fear, because of the effort needed to break down his anti-ML argument and isolate what troubles him, and where that might lead him.

    As an example of isolating, he could look at the different stages of what is required in ML and see if those stages have “popular” evidence. Take-off does have such evidence (“popular” evidence: lots of satellites to date), trajectory control does (lots of solar missions), landing on the moon does (videos of the Falcon rockets landing on the barge), and finally, re-entry to earth. Re-entry doesn’t yet have popular evidence, but if sufficient people ask, I suspect NASA will conduct a public experiment showing that the tiles can withstand heat.
    But the conspiracy theorists don’t, for example, ask for evidence of re-entry. It’s always something like “those flags on the moon don’t look right”, something which is so easily explained.

    “Just use Occam’s razor” is a common suggestion to an anti-MLer. But we only use the razor when we are backed into an intellectual corner. The trouble is that such backing up has to be done by oneself and it requires energy (and is more convenient when done in private); a lazy/fearful thought process just won’t do. So, as someone formally trained as an aerospace engineer, I have more respect for the flat-earther who recently tried launching himself to prove his theory. No matter his motivation, he was less lazy and fearful than the average anti-MLer.
    I display such fear and laziness about a different set of topics, but publicly, I try to acknowledge my ignorance. It’s hard and I don’t always do it but without *even* that step there is no further learning.

  37. amy Says:

    Scott #34: We no longer build functional trains and subways because…well, we haven’t had functional trains in my lifetime. I know of exactly one semifunctional train line, and that’s the Metroliner. But I’ve never known taking Amtrak to be anything but an act of masochism. We don’t build those things because apart from New Yorkers, Americans don’t like public transportation, and most American cities are designed around cars, not streetcars. If you look at our actual transit structures, they’re a roaring success. Too successful, I’d say. When I was a kid, back when there were 3-4 billion people on the planet, air travel was a rare luxury; now it’s private public transit, and it’s a miserable experience (especially if you’re bigger than me; the average steerage seat fits me fine) largely because the private companies running that show are allowed to be fantastically greedy. When it comes to travel by car…again, when I was a kid, there was no such thing as a three-car garage outside Daddy Warbucks’ estate. A family had a car, not a collection of cars, and your odds of dying in one were a lot stronger than they are now. I don’t drive on highways anymore because (a) I’ve always thought driving was a terrible idea and (b) I don’t have the reflexes for it anymore; but I’ve often thought that one of the most nightmarish jobs around must be highway engineering. All these zillions of morons in poorly maintained cars and freight trucks spending more and more minutes per day zooming along inches away from each other at 70-80 mph on concrete that wasn’t really engineered for where the climate’s gone. That’s before we get to bridge maintenance. The fact, though, that auto travel is much *safer* than it was when I was a kid can’t be anything but a stupendous feat of engineering and coordination. It’s certainly not that drivers have gotten better.

    And then we’ve got the question of why enormous engineering projects might be more interesting, or more of a societal flowering, than any other kind of societal project, centrally directed or not.

    About ten feet away from me is my Leica M2. It’s a strikingly beautiful piece of engineering in a way that’s not dissimilar to the Apollo rockets: the obvious precision, intentionality, massiness, and permanence are not things you see when you go to buy a camera today. But different things are valued today. Almost nobody has a living room like mine anymore, the same living room where the Leica’s sitting: it’s full of furniture that will outlast me (I should oil it today), and books, and a piano. There are no screens there, and when people gather there, it’s to sit and talk, or sit reading, or listening to the radio or a record while doing something else. (The Pioneer turntable’s another nice piece of engineering, though not as nice as the Leica.) It’s not how people want to live now.

