Science


The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s science news pages are currently carrying a story about the discovery of a ‘rogue’ planet(i) ‘wandering all alone through deep space without a host star’. As far as such stories go, it’s an interesting astronomy tidbit, evoking, in the words of Philippe Delorme from France’s Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics, a ‘striking image of orphaned worlds, drifting in the emptiness of space’.

The editors of the ABC science pages(ii), however, have taken the view that readers will not have the wits nor imagination to be able to conjure up the striking image for themselves, and so have helpfully provided an artist’s impression to help them along.(iii)

I am not a big fan of the artist’s impression.

How much does this ‘impression’ tell you about the reality of the event in question? Would you say that it’s reasonable to expect that, should you be able to hop in a fast spaceship and fly off to planet CFBDSIR2149 (as it is catchily named), this artist’s impression would give you a vague idea of what you might see? This romantic milky sapphire marble swimming in a luminous sea of misty cerulean stars? Well, my friends, you’d be mightily disappointed. CFBDSIR2149 does not orbit any sun, and so does not reflect any light. In addition, it does not emit much, if any, visible light of its own either, being detected as it was by M. Delorme, via infrared radiation. The Wikipedia entry on CFBDSIR2149 has this to say:

In visible light the object is so cool that it would only shine dimly with a deep red colour when seen close-up.

All things considered, here is a better artist’s impression of what you might see should you ever be in the close proximity of CFBDSIR2149.

Yep. It’s never going to feature on the ’10 Most Visually Impressive Planets You Must Visit Before You Die’ list, that’s for sure.

So what use, actually, is this artist’s impression? It tells us nothing at all about the reality of CFBDSIR2149,(iv) substituting actual facts with a whole lot of visual speculation and even just plain old untruths. Why not paint a picture of the Death Star or a Borg Cube – ‘impressionistically’ speaking, either would be just as informative. Worse still, whatever mental image we might have formed of a darkened planetary body drifting forlornly across the unimaginable dark nothingness of the interstellar void is now indelibly replaced by the fantasy of an azure Xmas bauble that has no relation to anything.

Here is an artist’s impression of what I believe should be the fate of editors who indulge in artist’s impressions.(v)

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Footnotes:

  1. Is it just me, or does the term ‘rogue planet’ automatically conjure for anyone else Wagnerian-type music and sinister intentions? I mean, it’s not like it set out to storm the universe and take no prisoners. Why is it not simply an ‘orphan’ planet, or a ‘lost’ planet? What’s actually rogue about it? []
  2. Along with just about every other outlet carrying the story… []
  3. It is worth noting here that when the story first went up, the image was presented without the explanatory caption. []
  4. C’mon! Astronomers! Where are the days of imagination when planets had names? Are we to expect that if you were doing the solar system anew we’d be living on 3 and sending little rovers off to 4? How BORING is that? []
  5. Yes, I am aware of the recursive nature of what I did there. []

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CERN, in Geneva, has been holding over the last few days a conference called ‘The Big Bang and the interfaces of knowledge: towards a common language?’

Decoding this for you: it’s a convening of scientists and various religious commentators to attempt to find a way to square religion with the uncomfortable facts that science throws up to challenge it.

After pausing for just a moment to reflect on whether Betteridge’s Law should be applied to the conference title, let’s hear what the first speaker at the conference, Andrew Pinsent had on his mind according to BBC News Europe. Science, he said, risked:

“…trying to turn society into a machine” if it did not engage with religion and philosophy.

Of course, he does not really mean ‘philosophy’ here, because science has always engaged with philosophy, from the very earliest of Greek knowledge at least, and probably before that. No, he has lumped philosophy in there in order to stack it squarely on the side of religion and divorce it from science because he needs to do that to set up his argument. As is almost de rigeur for religious thinkers(i) these days, he starts by depicting science as a mechanical process devoid of any wonder or beauty, so that he can make those things the sole domain of religion; science will make us into machines, religion is the only chance we have to stay human.(ii)

Why do religious people think like this? It’s profoundly offensive for a person such as myself who has no religious belief to hear that I can’t, apparently, experience the world as anything other than cold mechanical processes. Does Mr Pinsent have no clue at all that by voicing this opinion he is saying ‘Those of us who hold religious beliefs are better than the rest of you’?

