A Really Cool Blog

… about science & space, people & politics, various musings & other cool things too.

Month: January 2014 Page 1 of 2

The Significance of a “Mystery” Rock

A few days ago, NASA’s Opportunity rover, an impressive piece of machinery which has been exploring the surface of Mars for the last decade, made a surprising discovery. While photographing the area it had just traveled, it found a rock, about the size of a “jelly doughnut” as measured by the rover’s lead scientist Steve Squyres, on a patch of ground where it had not been seen earlier. The rover’s analysis of the rock revealed that it contained high amounts of sulfur and magnesium, a major surprise for unsuspecting scientists. The rock has created quite a stir in the space community, raising questions about its origins and its chemical composition. The discovery of this rock, and the attention it has raised, also powerfully demonstrates our current state of exploration, and where humanity is today in its efforts to explore the universe.

dnews-files-2014-01-mystery-mars-rock-670x440-140117-jpgThe “mystery” rock, seen in a photo of an area of ground where it had not been seen a few days earlier.

Though nobody is exactly sure why this rock suddenly appeared where it did, there are already a few theories trying to provide explanations. The most reasonable theory, put forward by the rover’s scientific team, is that a broken wheel on the rover kicked up and moved the rock as the rover was turning. The origin of this rock may not be figured out, but scientists will undoubtedly try to understand why the rock has so much sulfur and magnesium in it. Finding these answers will provide us with a greater understanding of the Martian environment, and might just change some of our currently held assumptions and theories. The discovery and analysis of this mysterious rock demonstrates the reason we explore: to seek out new knowledge, to pursue that knowledge for answers, and to use those answers for a greater understanding of our universe and ourselves within it. Squyres mirrored those sentiments while discussing the rock at a 10-year anniversary celebration for the Opportunity rover’s arrival at Mars, saying that its unexpected discovery shows how “there will always be something tantalizing, something wonderful just beyond our reach that we didn’t quite get to – and that’s the nature of exploration.”

1F443160394EFFCAEOP1110L0M1The Opportunity Rover’s mechanical arm studies and analyzes the “mystery” rock.

When you consider the events currently transpiring, you can start to realize and appreciate the current state of humanity’s exploration of the universe. A large mechanical rover, operating for over a decade on Mars after being launched into space from Earth and sent on a year-long interplanetary voyage, photographed the surface of this distant world and beamed the pictures back to scientists waiting here to analyze them. Differences in these photographs revealed a mysterious rock which suddenly appeared, and the rover’s sophisticated array of instruments and tools then analyzed the rock to discover its surprising and unexpected chemical composition. This narrative reads almost like a science fiction story, and in many ways humanity’s current exploratory efforts mirror the stuff of science fiction. We are beginning a major quest of exploration, using remarkably advanced machines to study, photograph, and analyze completely different worlds. The science that we are doing, and the exploratory accomplishments that we have achieved, are incredible. The thought of an automated car driving around on the surface of another world, making measurements of strange rocks and beaming them through space to scientists back on Earth, would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. Yet this is exactly what is happening today.

However, the discovery of this rock also reveals the other reality of humanity’s current exploration of the universe. All of this attention and buzz is over the discovery of a single rock which appeared in a photograph where it had not been seen earlier. This might not seem like a very significant discovery, and, in reality, it isn’t. While this is not to undermine the surprising nature of this rock and the insights its strange chemical composition might provide, there is significance in the fact that so much can be learned from so minor a thing. Because we have not yet begun to seriously study Mars in depth, most rocks we discover will provide us with startling insights and new knowledge. Our knowledge and experience of Mars is so limited right now that minor situations such as this are of great importance to us. A rock appearing in a photograph where it wasn’t seen before causes a buzz and is considered a mystery only because we have never experienced something like it before. This is the other reality of our current exploratory efforts: we have only just begun our exploration of the universe, and there is still much to be discovered. Even the remarkable fact that a mechanical rover on a distant planet provided us with this discovery shows how limited and primitive our exploration currently is: no human has ever stepped foot on Mars, or has ever looked at the Martian surface with their own eyes. No human has ever conducted the journey of scientific study, exploration, and discovery that the rovers are currently embarked on. Right now, we rely on our rovers, on our advanced mechanical tools to do our scientific work for us. One day, we will go there and do it ourselves. When it comes to exploration, the circumstances of the discovery of this rock show how far we still have to go, and how much more we will come to know.

The US-Saudi Relationship: A Journey to Saudi Arabia Pt. 9

The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been a long, important, and impactful one. The two countries have engaged in much trade, military cooperation, intelligence sharing, and other cooperative bilateral relations. The US-Saudi relationship is important for both countries, and both countries bring much to the relationship and get much out of it. That said, the United States seems to get more out of the relationship, a result of the different comparative strengths of the two countries and the different domestic factors affecting them.