    Similarly: it could be that part of what you’re missing is the glamorous, highly centralized, magnificently precise and tremendous public project. If that’s the case, I rather suspect the weak link in there is the word “public”. Because when I think of glamorous, highly-centralized, magnificently precise and tremendous projects today, what I think of is theft: I think of banking, and the quantitative people applying their quantitative methods. In 1969, “public” had significant meaning and presence, and while it was mostly depressingly bureaucratic, now and then it still resonated with a 1930s heroism. The teenagers I see now have grown up without “public” having any real meaning in their lives. As a society, we started knocking that down in 1980. If I see a glimmer of hope, it’s that so many young people seem to find a life devoted to greed and self-seeking to be a bizarre, destructive, abnormal thing. And they’ll be in charge in just a few years. The only problem is that they don’t really know how anything else works, have never lived it; they’ll have to fly by instruments. And some of the instruments are not so good.

  38. sgt101 Says:

    #34. I like the software bloat analogy, it set me thinking: what would a “proper” moon mission look like? So, instead of playing dice with the landing zone I think we’d want to closely survey the site. We’d send bots first to clear a nice patch, then send down and unmanned lander. We’d test it, and be sure that it was tip top for return. Then we’d send the manned lander down to a well preped spot maybe 200m from the safety boat. We’d like the capacity to interceed if something happened to the crew, so another boat would be on standby ready in orbit. So – we’d need a command module with 3 landers, and what if the command module suffered an issue and struggled to do the return – that’s right! We’d need a life boat to deal with that – so command needs 4 modules. None of this deals with re-entry; because we are going to do that by docking with the ISS and then getting a capsule down. Soooo…. in 2019 we need a mothership (assembled in orbit next to the ISS) with 4 sub modules and the infrastructure of spacewalking and ISS crew orbit/deorbit, and we need a tranche of robot missions upfront. Bloat? Or a culture that acknowledges and deals with complexity and can actually cover off the safety issues rather than trusting to luck?

  39. William Gasarch Says:

    1) Capicorn One is an okay-movie about a faked Mars Landing. The premise is more interesting than the movie.

    2) If we had gone to the moon 10 years later or 20 years later or… it would have been FAR cheaper since we would have much better computers and other science stuff needed. OR is it the case that the Apollo program was partially WHY we have the better science stuff?

    3) I wonder if don’t-believe-in-the-moon-landing will end up being, like everything else is becoming, a political thing: One party, believe, the other doesn’t, like climate Change, Evolution, and (more in Europe) Genetically Eng food being bad for you. Or will the non-believers-in-the-moon-landing be a fringe group like Holocaust Deniers that never go away and even grow sometimes. (Are they still Fringe?)

  40. Bob Strauss Says:

    Wasn’t that a plot point in “Interstellar,” that the government denies there was ever a moon mission so people would concentrate on the (grim and unsolvable) problems back on Earth?

  41. fred Says:

    If the landings were fake, the Soviets would have pointed it out (they had the technology to track it all).

    The really cool NASA Apollo photo archive:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/projectapolloarchive/albums
    (it’s hilarious to imagine NASA faking thousands upon thousands of shots)

    I really recommend watching the CNN documentary “Apollo 11”, using high quality 70mm footage for all the ground shots (never used before), simply breathtaking!

  42. Joshua B Zelinsky Says:

    William Gasarch #39,

    “If we had gone to the moon 10 years later or 20 years later or… it would have been FAR cheaper since we would have much better computers and other science stuff needed.”

    I don’t think the first sentence is that accurate as demonstrated in part by the fact that we’re still talking about going back to the moon using incredibly expensive projects. One does hit diminishing marginal returns for a lot of technologies. Let’s look at three examples, computers, batteries and rocket engines.

    The Apollo Guidance Computer is an amazing piece of engineering. It was extremely impressive in the day that they made it so small and use so little power https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_Guidance_Computer . It was about 70 lb and had a power consumption of 55 W. But let’s imagine a modern version of that; it probably would be cheaper certainly, and if it weighed only 10 lb (given some safety and a few other capabilities added in), but a typical laptop today consumes still around 20-50 W, so one is only reducing the mass and power consumption by a bit; on the other hand, a specialized system rather than something like a laptop would today have a much lower energy budget, maybe 1-5 W. So there’s some energy saving there. But the computer system was only a small fraction of the power budget https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/fuel-cell-apollo-4 , and one would be limited by other considerations in how much one can save directly on electricity (during the Apollo 13 disaster, the craft got cold because of how much they had to turn off to conserve power).

    Another area where improvement occurred is batteries. Batteries now have higher energy density per mass and higher energy density per volume, but the Apollo used mostly silver-oxide batteries https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silver-oxide_battery which are still efficient enough that they are used for many commercial applications today. A 20 year jump to 1989 would let one replace those with various lithium battery types https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_commercial_battery_types but those are only about 10-20% more efficient in terms of energy per mass (later ones were better but were imagining late 1980s as our time period).

    And most non-computer technologies haven’t improved that much overall. For example, the first stage engines of the Saturn V were the F-1 engines and we have built a new version of them which is slightly cheaper, slightly more reliable and whose main advantage is about 15% more thrust https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocketdyne_F-1#F-1B_booster . There were some plans to improve the J-2 engine for one of the later stages but they weren’t completed https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocketdyne_J-2#Upgrades . To some extent, the rocket improvements are the most important part: if you’ve got enough there, you could make a rocket smaller than the Saturn V and get the same oomph, but an overall 15% improvement there doesn’t seem like enough to do that much.

    And then one has all the many sorts of things where mass isn’t going to go down much (food, life support, humans themselves).

    An all out project to duplicate Apollo in the 1980s would cost less, but it is hard to see anything one can point to and think the cost would be reduced by more than about a factor of 2 at most.

    “OR is it the case that the Apollo program was partially WHY we have the better science stuff?”

    That depends on what one is talking about. The Guidance Computer research definitely contributed to improvements in computers in the next few years, but it isn’t clear how much. Moore’s Law is coined in 1965, when Apollo is ongoing, but the observed doubling was happening before that. If one looks at other metrics of increasing computing power, such as cost per a byte of memory, one doesn’t see a particularly obvious jump associated with the Apollo program. And the improved rockets mentioned above (assuming one used them) were directly a result of Apollo.

    That said, an Apollo like program today would still cost much less. The primary cost savings would be that one has the technology today not to need to send up everything in a single giant rocket (although right now, the US government does seem very set on doing that for the attempted return to the moon https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Launch_System). We’ve gotten much, much better at rendezvous in orbit. So, A slightly lighter version of Apollo could be reasonably launched from to Earth orbit by a Falcon Heavy, or similar craft. One could use another FH to launch a lunar exursion module. One could launch a Dragon-2 from a Falcon 9 to then bring the crew to the Apollo-type craft (or one could launch them on the Falcon Heavy, assuming one wants to upgrade it enough to be considered safe for people). The main thing one will really then need is some way to get enough Delta-V to move that whole thing to the moon and back, so one would need to be able to launch a custom built stage for that, probably using hydrogen-oxygen, and that might be the biggest single cost item. (You might need to also upgrade the Falcon Heavy for this also, most obviously by adding in a crossfeed system)

    So one would be talking about 3-5 launches probably, with cheap, reusable rockets. One would need more pads than are currently available, which would be a cost. But overall, if one really wanted to duplicate an Apollo like situation and one was willing to use current hardware effectively, it would be substantially cheaper. You’d still be talking though about a multibillion dollar program. Until 2nd stages of rockets are reusable, the costs of large space endeavors will still be extremely high.

  43. fred Says:

    Let’s not forget that one of the main driving forces for the Apollo program was Wernher von Braun.

    Exploring space has always been his main goal, but with a “the end justifies the means” attitude: during WW2, as a young (Nazi) scientist, his rockets were used to bomb England into submission (that program used forced labor, working under horrible conditions), and after that his work was the basis for the American military ICBM program, then he became one of NASA’s top managers (and designer of the Saturn V rocket).

  44. mr_squiggle Says:

    I’ve seen the opposite effect – people believing stuff which hasn’t happened.

    About 20 years ago, while staying in a shared (student) house, we had a TV in the common area. Computer graphics were just at the point of certain types of realistic image being affordable for TV programs.