You can see that I am predisposed already to think that this CERN conference is likely to be a pile of horseshit. Mr Pinsent goes on:

‘Science in isolation is great for producing stuff, but not so good for producing ideas’

What a brainless pronouncement. This man is confusing science with industrial manufacture. Why is he speaking at a conference at CERN? What does he even mean by ‘science in isolation… [is] not so good for producing ideas’? Isolation from what? Its ideas maybe??? WTF?(iii)

Further down in the BBC article we hear from co-organiser of the conference Canon Dr Gary Wilton, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in Brussels, who said that the discovery of the Higgs particle:

… raised lots of questions [about the origins of the Universe] that scientists alone can’t answer.

Yeah, and you know what Canon Dr Wilton? The Anglican Church can’t answer them either. Nor can any other religion on the planet. Making up a story does not count as an answer.

Another of the speakers at the conference, Professor John Lennox from Oxford University, is on record as having taken Stephen Hawking to task for asserting that we do not need to entertain the idea of a ‘God’ setting the Universe in motion:

When Hawking argues, in support of his theory of spontaneous creation, that it was only necessary for ‘the blue touch paper’ to be lit to ‘set the universe going’, the question must be: where did this blue touch paper come from? And who lit it, if not God?

Who lit the blue touch paper if not God? Oh, how about a rainbow-coloured unicorn, or a jolly green elf? They’re at least as plausible as candidates for holding the matches as the Christian God. The fact is, the beginnings of the Universe are shrouded in mystery. Mystery, as in ‘We don’t know – it’s a mystery’ not ‘It’s a mystery and therefore it’s the God (that I personally believe in) that was written about in an ancient book full of irrational beliefs!’ We’ve had other things that were shrouded in mystery in the past and they’re not now. Many of those things (the Earth-centered Universe; the order of life on Earth; lightning; the processes of human birth, of the cardiovascular system, of the brain; the giant fossil bones in river beds) were once mysteries, in just the same way as religion sees the beginning of the Universe now. It is a constrained mind that can’t make the equation here.(iv)

This kind of nutty religious noodling simply makes me furious. These people don’t want a serious philosophical debate, no matter how they may be couching it. Having a genuine philosophical discussion about these kinds of big questions might be of some value. Having a religious discussion is entirely worthless because they’ve already made up their mind that they know the answer.

Canon Dr Wilton sums up his hopes for the CERN conference by saying:

By the end… we might find new ways of understanding our own positions.

By which he means ‘I’m never going to change my mind, because I hold an irrational belief that can’t be swayed no matter what. But maybe I can get scientists to cut me some slack and stop being such a nuisance with their infernal ‘facts’.’

Canon Dr Wilton has no intention whatsoever of ‘finding a new way to understand his position’ – not in any meaningful way, in any case. Faced with a mystery, he just calls ‘God’ and that’s the end of it. That’s not how science works. Science is able to entertain the idea of a mystery without making a pronouncement. Or, science can contemplate the proposition that an old bloke with a white beard set things in motion. Or that it’s turtles all the way down. Or that we’re in someone else’s computer simulation.

The difference is that scientists just don’t merely presuppose one of those things and set about trying to convince everyone by talking it up. Science needs evidence, something religion is remarkably short on.

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Addendum: As I was writing this over the weekend, the BBC site published an update to the conference. It was refreshing to see, at last, some thoughts from an actual scientist – physicist and all-round sensible person Lawrence Krauss:

One gets the impression from a meeting like this that scientists care about God; they don’t. You can’t disprove the theory of God. The power of science is uncertainty. Everything is uncertain, but science can define that uncertainty. That’s why science makes progress and religion doesn’t.

Contrast that to this further waffle from the Professor John Lennox, who we heard from above:

If the atheists are right, the mind that does science… is the end product of a mindless unguided process.Now, if you knew your computer was the product of a mindless unguided process, you wouldn’t trust it.

I doubt Professor Lennox has even the faintest clue how utterly stupid a declaration like that sounds. It’s just another way of saying ‘But look at how amazing humans are! That can’t just be a product of evolution!’ Well, Professor Lennox, it can be and it is. Your lack of understanding of how things work does not, as I’ve said, imply the existence of a God, no matter how much mystery there is in the process.

Andrew Pinsent also features in the update, once again attempting to create a division between science and philosophy, as if scientists can’t be philosophers. Just look at his language – it is careful and insidious. Lawrence Krauss, by contrast, makes it clear that the issue here is science and religion, not philosophy. If you’ve read any of Krauss’s books, you will know that, like all good scientists, he’s no stranger to philosophy.