The United States should and does care much about Saudi Arabia, because Saudi Arabia is in an incredibly important position to serve American strategic interests. Perhaps the most obvious of these is that the Kingdom is one of the largest oil producing countries in the world. The United States relies heavily upon oil for its economy and military, and fostering a close relationship with Saudi Arabia has therefore allowed it easy and secure access to its most needed resource. Though the United States is beginning diversify its energy production sector and increase the domestic extraction of oil, maintaining that steady supply will still be of great importance for the considerable future. Occupying most the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia is also strategically positioned in a very important part of the world. It can and has served as a staging point for American involvement in and interaction with the region. Connected to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, it commands control of two of the most important shipping and trading routes in the world. Fostering a close relationship with Saudi Arabia has thus allowed the United States to ensure and maintain the steady flow of shipping through these sea lanes, while also providing the United States with a partner to combat the rampant piracy plaguing these waters. Saudi Arabia is a key hegemon in the Middle East, and because of its power and influence it would be strategically rational for the United States to foster a close relationship with it. Doing so provides the United States with a powerful ally that is able to conduct offshore balancing, furthering American interests in the region, while Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the United States would further increase the Kingdom’s own military strength and regional hegemony. Finally, in this post-September 11th environment, Saudi Arabia has invested considerable energy and resources in fighting extremism and terrorism in both the region and internationally. American cooperation with these efforts can play an important role in preventing further terrorist activity, reducing extremist and fundamentalist attitudes, and eliminating existing terrorist organizations.

As a result of these factors, the United States gets much out of its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Because of Saudi Arabia’s influence and clout in the Middle East, the United States has increased its own influence in the entire region through its strategic partnership and close relationship with the Kingdom. Cooperation with the Saudi intelligence and anti-terrorism agencies has helped the United States fight the “war on terror” and combat extremism throughout the region. Indeed, US-Saudi cooperation in anti-terrorism activities has done much to considerably reduce the amount of international terrorism, as can be seen by the limited amount of terrorist activity targeting the United State’s homeland. Resources vital to the American economy such as oil are easily accessible because of the US-Saudi trade relationship, allowing the American economy and military to continue to effectively operate and grow.

The United States has contributed much to its relationship with Saudi Arabia, serving as an important strategic ally, a key partner in trade, and a major source of financial and business investment. Our contribution to the strategic and military alliance with Saudi Arabia is made clearly evident by a number of things: the United States supplies the Kingdom with large amounts of military equipment, has deployed military advisers to train the Saudi military and security forces, played a pivotal role in preventing Saddam Hussein from attacking the Kingdom during the 1990 crisis in the Gulf, and has, since September 11th, closely interacted with and provided key support to  Saudi Arabia in intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism activities. As a trade partner, the United States has done much to contribute to the growth of the Saudi economy. Though much of Saudi’s oil is now shipped to other regions of the world, the United States has long been one of the major purchasers of this resource so vital to continued Saudi prosperity. American investment in Saudi Arabia has also been important in Saudi Arabia’s growth. Since the time of Aramco’s creation and operation in Saudi Arabia, American businesses and businessmen have invested and operated heavily in the Kingdom. This investment has brought much money into the country, allowing the Saudi government to engage in the major construction projects and ambitious development programs that are now taking place all over the country.

Though both countries get much out of their relationship, it seems that the United States benefits more from it than Saudi Arabia. The United States uses its close ties with the Kingdom to advance its interests abroad, using the Kingdom as a staging point for direct intervention in the region, as a tool to combat international terrorism, and as a source of vitally needed resources. While these aspects of the relationship also benefit Saudi Arabia, the gain does indeed seem to disproportionately strengthen the United States. Saudi Arabia has never based troops in the United States to intervene in North American geopolitics, for example, nor has it ever been received money as a major supplier of arms to the American military. The American relationship with Saudi Arabia has not placed dramatic limitations on the other relationships the United States can pursue and what it can do internationally, nor has it created much domestic criticism or backlash in the United States. Meanwhile, the Kingdom is often criticized domestically and by Muslims abroad as being a pawn in America’s imperialist policies and the monarchy a product of American meddling in the region. There is some truth to those criticisms, as the monarchy’s legitimacy is only weakly justified and is largely propped up through American support and assistance. The Kingdom can be seen as a tool used for advancing America’s interests and visions for the Middle East, with the United States influencing Saudi Arabia to act according to its wishes. As a result, its relationship with the United States is much more of a burden to it than the United State’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is a burden to America. That said, the Kingdom does owe much of its success and strength to its relationship with the United States, and that reality cannot be understated. Without American support, investment, and equipment, Saudi Arabia would hardly be the economic, political, and military hegemon it is today. As the Kingdom begins to rapidly develop and modernize, much of the driving force behind that development can be traced back to American influence and assistance.

This can largely be attributed to the nature of the international environment and the comparative strength of Saudi Arabia and the United States. While Saudi Arabia can be considered the key player in its region, the United States is a global hegemon, and therefore obtains more out of the relationship. Its relationship with Saudi Arabia is simply another part of America’s larger global foreign policy, whereas Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the United States is a key factor in its growth and regional hegemony. While Saudi Arabia relies heavily upon the United States for trade, investment, and military support, the United States need not necessarily rely as heavily upon Saudi Arabia for the same. Domestic realities can also be considered attributing factors. As previously mentioned, the Saudi monarchy holds onto a tenuous legitimacy, which is only bolstered by the benefits it receives from its relationship with the United States. The nature of Saudi Arabian politics, then, has allowed the monarchy and the Kingdom to be the target of frequent criticism, and indeed that criticism has often turned into radicalized action such as Al Qaeda’s terrorist activity within Saudi borders. These factors have led to what seems to be an uneven net gain in the relationship which disproportionately benefits the United States with numerous benefits and very few drawbacks while providing the Kingdom with considerable benefits but also significant problems.