    On two completely separate occasions, someone was totally mislead, and thought the computer graphics were real.

    1) A person ‘passing through’ was curious about what sort of creature a dinosaur was. (I think the program was called ‘walking with dinosaurs’.) I tried to explain that the footage was computer-generated, and the creatures shown had been extinct for millions of years, but I’m not sure he was convinced.

    2) Some time after watching a documentary about options for terraforming Mars, I discovered that someone else had misunderstood, and thought that we were actually currently terraforming Mars, using enormous machines which processed the rocks to create atmosphere.

    Given the recent coverage of ‘fake news’ involving stories like e.g. computer-generated footage of wind turbines collapsing, I don’t think this was a temporally limited effect.

  45. Jon K. Says:

    #43 I’m glad Fred brought that up. I was shocked when I learned about “operation paperclip” this year. I’m not sure why media outlets don’t do more stories on this.

  46. Mike Hanley Says:

    Maybe the human race is already declining towards the Great Filter for intelligent civilizations –

    Perhaps after you land on the moon of your particular homeworld, that’s pretty much the apex and from there it’s all downhill runaway climate change madmax etc.. until the earth is a big dust bowl with all these rusting cars

  47. lewikee Says:

    Scott #34:

    it’s far from obvious that our civilization still has the capability [to go back to the moon] even if there were a good reason”

    I am shocked you would say that. What technological aspect of the Apollo missions do you feel has regressed enough to warrant that statement? Or are you bundling in political and social barriers in that statement? (in which case, the usage of “capability” would be a stretch, but I would agree with the sentiment)

  48. Scott Says:

    lewikee #47: I’m bundling in political and social barriers.

  49. Aaron G Says:

    Mike Hanley #46, your response above seems awfully fatalistic, given that the worst effects of climate change can still be mitigated with concerted efforts by nations around the world.

    While the prospects don’t look promising now, one thing I have noted is that, when a course of action is finally agreed to, change can occur rapidly. Examples: same-sex marriage, legalization of marijuana (in Canada and in certain US states).

  50. Neel Krishnaswami Says:

    Maybe the closest analogy is software bloat. There are surely many features that would’ve been taken a programmer one afternoon to add to an operating system in the 1970s, but that would now take a large team working for months. But the reason clearly can’t be that everyone forgot how to code—rather, it probably has to do with the exponential growth in the amount of “ugh” that any new code has to interact with.

    I am very hard-pressed to think of any such features, actually.

    As far as I can tell, software bloat happens because we have a lot more resources to use, which makes many more less-efficient afternoon-hack solutions a perfectly viable thing to ship. For example, consider the problem of writing a spell checker. These days, you can implement a perfectly good one with a hash table holding a good sized word list: a hash table with a few hundred thousand entries can be stored in a few megabytes of RAM. This is (a) less than 0.1% of the RAM on my decent-a-few-years-ago laptop, but (b) also more RAM than almost all sites running Unix on a PDP-11 had. So an implementation strategy unfeasibly bloated from a 70s perspective barely even registers as a cost 45 years later.

    However, since each piece of software is written independently in a decentralized fashion, every development group can locally decide to write simple, inefficient code. Then the lack of central planning or whole-system optimization means you get a tragedy of the commons situation where objectively abundant resources turn out to be insufficient. But bloat didn’t happen because it’s harder to implement things now — it happened because it’s easier!

  51. Lou Scheffer Says:

    To me the strongest evidence of moon landings is the amazing consistency of the engineering record. For every part, if you take the claimed mass, and the claimed fuel capacity, and the claimed engine performance, you get exactly the claimed payload. Likewise if you take the claimed lunar landing code, and run it on a model of their claimed computer, you get exactly the real time performance that was seen. And so on with every parameter you can measure – it’s all consistent.

    Faking Apollo, while leaving behind such a huge and consistent body of evidence, would be much harder than actually landing on the moon. It would be like writing a giant program without ever running it, claiming that it worked, then leaving behind the source code for all to inspect, and having no-one find a bug, ever. It would take beyond-human competence to create something this big, this complex, yet this consistent, without actually trying the tasks involved.

  52. fred Says:

    Hi Scott,

    a year ago, after the breakthrough by Ewin Tang, you wrote:

    “A different challenge is to find some other example of a quantum algorithm that solves a real-world machine learning problem with only a polylogarithmic number of queries”

    Has there been any updates on this question?

  53. William Hird Says:

    Just my two cents, I can recall watching an episode of the old “Tomorrow Show” with host Tom Snyder back in the seventies, an insomniac’s delight if there ever was one ! One night Snyder had two engineers on the show who worked on the Apollo 11 program and claimed, on national television no less, that the so called lunar module (LEM) never worked as designed in all the flight testing they did on it during its development. No conspiracy theories necessary ! 🙂 So if we believe these engineers, how could the device not work on earth but work 250K miles away on the moon, because the moon has 1/6th earth’s gravity?

  54. Barry Says:

    STEM Caveman Says:
    Comment #5 July 19th, 2019 at 6:49 pm

    “it now seems like ancient history … a Roman cathedral being gawked at by a medieval peasant, like an achievement by some vanished, more cohesive civilization that we can’t even replicate today, let alone surpass.”

    That sounds very much like what Boldmug was saying here a couple of years ago: the ratchet of STEM progress is the exception, that lives inside a giant ratchet of civilizational decay.

    It isn’t just the Apollo flights. In the past the USA was able to rapidly mobilize and complete projects requiring coordination of 10^4 (atomic bomb) to 10^7 people (WW2, conquering Terra) coupled to massive resources. Today, it can’t maintain the border or house the mentally ill (“homeless”) despite both the problems and simple and effective solutions being well known for over 40 years. It’s almost as if social entropy were being steadily pumped into the system but the full effect of that is masked by distractions such as Moore’s law.”

    Note that in 2003, the US government conducted a war which involved 10^5 soldiers *directly*, and likely 10X that indirectly. The US government moved the people and vast amounts of equipment quickly.

    That’s because the system (or Establishment) *wanted* to. Note that neglecting the homeless is in fact a decision made by the Establishment. As for the border, there’s a combination of factions desiring different things.

  55. data Says:

    It is quite bewildering to think that the possibility that P=PP exists without quantum mechanics having a classical explanation. Is this a paradox? By this I mean P=BQP=PP will not have any effect on our current interpretation of quantum mechanics. At least is it possible a classical explanation of quantum mechanics would lead to P=BQP and even that is not clear?

  56. Scott Says:

    data #55: I mean, even if it turned out that P=BQP in complexity theory, anyone who thought the world was secretly classical would still have Bell inequality violations and all the hundreds of other non-complexity-theoretic quantum phenomena to contend with.

  57. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Aaron G #49,

    I am a little less optimistic:

    1. We actually have no idea if anything we do now will avert catastrophe or not. Might, but it would cost an astronomical amount, and might not do much good.

    2. The two examples of things happening once people agree are both about things that don’t actually cost anyone anything.

    3. A key underlying problem is out of control population growth. Care to take that issue on (like I was gung ho about decades ago)? A key problem is that most big religions got to be big by out breeding the competition, and they don’t want to stop now.

  58. data Says:

    Sorry you say ‘Bell inequality violations and all the hundreds of other non-complexity-theoretic quantum phenomena to contend with’. I only know Bell inequality from newspapers :|. What are other phenomena? Is there a comprehensive list? Also is it possible to tie P=BQP with failure of an essential quantum mechanical property (or else BQP seems to be made of cheap tricks)? Or perhaps define a class C whose collapse to P would lead to failure of an essential quantum mechanical property?

  59. Scott Says:

    data #58: I don’t even know where to start. The double-slit experiment, quantum tunneling, superdense coding, the Zeno effect, polynomial speedups for quantum query complexity, exponential speedups for quantum communication complexity, the PBR Theorem, the Kochen-Specker Theorem … see the lecture notes for my undergrad and grad courses. It takes months to go through all the known quantum information phenomena that are different from what happens classically (though admittedly, Bell inequality violation is one of the “best” examples, in the sense of requiring the fewest assumptions on the part of the classical skeptic—hence its fame).

  60. data Says:

    Thank you. Would you know ‘define a class C whose collapse to P would lead to failure of an essential quantum mechanical property’? Also I am slightly familiar with Bell inequality. It has to do with Cauchy-Schwartz while double-slit seems related to Heisenberg. So is there a central phenomenon where all these inequalities can be viewed from a single perspective to describe the diverse quantum phenomena?

  61. Scott Says:

    data #60: The obvious such complexity classes C would either be BQP, or else PostBQP=PP (and hence #P), whose collapse to P would lead to even more dramatic consequences for the ability to simulate quantum mechanics. But I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “essential quantum-mechanical property”—most physicists would probably argue that QM was still fine in such a world, and the property that had failed was complexity-theoretic rather than physical.

    Personally, I view all quantum-mechanical effects as ultimately arising from the difference between real or complex vectors governed by the 2-norm (QM), and nonnegative vectors governed by the 1-norm (classical probability theory). Sometimes this is immediate, while other times the chain of logic leading from this primordial difference to the effect in question is quite long. And if this “single perspective” sounds tautological—well, it’s indeed hard to find a thicker common thread than this!

    Sorry, but you reached the limit on followup questions. 🙂

  62. fred Says:

    Scott #61

    I guess your view to reduce QM to a norm difference is all that’s needed (*) in the context of operating a Quantum Computer.
    And once you have a QC you can simulate every possible physical QM systems out there? (the double-slit experiment, etc).

    (*) there’s also an implicit assumption about the existence of some very basic *physical* two state quantum system, i.e. a qubit, but from a theoretical CS point of view, you don’t ever need to specify how your qubits are realized, and they can be used to do a bunch of computations to try and derive the Standard Model explaining how fundamental particles arise as vibrations in quantum fields, and how you can assemble them to make qubits!

  63. Nick Nolan Says:

    There should be whole new science called “Layman theories” with conspiracy theories as sub category. This science would not study what the truth is out there, it would study and model the world works according to the layman. I’m surprised that there is no such field.

    Just example of interesting things you would like to know. Layman economics: Layman monetary theory, Layman business cycle theory, layman finance, global trade.. Layman political science, foreign policy, etc. Layman quantum physics (you could study that).

    It seems to me that layman theories are conspiratorial and anti-systemic in their core. They attribute things to people and discount systemic effects. Modern scientific view usually looks at incentives, interactions, nudges and the environment. Layman theories think that psychopaths run the Wall Street, Federal reserve, scientist who fool the normal people etc.

    In my view, moon hoax, 9/11, holocaust denial, antivaxxers, climate change denial etc. reside on the the spectrum relatively close to internet libertarians, goldbugs. Fortunately many of these theories are not deeply rooted in most people who believe in them. They just fleet around as simple placeholders because they are easy to understand and maybe even entertaining.

  64. Haru Ki Says:

    My grandmother was born the year of Apollo 11.
    This is really old historical news.

  65. Scott Says:

    Haru Ki #64: It’s 50 years old, to be precise. From your comment, we mostly learn something about your age and/or fertility in your family. 🙂

  66. Bob Says:

    Haru Ki #64

    As Scott notes, families differ. My paternal grandfather was born during the civil war.

    Bob

  67. Aaron G Says:

    Raoul Ohio #57,

    Point 1. My understanding about biology and the other sciences have shown that in spite of the deleterious effects due to the excess release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, life on Earth in the aggregate can be highly resilient and adaptive (although a large number of individual species face extinction).

    Actions that we humans take do have an impact, and I feel that it is better to take actions (however) small individually and to apply political pressure for more extensive action, which would decrease the probability of the catastrophe you speak of.

    Point 2: Same-sex marriage and marijuana legalizaton are only two of the most immediate examples I came up with. There are many other examples of changes made recently which have a measurable positive impact on human society which do have a cost.

    And what you say is not true — changes to laws like these do have a cost. Specifically in the legalization of marijuana (as opposed to decriminalization) involves setting up a legal setup of licensing and such, which can be quite costly to the taxpayer.

    Point 3: As for out-of-control population growth, we have seen fertility rates around the world fall significantly over the past 30-40 years, including in areas of the world which once had the highest birthrates. One can look at examples like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, etc. And the fall in birthrates are not just occurring in wealthy nations. Even comparatively poor countries have seen a reduction in fertility. For example, see the link below for Bangladesh, which has reduced their fertility rate over the past few decades.

    https://www.dandc.eu/en/article/how-bangladesh-reduced-average-number-children-woman-mere-21

    So your assertion that population growth cannot be solved or tackled is simply not backed up by the facts.

  68. fred Says:

    Talking about the double slit experiment, if it takes 10 msec for an electron to get to the screen, with the slits somewhere in the middle (5msec), does anyone know what happens to the interference if you block one slit 9msec after an electron has left the gun (before it reaches the screen)?

    Isn’t this affecting some of the path integrals, and the final probabilities? Probabilities for all possibilities have to add up to 1… when is the wave function “instantiated”?

    On the other hand, MW doesn’t care about probabilities, so in that view it doesn’t matter that some of the branches just don’t happen when you block the slit?

  69. ppnl Says:

    fred #68

    The electron has to have some probability to hit the blockage for it to have any effect on the wave function.

  70. fred Says:

    ppnl #69

    Right, but when applying the (Feynman) path integrals method to the double-slit experiment, there are so-called non-classical paths, corresponding to the electron taking very convoluted loops around both slits. So the wave function with the two open slits isn’t exactly the sum of the 2 wave functions when only one slit is open. Apparently this effect is not always negligible –
    https://arxiv.org/pdf/1308.2022.pdf

  71. ppnl Says:

    Yes you have a lot of nonclassical paths. There is even a possibility of an electron bouncing off the moon for example. But such paths are generally far to small to be measured.

  72. Paul D. Says:

    Various comments here that Apollo was justified scientifically.

    The two biggest scientific results from the lunar samples were: the oxygen isotope ratios lying on the same line as Earth (the Standard Mean Ocean Water, or SMOW line), and the europium anomaly in the rare earth abundances (suggesting a global lava ocean). These helped point the way to the current Giant Impact theories.

    Both these results could have been obtained with very small samples, returned by uncrewed vehicles.

  73. Gabriel Says:

    Scott #34: It is not well known but, in contrast to passenger trains, the US has one of the best freight train networks in the world. https://youtu.be/9poImReDFeY Why is this so? Food for thought…

  74. Jon Davies Says:

    If it was faked, I wondered why they felt the need to fake it six times rather than just apollo 11.

  75. STEM Caveman Says:

    @Jon Davies 74,

    That’s a good argument against many other forms of denialism, and one that I hadn’t seen before.

    For example, if the Holocaust was faked by the Jews/Allies/media, would it not have been easier for the conspirators to reduce the alleged number of dead by a couple million, and claim substantial rates of survival and escape in most towns, ghettos and families, so as to make the allegations unfalsifiable when lots of survivors appeared after the war? Instead they went ahead and made amazing and falsifiable (in Popper’s sense) assertions about the outright elimination of Jews from entire regions, and unheard-of new death technology. Everyone at the time knew that tons of Armenians had been killed by low-tech methods, and that Boers had a very high death rate in ordinary concentration camps, so the initial credibility of the claims would have been higher had it just been a story of starvation and deadly USSR style labor camps. Yet the people making the claims chose to go with the narrative equivalent of six moon landings instead of one.

    Presumably there is a term in the Bayesian/rationalist universe for the principle “an a priori far less likely claim, if it survives scrutiny, ends up more credible than a limited claim”.

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