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Thanks to acce245 for throwing this one my way.

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Footnotes:

  1. I use the word advisedly, because I actually don’t believe many of these people really think. []
  2. Whatever ‘human’ actually means. We are now completely augmented by the science we have created. We are already ‘machines’. Maybe Mr Pinsent thinks we should go back to the pre-fire veldt. Oh wait, we were using tools even then. []
  3. I’ll allow that Mr Pinsent might have been quoted out of context here – it’s hard to tell in the BBC article. It goes on to tell us that Mr Pinsent says we ‘need to get back to the ideas of Einstein’ – as if somehow there are no great thinkers in science anymore. This is the comment of a person with a profound lack of knowledge of science and scientists. It’s a mark of people who want to seem like they’re talking knowledgably about science to refer to Albert Einstein – the only great scientist they know. Mr Pinsent, you might like to read up on some of the great modern ideas people of science: Richard Feynman; Roger Penrose; Geoffrey West; Stephen Hawking; Garret Lisi – oh, and I could go on for pages… But when you’ve finished, then tell me with any earnestness that science is no good for producing ideas. []
  4. And, aside from that – as I’ve written on these pages before – it is entirely possible that at some stage or another we might run up against the limits of human comprehension. There is nothing that says that we will necessarily be able to understand the Universe. This is no license to presuppose God, however. []

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While we’re on the subject of people misunderstanding science, the Guardian reports that American illusionist and ‘endurance artist’ David Blaine is in the middle of a stunt that has him standing for 3 days and 3 nights on a platform inside a 1 million volt electrical field generated by a Tesla coil.

‘I have a chance of surviving,’ said Blaine in a previous Guardian interview, an observation which, if you know anything about the science involved, is something of an understatement. Yes, he does have a ‘chance of surviving’ – pretty close to 100% chance, in fact, as long as he remains inside the metal suit he’s wearing, which creates for him a perfect Faraday Cage.

The vox pops from the Guardian video once again demonstrate the utter lack of science education in the general public. Says one overly impressed bystander:

They say it’s a million volts? Nobody could take that. Nobody could take more than 300 volts! People gonna die right away. Seriously.

No, seriously Mr Punter, you should brush up on your basic physics. You’re at greater risk of being mugged in the audience than David Blaine is from being electrocuted.

Really, the most impressive stunt being performed here is Blaine attempting to stay awake for 72 hours. That’s not easy. But even if he does fall asleep, he is protected from physical falling by a safety harness, so the biggest damage he’s ever likely to experience is to his reputation.

Tetherd Cow Risk Assessment: you could let your granny do it. It’s at least as safe as letting her pour whisky over her chest.

UPDATE: Here’s a REAL daredevil, doing something actually impressive with high voltage (as part of his job, no less).

Suck on that David Blaine.

Rats, Roundup and Rotten Research

There have been interesting developments in the news these last few weeks, regarding science, the way it’s practised and the way it’s reported. Notably, but not exclusively, there has been an incident where French scientists announced that they had established direct links between extremely high incidences of large cancerous tumours in rats, and maize that had been genetically modified to resist the weedkiller Roundup.(i) Their research had been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and, on the face of it, the findings of the two year study are terrifying. This, of course, is BIG news for media outlets that want to sell stories off the back of the already high level of distrust of GMOs among the general public.

Except.

It turns out that there were a few things not quite kocher about this whole affair. For a start, the researchers had taken the unusual step of levying a journalistic embargo on the announcement of their results, requiring interested parties to sign non-disclosure agreements that would prevent them from showing the research to anyone before the findings were publicly announced. The effect of this was that outlets who had access to the story – not wanting to be last on the block in bringing the very latest news to their readership – published the findings as soon as the embargo was lifted, without taking the precaution of having the details checked by other experts. Indeed, when the story hit the streets, criticism of the study, the peer review process and the way the journalistic embargo was used was quick to come from numerous informed parties. What we had here was a situation that New York Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin calls ‘single study science‘ where the results of solitary instance of unsupported research is announced to the world as a definitive conclusion. All good scientists are very nervous when they hear this kind of thing. But it gets worse. When scrutiny was brought to bear on the experiments themselves, it became clear that there were many, many procedural problems with them. For example, the control process used for the tested rats was highly questionable, as was the statistical analysis of the data. Not only that, the type of rat chosen for the study is particularly prone to the spontaneous development of cancerous tumours. There has been a lot written about this incident over the last few weeks, and its deconstruction is not the main thrust of this post, so I won’t dwell on it further.(ii) It’s sufficient to say that, given the way the scientists concerned went about publicizing this research, there remain many questions to be answered about their experiments, the way they chose to inform the community about what they had found and the peer-review process that let the research be published. What we can say is that far better scientific scrutiny is needed before we can establish whether a link exists between Roundup modified maize and cancer in laboratory rats.

That’s not the news you got from the mainstream press, though, because even though many outlets were quick to publish followup clarifications, the main purpose of the embargo was achieved and the less-discerning mainstream media mostly went with the ‘Scientists PROVE that GM corn causes hideous tumours!‘ story.(iii) Even writers for journals like the Guardian (that should know better) have demonstrated their partisanship by reflexively defending the French scientists involved.(iv)(v)

Cooking the Books

Moving on, elsewhere the New York Times brings news of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that finds that, in a review of over 2,000 retracted scientific papers in biomedical and life sciences, an astounding three-quarters could be attributed to scientific misconduct (41.3 percent being actual fraud or suspected fraud). Taken in concert with a tenfold increase in retractions themselves over the last decade, this is a disturbing finding.

One of the authors of the study, Dr. Arturo Casadevall of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, said:

It convinces me more that we have a problem in science”

If you view this research in concert with the GMO affair that I detailed above, and other recent missteps of science like the Darwinius debacle, it is plain that Dr Casadevall is right. We have a problem in science.

Crucially, though, the problem is in science, but not with science itself, and this is what I want to talk about today. It might seem that the delineation I just made is splitting hairs, but I believe that it is important that we understand the difference between what science is, and the way in which it is undertaken. It seems to be that, to some, the philosophy of science encompasses its practice also, and when they talk about ‘science’ they are conflating the two things. Indeed, I recently had a discussion with the editor of a reliable online news outlet over his claim that the GM story showed ‘the imperfections of science’. My view is that it does no such thing. What it does show is that some scientists who were keenly aware of the enormous credibility of the scientific process exploited their understanding of how its mechanism works to give themselves a chance to get some high profile exposure. It shows the imperfections of some humans practising science, which is an entirely different thing. The editor’s explanation for his stance was that he believed science was the whole kit & caboodle – the philosophy, the practice and the practitioners ‘with their human failings’. I told him that I thought it was extremely perilous to look at science in this way. ‘If a chef served you a bad meal,’ I asked, ‘Would you blame that on gastronomy? If a banker ran off with your life savings, would that be the fault of economics?’ It is, I said, not a defect of the scientific process that some people use it ineptly or fraudulently.

Villagers with Flaming Torches

What worries me, and it’s something of which I have become keenly aware over the many years of Tetherd Cow,(vi) is that for a great number of people, probably the majority, science is something like a ‘point of view’ or a ‘belief’ that is adopted by a cult of people that call themselves ‘scientists’ in the same way as someone might decide to take up religion. Those of us who understand science well go to quite some trouble to explain how much in error that notion is, how science differs significantly from religion and pseudoscience and opinion, and why it is preferable to any of those things as a reliable way of negotiating our existence.

Many folk, on seeing headlines like ‘Science is Wrong Again!’ don’t make a definition between the the bad or unprincipled execution of science and the strict protocols and requirements of proper science itself; between, if you like, the chef and gastronomy. In essence, they’ve eaten one bad meal prepared by sloppy kitchen staff and the experience has given more substance to their already-formed conviction that there is something wrong with the whole idea of cooking food.

To make the situation worse, when scientists are canny enough to appear to follow the rules set down by scientific enquiry, and then their results are called into question outside the mechanism that science itself holds up to keep it on the straight and narrow, it just confirms people’s distrust of something of which they’re already suspicious. If the scientists themselves can’t agree on things, well, isn’t that exactly like religion?

My concern is that in a time where we’re in desperate need of science – of rational, unflinchingly critical appraisal of our world and its problems – the kind of behaviour we’re seeing from scientists in increasing numbers is doing profound and possibly even irreparable damage to the discipline.

To get people to understand that the practise of science as a way of navigating the universe is preferable to the hobbles of religion and superstition, it’s crucially important that people who write about it don’t portray it as a belief system made up of practitioners who can define it in any way they choose (whether by intention or by incompetence). Unlike religion, science is able – indeed, is required – to examine itself and fix its shortcomings if necessary. This facet of science allows it to become stronger and stronger as time passes, and it is this strength, this reliability, that makes it such a formidable tool. Bad practitioners of science should be outed as such. These are people who understand and rely on the power of science and exploit it to their own ends. They are not scientists, because to be a real, proper scientist takes guts. To be a real scientist requires that you look reality right in the eye and suck it up when what it tells you doesn’t agree with what you’d hoped, what you’d expected, or what you’d like. To be a real scientist, you need to practise science. And all real scientists know exactly what that means.

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Footnotes:

  1. An important thing to note about the research is that the Roundup itself was under test, as well as the GM maize. Few commenters make a distinction when writing about this. []
  2. There is an excellent examination of some of the problems with the study here on Discover, should you want to read more. []
  3. Exaggeration for effect. There were no actual headlines that said that, but I bet that’s how many anti-GMers read it. []
  4. The Guardian article I have linked here is an illuminating read. For a start, it glosses over the study’s ‘methodological’ errors as if that’s a small thing. In science, methodology is EVERYTHING. It also fails to address a key objection to the whole affair – that journalists were tricked into publishing the results at face value, rather than being allowed to follow the more usual process of getting some views from other experts in the field. []
  5. Even though it’s not germane to the point of this post, I want to make it clear that I’m not really a supporter of GMO, at least not in the way that it allows big companies to stake monopolies on food supply. I can see the great good that can come from some kinds of GM, but I am deeply suspicious about the commercial interests that control it – particularly Monsanto who I think are about as evil as you can get for a corporation. I’m far more relaxed about the science, probably because I understand it a little. It’s not the science we have to fear here, it’s the greed and duplicity of humans who wish to exploit it. The problem is that most people can’t actually separate those two concepts. []
  6. Almost unbelievably, next January will be the 8th anniversary of TCA. []

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While Violet Towne and I were out on our bikes yesterday, our conversation turned to philosophy and politics, as it sometimes does. Specifically, I was defending the Mars Lab/Curiosity program against her assertion that it was a waste of money when there were so many much more important issues on the political plate. Well, I agree that there are numerous pressing matters that need our attention (and money) but I was most vehement that there are a lot of other things that could lose a few pounds (metaphorically speaking) before we should start carving up great and inspiring science projects.

“For instance,” I said, “Do you realise that the 2012 Olympics cost more than twice as much as Curiosity? And that the US bank bailout was more than ten times the budget of the Mars Science Lab mission?”

I don’t think she believed me.

“Show me the numbers!” she said, defiantly.

Well, Acowlytes, you all know it’s best not to challenge the Reverend when he’s on his soapbox, even if you’re the Reverend’s wife.(i) When we had pedalled homewards, I went straight to Captain Google, and plugged in my questions. You might understand, dear Cowpokes, my utter amazement when I found my figures were wrong. Wrong by an order of magnitude. But not in the direction VT had hoped. It’s FAR worse than I had even imagined. Here ya go. I made a graph:

As you can plainly see, the budget for the Curiosity/Science Lab project is not even one pixel high on this comparison scale.

So, in order to get some perspective on how much that little rover trundling around on the surface of Mars costs, let’s examine some of those figures and related issues. First of all, it’s obvious that the military budget for the US for one year (2012) and the amount of money spent on the bank bailout are each in a completely different league to the kind of expense put aside for Curiosity. It isn’t hard to see that even NASA’s entire budget for 2012 is hardly a blip on the radar for the government accountants when compared to sums like that. What’s even more gobsmacking is that each of these figures (that is, ONE SINGLE YEAR of US military spending, or the humoungous pile of money forked out to save the US economy from the destruction wrought by the excesses of greedy and morally reprehensible assholes) exceeds the budget of NASA’s entire 50 year existence.(ii) The yearly outlay for military air-conditioning alone exceeds NASA’s annual budget by 4 billion dollars.(iii)