The Kingdom’s Press: A Journey to Saudi Arabia Pt. 8

Yesterday we had the opportunity to talk to a reporter from the Saudi Gazette, an English-language newspaper highly popular in Saudi Arabia. Our discussion ranged over a number of topics, but focused primarily on the nature, quality, and importance of the media in Saudi Arabia. A country’s media in many ways reveals the character of its society, and our discussion was therefore quite illuminating about where Saudi Arabia currently stands and where it may be going. Having spent the last few days reading Saudi newspapers, our discussion also helped provide me context for what I have been reading.

As with any other part of the world, providing the citizens of Saudi Arabia with a constant and quality flow of information about current events plays a very important role in keeping Saudi society informed and knowledge about the world. The media serves as a conduit of information, helping Saudis understand what is going on in their kingdom and abroad while also helping Saudis convey their own issues and concerns into a greater forum of discussion. This is a key step in any country’s development of a pluralistic, open society, and if the trip to Saudi Arabia has impressed anything on me, its that Saudi society is gradually heading in that direction. However, the Saudi media is still largely in a stage of infancy, having not reached the professionalism and journalistic quality frequently found in the West.

We discussed this fact with the reporter quite extensively, talking about the current state of the Saudi media, its shortcomings, and how it may develop. Much of the media in Saudi Arabia, and especially the written media, is produced either in Arabic or in English. The English-language papers are usually of a higher quality, as the skills needed to write and publish in English entails a college education and thus schooling in journalism. The Arabic-language papers are usually written by reporters without much education or training, and, according to the reporter we talked to, are therefore lacking in professionalism or quality. Articles are often bombastic or biased in their nature, or focus on things without much worth reporting. There have been a number of articles I’ve personally witnessed a fair share of articles warning about magic and sorcery. In many cases, the common author is a correspondent or an average person sending in articles to a paper. Journalism as a career is still in its early infancy here in Saudi Arabia, and very few people make a living as a full-time reporter. In many cases, even with the English-language papers, people with high-level connections or known names are more likely to be published than people holding actual degrees in journalism or who are known as professional reporters.

IMG_0844[1]That said, the industry is quickly growing, and with it a higher standard of quality and professionalism will likely come. As the Kingdom builds more and more universities and as the majors they offer expand away from the sciences and into the humanities such as journalism, the amount of professionally trained writers and reporters is bound to increase. The reporter we talked to expressed much optimism about the growth of the industry, saying that its continued development will likely bring about a more intelligent and knowledgeable society. Of course, while this can be seen in its beginning stages now, the industry actually thriving and many journalists entering the field is a reality that is likely years, if not decades, away.

We touched some on what the Saudi press reports about, and what it is allowed to report about. Censorship is an issue in Saudi Arabia, and all reporters know that there are some subjects which are simply red lines not to be crossed. Any article reporting on these issues will likely not be published, for it is worried that putting these issues into a forum of discussion will undermine societal integrity and stability. Still, the reporter said, the Saudi press has been given considerably more leeway in what it is allowed to discuss and report on in the last decade or so, and now openly reporting on issues such as spousal or child abuse, women driving, and the troublesome state of Saudi infrastructure is the norm. In this way, the Saudi press serves as a sounding-board for the Saudi people, allowing them to read and talk about issues in a way that the absence of civil society had prevented them from doing so before. Perhaps, if Saudi society does indeed become more open and willing to tolerate discussion of issues, the media will play a more important role in facilitating that discussion.

We also discussed the overall character of the Saudi media. According to the reporter, Saudis often don’t get their news from the television, unlike Americans, but rather most frequently from the newspaper. It is because of this that newspapers and the written press play such an important role in providing Saudis with information and with facilitating a discussion of issues. However, as is the case in the United States, there is a growing media presence online, and there is an increasing trend for the press to publish their articles and stories online as well as in print. The Saudis are per capita the most connected people online, using Facebook and other forms of social media the most of any society, and this has only helped facilitate this push to put the news online. That said, Saudis are apparently not willing to pay for online subscriptions to news, preferring to find free sources instead. Because of this, the printed paper will likely remain an important source of the news longer than it will here in the United States, where it is gradually disappearing.

IMG_0846[1]Our talk with the reporter was really interested, and provided us with insights into the current state of the Saudi press. The media is an important part of any society, and that is obviously the case here. Though the media also reflects the limitations and constraints of Saudi society, its gradual evolution parallels the evolution of this society. I hope to continue to read the Saudi newspapers and bring some home with me, so that others can see their frequent and their equally frequent failures.

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén