Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Wowee! Worth the wait!

Well, a flood of dramatic new discoveries, a veritable inundation, is about to begin.  The first bit, though only slightly tantalizing, was that strange view of Pluto (the one-time planet), that the New Horizons space studio sent back, showing a big blurry mudpie.

Next, we've seen the surface covered with vortices and the Mysterious 4 black spots down around the bottom.  Unless we're wrong, such vortex patterns have been seen earlier by probes to more nearby planets and have been explained basically in meteorological terms.  From what we read, Pluto has an atmosphere, and as far as we know the swirls could perhaps be related to the effect of its moons. Interesting, and of course new knowledge about a specific space object, but not in itself jolting.

Much if not all of what we have seen so far is a confirmation, by very sophisticated technologies, of the well-established principles of classical physics (and, perhaps, relativity or quantum mechanics if they had any role in engineering the project).  Confirmation is nice but of course we have decades of space adventures and telescopes that have clearly shown that this is how Nature is.  Any deviation would be real news!  In any case it is an exquisite bit of high-class engineering.

Here is a figure from the BBC story that is being used to fill up some media space:

Yesterday came the first real bit of jolting news:  The planet, or that is, once-a-planet, is about 30 km bigger in diameter than was thought, if we understood the news story we read (one of many reporting on this, including this one).  This earth-shaking surprise now tells astronomers, apparently, something about how much ice is in the tea there.  Let's not just treat this with attempts at levity, but be precise.  Pluto's diameter is (precisely) 2370km.  This startling new estimate, to an extent similar to Darwin's discovery of evolution, shakes the previous estimated range of 2300 to 2400 to its very core (the estimate's, not Pluto's core).  It means Pluto is more ice and less rock than had been thought.  Actually, the high precision of the previous estimate, however it was made more indirectly, seems more impressive to us.

A disinterested party (that is, a member of the New Horizons team) is quoted as saying "It looks like somebody painted it for a Star Trek episode."  Why this is the most exciting fact since Star Trek is at least mildly perplexing.  And that this now confirms that Pluto is the "undisputed giant" of the solar system (the biggest, at least, if not the heaviest), is about as stunningly important to know.

The New Horizon craft was due to pass by Pluto yesterday, as we understand it, assuming the ground-control and on-board instructions work well, which seems to be the case so far we'll soon see the relatively close-up photos.  We are told that the pass-by will be fast, and too distant to see whether there are any people on Pluto, but given the previous photo of a swirling clouds, we might not be able to see them waving to the ET flying by their corner of the universe, even if they're there: they'll either be hidden beneath the swirling clouds overhead, or living in the water.

Even that disappointment won't spoil the value, or at least the fun, of this visitation.  After 3 billion miles and 9+ years of travel, and who knows what cost, presumably the revised diameter is enough to guarantee a party (here on earth).  Whatever other mind-blowing facts emerge will just be more bonus material to fill the media and hyperbolizing pages.

Of course, toys for engineers to get breathless about is nothing new.  If they weren't kids at heart, they would probably have gone into some more mundane field.  What's 'out there' is certainly fascinating and thought-provoking, and the technical science seems obviously first-rate.  And the news media do, after all, have blank spaces to fill every day with stories that will attract readers, because that's their business.  Every extra kilometer 3 billion miles away means an extra page-inch here on Earth, and it's undoubtedly better than having to report on nasty dispiriting things like ISIS beheadings, or even more celebrity gossip than is already the daily fare (or debates about whether Bill Cosby did it or not).

Why snicker rather than cheer at a time like this?
We have to acknowledge that one of our themes on MT is the way in which public resources are spent on research, the way priorities are set, the way universities are currently funded, and the way so much in our culture is organized on the 'business model'.  We personally have no influence or leverage, of course, but our voice is aimed at expressing a less selfish view of how society should operate. Science is best done without the ulterior motive of getting attention or funding.  Stable funding, based on some realistic sense of priorities relative to serious human needs--and there are serious needs aplenty to be addressed--would be a far better way to encourage exploration of the world, even if the research funds per researcher were less, and there was less Splash involved.  This could be achieved, but by unity rather than intensified, destructive competition as so much of it is today.  Science can't be 'efficient' in the business sense, if it is to be the best science.  Things already understood aren't 'science'.  But it could be more effective than it is under the current modus operandi.

We can of course be accused of constant whinging, but at least we have no conflict of interest in trying to urge improvement in our cultural way of doing things.  We also understand that the bloated university establishment, the bloated news media that need their daily fill of stories, the commercial vested interests, the government agency vested interests, and so on, are all part of the integrated system we have now.  It has not been made in anyone's interest to hold the system to account. The Fourth Estate is failing badly, partners more than skeptics, but so is society for failing to fund universities in the public interest, and politicians for using science-excitement in demagogic ways (going along with miracle health promises, and so on) to get elected.

According to what we have seen on the New Horizons Wikipedia page, this project has cost about $600 million.  One can debate whether that is a lot or a little relative to competing science or other national priorities.  Not everyone will agree, but we think there are a lot more mundane than plutane things to which our national resources should be put.  Building bridges over rivers rather than highways to planets would be one example.  Too many people, even in our own country, have more need for daily bread than daily feed from the news media.  Yes, of course, this is politics of science rather than the science itself.

Cutting back on projects like the Pluto mission would cost some people their jobs, but there is plenty to do for ones with their skills.  Fixing bridges, rails, and so on isn't quite as exciting, but at least a given job doesn't take nine years.  And unlike these dinky space rovers, actual people get to ride on trains and cars!

Societies always have elements of questionable priorities and resources going to in-groups, because there are always competing self-interests.  But societies, like at least some space probes, can have course adjustments, too.


David Evans said...

The total annual income of the top 1% in the US has increased by about one thousand times the cost of the Pluto mission in the past 20 years. Meanwhile the income of the average working man has hardly increased at all. Does this suggest a way by which we could build bridges and still afford the occasional space mission?

Ken Weiss said...

The points are subtle, or something. The foul inequities are foul. The private entertainment industry could pay for space missions. A fair tax system could do what you say, but it and a more humane set of priorities could jointly make resources for both increased standards of living and also research of more immediate priority.

One can make other indirect justifications, probably numerically correct, that the space program brings indirect side benefits (including the old quip about going to the moon giving us Teflon and Tang).

Space could (in my view, of course as a non-astrophysicist) be much more importantly explored by better, and even more widely or deeply dispersed telemetry, to address real and serious questions in cosmology. Though even that ignores the serious human problems on earth that should be addressed first.

Of course, this is just my personal view of things, and I make no policy!

Anonymous said...

"The total annual income of the top 1% in the US has increased by about one thousand times the cost of the Pluto mission in the past 20 years. Meanwhile the income of the average working man has hardly increased at all. Does this suggest a way by which we could build bridges and still afford the occasional space mission?"

You forgot to ask the more fundamental question - is there a meaningful correlation between increase in annual income of top 1% and the Pluto mission? After all, the top 1% includes the University professors among various government-funded parasites (bankers, military), and most university professors turn a blind eye to the plight of the remaining society ('income of the average working man'), because they are part of the top 1% and winning from the system.

- 'You know who'

Ken Weiss said...

Well, yes. But my personal issue is the emotionally sincere but scientifically misleading gush in the media, relative to what I believe relates to the ethics of priority decisions for public resource uses. I'm surprised that Republicans and the Big Government hawks aren't saying the same. There is science here, but mainly engineering and curiosity.

As to income inequity, I can't deny that the same applies. I was very well paid as a faculty member and while I don't consider myself to have been a parasite, the relative salary structures in the country these days needs close ethical examination. Just today there are stories in our local paper about the huge salaries various administrators of Penn State, here, are being paid.

But I am not convinced about the correlation between Pluto and inequity, nor even whether the lower 99% enjoys the results as much as the top 1%, because it is being presented mainly as entertainment, and nobody is talking about the cost and that this was done not with private but with public funds. And in the 50s we began space adventures without the level of income inequity (other than sexist and racist issues) that we have now. Then it was in part the Cold War. As far as expenditures go, one can ask whether, today, some of these projects are ways to 'hide' what are essentially defense costs in NASA's budget rather than DOD's (or, perhaps, that is going on but is not secret--I don't know). I just think these questions should be raised as serious ones--even relative to what best science funding priorities should be.