The London Olympics cost, in fact, nearly 6 times more than Curiosity – not merely double as I’d thought – and we’re only talking about the money spent to stage the games.(iv) It’s plain that large amounts are poured into the Olympics from elsewhere as well, including every participating nation’s competition expenses, and not insubstantial amounts from all the bids made by countries attempting to secure the Games every four years. That’s a frikkin’ ginormous pile of cash for a sporting event. Even if you amortize the London expense over 4 years, the yearly figure still exceeds that of the Mars Science Lab mission. Of course if we permit that, it should be fair to amortize Curiosity’s cost over the Mars Science Lab program’s lifetime (9 years), making the contrast even greater and returning an expense to the US taxpayers of $277m per year (or, less than a dollar per person per year). For 2012/13 the Australian government has budgeted over 10 times that figure for sport.(v)

To put that per-person/per-dollar/per-year expense into perspective, Americans(vi) spent 4 times the cost of the Curiosity mission at the cinema in 2010(vii), and are spending something like $137 billion dollars a year on alcohol(viii) and somewhere in excess of 30 billion dollars a year on cigarettes. In 2011, the US government spent 313 billion dollars(ix) on ameliorating the problems caused by the abuse of all that alcohol & tobacco. And, while we’re on the subject of substance abuse, coming in at a staggering 30 billion dollars,(x) America’s so-called ‘War on Drugs’ costs the nation over 10 times the budget of Curiosity (or, nearly twice the annual NASA budget) every year and that is widely argued to be a complete waste of money.(xi)

I could, of course keep going with this – I haven’t touched on gambling, or government inefficiency, or tax breaks for religion or a half dozen other areas where large amounts of money seem to slush around without a proper degree of scrutiny. But what does all this mean, in the end?

For me, it’s simple. As humans we can, of course, choose to put our resources wherever we like. So far, I believe that choice has always leaned far too heavily towards the things at which animals are good – being the fittest, the strongest, the fastest. Or being the greediest, the most aggressive, the most dominant. It has not served us well. The result is that we have become powerful animals facing an existential crisis, and the traits that we carry as animals – the aggression, the greed, the power-mongering – are the exact opposite of what we need to get us out of this crisis. We are starting to encounter problems that we will not conquer by being fast, or strong or fit.(xii) Being better at animal things was once enough. Now it isn’t.

The things that humans alone are good at – the things that our brains enable us to do such as imagining the possibilities of the future, pondering the poetry of our existence, turning our curious gaze onto the mechanics of the very universe itself – occupy the very tiniest parts of the minds of most people (and therefore most governments). This ability that humans have to plan for the future by creating a mental vision of it is more-or-less nonexistant in all other animals.(xiii) So what do we do to the people who are very good at this kind of inspirational far-thinking? We vilify and undervalue them. When they tell us ‘There is a big problem with the climate and we should do something about it!’ the powerful apes get up on their boxes and beat their chests, so that they might remain popular and powerful, and the greedy apes use all the cunning that their superior brain has given them to make arguments that everything is OK and we should all just kick back and consume, and the fit and fast apes run around entertaining everyone. If we cannot use the leverage that nature has given us to come to terms with the world-destroying problems we now face, we are truly doomed. We have squandered the one advantage that we have over other animals. Our difference will have enabled us to wipe ourselves out, rather than allowed us to achieve that future which we alone can imagine.

So what has all this to do with a little vehicle pottering around in the dust of a cold world some 225 million kilometers from our home? Well, in my opinion, projects like Curiosity help us turn our gaze outward – out of ourselves and away from our tiny little human preocupations. Indeed, I think that this curiosity to know stuff that has no direct consequence to our animal existence is a marker that says that we may, perhaps, have a chance after all.

There are, of course, many areas where we might have directed the 2.5 billion dollars that went to Curiosity. Violet Towne considered that it would have been better spent going towards helping solve the climate change problem, for example. Well, I agree that climate change research is an area that could really use that kind of money. And there are numerous pressing compassionate issues that are desperately in need of money also. I hope my argument has convinced you (and her), though, that stealing the funds from visionary human endeavours like the Mars Science Lab is entirely the wrong tactic if you want to help address these probems. I want to make it quite clear that I’m not advocating doing away with sport, or stopping everyone from imbibing reality-altering substances, or even saying that we could conveniently curtail all our military spending, but to me it seems that all these pursuits – these profoundly ‘ape-like’ pursuits – are where we should look first for money that could be better off spent elsewhere. I’m pretty sure they could spare a little of the quite exorbitant amounts of cash that are currently rained down on them.

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Violet Towne fears that I have portrayed her as a Luddite here, and as somewhat anti-science. I want to assure you that she is not, and that I respect her views, and her willingness to challenge me on my own, very much. You all know that it’s unlikely I would last long with a partner who didn’t have a vibrant and informed worldview. But I think I am right in saying that, like many people, she had formed an opinion – almost entirely concocted by irresponsible and ignorant media reporting, in my view – that NASA spends excessive amounts of money on things no-one really cares about. My intent with this post is simply to demonstrate that, in the grand scheme of things, NASA’s budget is relatively well spent. It seems to me that robbing Peter to pay Paul by redistributing NASA’s budget to areas of more pressing need is a kind of madness fanned by a perplexing and distressing anti-science sentiment creeping across the world.

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Footnotes:

  1. You’d've thought she would have figured this one out by now… []
  2. Here. Do the sums. []
  3. The Pentagon rejects this figure, which was calculated by Brigadier General Steven Anderson, a military logician for operations in Iraq. They have, however, not put forward an alternative anywhere I could find. I’m open to correction on this. []
  4. Arguably, some of that expense is recouped in benefits of one kind of another by the British taxpayers, but not the majority of it by any means. Equally as arguably, the Mars Science Lab program has benefits of one kind or another for the human race. []
  5. I had trouble finding out how much the US government spends on sport. It’s either a well kept secret, or they don’t care to support the same ridiculous level of sports fantaticism as ours does. []
  6. Canadians are also included in this figure, but even cutting it by, say, a generous third, that’s still a shitload of money. []
  7. I couldn’t find anything more recent, but I think it’s safe to say that 2011 & 2011 will track that figure. []
  8. 2002 figures, but I think we can probably assume that has trended upwards rather than down. []
  9. This is probably a conservative estimate – it’s hard to get an exact figure due to the nature of defining the field, but I’m quoting on the conservative side. Stats here and here. []
  10. Depending who you ask. It’s variously quoted at somewhere between 20 and 40 billion. It’s certainly not less than 20, but it may be more than 40. In any case, I’ve erred on the probable side of conservatism and just taken the median. []
  11. Here, here, and here, for just three examples of hundreds you can find. []
  12. Or religious. []
  13. To all intents and purposes it is completely non-existant as far as we know, but that’s an area of research that is still contentious. []

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The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything. Except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands. ~ Oscar Wilde

The Sydney Morning Herald is carrying at the moment, as one of the ‘Editor’s Picks’, this story which salaciously promises to reveal to the world the ‘dirty little secret’ behind the Mars rover Curiosity. It’s a shabby piece of hyperactive journalism from the blog of writer Geoff Brumfiel and echoed back through Slate, which essentially uses hyperbole and paranoia to try to spin the fact that Curiosity is powered by nuclear fuel into some kind of meaningful comment on… oh, I don’t even know what the point is supposed to be.(i)

As mostly anyone with any acumen understands, Curiosity uses nuclear power to implement its science, unlike its smaller cousins Opportunity and Spirit which were/are powered by solar cells.(ii) Solar power is great for space missions where you don’t need to do anything too hefty, but it has limitations, especially in the outer solar system where sunlight is feeble, or in circumstances where you wish to deploy energy-intensive instruments like Curiosity’s ChemCam laser. The problem is that the fuel required for Curiosity’s tiny reactor, Plutonium 238, is not manufactured in the US any longer, and so a small amount of it has been acquired by NASA from Russia for the exclusive purpose of powering space craft (a legacy of the old Soviet Union’s now decommissioned nuclear weapons program is that a stock of Pu-238 still exists in storage).

The main thrust of Brumfiel’s article, then, is that Curiosity is nuclear powered and that its nuclear fuel comes from the manufacture of Evil Russian Nuclear Weapons. Well, to an extent that’s sort of true – for whatever relevance that has. Pu-238 can be garnered during the manufacture of the Pu-239 that is used for for nuclear weapons (and this is how the Russians made it) but it is actually an opportunistic re-use of the unused isotopes of the process – you can make Pu-238 without making bombs. It’s just that if you are making bombs anyway, you may as well use the waste for something useful.

Physicist Luke Weston, from the University of Melbourne, puts it like this:

[To make Pu-238] you need uranium targets, production reactors, preferably high flux reactors, and radiochemical processing facilities, so traditionally it has been sort of piggybacked onto the existing infrastructure at the weapons labs, but no, it’s not really a “byproduct”.

NASA doesn’t particularly want to get the Pu-238 from the Russians and would like to control its manufacture in the US, but, Luke continues:

There has been a fight between NASA and DOE over the last couple of years regarding who should pay for the restart of USA Pu-238 production capacity – NASA says DOE should continue to do it, because DOE has the facilities and expertise, but Congress refuses to allow it to come out of DOE budgets – and as a result, planetary science right now and in the near future is suffering.

So, by using the Russian Pu-238, NASA is merely being pragmatic. Let’s be clear here – the stuff is already in existence. If it’s not being used for something, it’s just sitting on a shelf.(iii) We can’t unmake it.(iv)

Geoff Brumfiel doesn’t think we should see it like that, however. He provocatively reminds us just how irresponsible the Russians were with their nuclear weapons manufacture, and how awful the ramifications were and then colourfully declares:

A few pounds of Stalin’s finest plutonium-238 hitched a ride to Mars on the back of Curiosity.

This kind of journalism is not helpful, enlightening or germane. It’s just grubbing around in the dirt for tawdry titillation and Mr Brumfiel should be truly ashamed of himself for doing it. It’s hardly even worthy of the Daily Mail.

Let me try to illustrate the logical sleight-of-hand being played out here.

This week, we saw the death of astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the surface of another world. Armstrong’s passing was universally mourned. If we were so inclined, however, we could point out that NASA and Armstrong were aided in their grand lunar endeavour by the rocket propulsion systems designed for the Nazis in World War 2 by Wernher Von Braun – rockets meant for the express purpose of raining down death and destruction on terrified English citizens. Von Braun, in his post-war role as NASA’s chief scientist in the Saturn V program (having been famously and clandestinely ‘acquired’ after the war by the US military to help with their rocket science), designed the rocket engines that launched Apollo 11 into space and carried it to the moon. To attempt to portray the Apollo moon missions in this way sounds petty and stupid and pathetic, and yet, this is the very same kind of tactic used by Geoff Brumfiel in the Curiosity article, which has been circulated around the world and now warrants the ‘editor’s pick’ in the SMH. We can even extrapolate further: Curiosity also used the very same Nazi rocket technology that underpinned the Saturn V program to get to Mars, but Brumfiel is not telling that story here. Why? Because even people with zero science education would spot it for the irrelevant and egregious nonsense it is. Oh, and it doesn’t have the scary spectre of nookyular to juice it up.

Geoff Brumfiel claims that he is ‘as happy as anyone’ that Curiosity is on Mars, something I find disingenuous given the hand-wavingly hysterical tone of his article. He finishes up:

There’s nothing wrong with oooh-ing and aaah-ing over Curiosity’s photos. The project is an incredible achievement, and the science it produces will be amazing. But remember this, too: That little rover on Mars has left a big mess back here on Earth.

This kind of bereft backwards logic makes me furious. No, Mr Brumfiel – the fact is that when that nuclear material was made, a trip to the Red Planet by a mobile science lab with a computer brain was very much the stuff of science fiction. Trying to brand NASA or Curiosity with the responsibility for any ‘mess’ made by decades-old nuclear programs is vapid sensationalist rubbish dressed up in wilful scare-mongering.

At this point in time, when the world is in desperate need of better understanding of science, what it truly doesn’t need is silly Frankenstein’s Monster-style journalism masquerading as science commentary. Thanks Geoff Brumfiel, and Slate, for adding to the huge oxygen-depleted ocean of dreck-filled sludge that is slowly sucking us back into the Middle Ages.

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Thanks to Jo Benhamu for spotting the article and for Luke Weston for allowing me to quote from his comments.

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Footnotes:

  1. The tone of the article reminds me of nothing so much as a dinner guest pointing out to his convivial companions – for the express reason of making himself the centre of attention by being contrary – that people are starving in Africa. There are people who seem to compulsively feel the need to attempt to suck the life out of the joy & inspiration of others. []
  2. Contrary to the implication on Brumfiel’s blog, NASA has not tried to ‘cover up’ this fact in any way whatsoever. It’s easily available with all the other information about the Mars Science Lab, on the Curiosity site. []
  3. Arguably being somewhat of a problem. []
  4. Seriously: what’s A BETTER way to use the stuff? Anyone? []

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