Monday, July 27, 2015

Wordsworth(less), but interesting

I am a fan of William Wordsworth's poetry.  In particular, he was one of the leaders of a naturalism movement, that changed poetry from rather formal or even stuffy, difficult-structured material laced if not laden with arcane references to the classics or the Bible, that only the desperately intellectual could actually read.  Some of it, like Milton's Paradise Lost, is great (with an annotated edition!), but most of it is just difficult.

By contrast Wordsworth strolled through Nature, especially of his native England and its peaceful, scenic Lake District, and wrote in a simpler, ordinary-language way about the splendors, trials, and beauties of what he saw.  Most of his works are very fine, in my particular view.  So, to pass some time, I decided to read a poem called Peter Bell.  It was published in 1819.  Unfortunately, I agree with many critics, especially of his own time, that this was a real loser.  It's corny and implausible to the extreme.  However,  its Prologue, though hardly related to what followed, provided a very interesting description of what was known of cosmology at the time, an imaginary voyage into space. In light of recent space ventures, and images from what's really out there, rather than just the imagination, I thought this Prologue would be interesting to post, on a lazy summer's day:

Peter Bell
William Wordsworth, 1819


There's something in a flying horse, 
There's something in a huge balloon; 
But through the clouds I'll never float 
Until I have a little Boat, 
Shaped like the crescent-moon. 

And now I 'have' a little Boat, 
In shape a very crescent-moon 
Fast through the clouds my boat can sail; 
But if perchance your faith should fail, 
Look up--and you shall see me soon! 

The woods, my Friends, are round you roaring, 
Rocking and roaring like a sea; 
The noise of danger's in your ears, 
And ye have all a thousand fears 
Both for my little Boat and me! 

Meanwhile untroubled I admire 
The pointed horns of my canoe; 
And, did not pity touch my breast, 
To see how ye are all distrest, 
Till my ribs ached, I'd laugh at you! 

Away we go, my Boat and I-- 
Frail man ne'er sate in such another; 
Whether among the winds we strive, 
Or deep into the clouds we dive, 
Each is contented with the other. 

Away we go--and what care we 
For treasons, tumults, and for wars? 
We are as calm in our delight 
As is the crescent-moon so bright 
Among the scattered stars. 

Up goes my Boat among the stars 
Through many a breathless field of light, 
Through many a long blue field of ether, 
Leaving ten thousand stars beneath her: 
Up goes my little Boat so bright! 

The Crab, the Scorpion, and the Bull-- 
We pry among them all; have shot 
High o'er the red-haired race of Mars, 
Covered from top to toe with scars; 
Such company I like it not! 

The towns in Saturn are decayed, 
And melancholy Spectres throng them;-- 
The Pleiads, that appear to kiss 
Each other in the vast abyss, 
With joy I sail among them. 

Swift Mercury resounds with mirth, 
Great Jove is full of stately bowers; 
But these, and all that they contain, 
What are they to that tiny grain, 
That little Earth of ours? 

Then back to Earth, the dear green Earth:-- 
Whole ages if I here should roam, 
The world for my remarks and me 
Would not a whit the better be; 
I've left my heart at home. 

See! there she is, the matchless Earth! 
There spreads the famed Pacific Ocean! 
Old Andes thrusts yon craggy spear 
Through the grey clouds; the Alps are here, 
Like waters in commotion! 

Yon tawny slip is Libya's sands; 
That silver thread the river Dnieper! 
And look, where clothed in brightest green 
Is a sweet Isle, of isles the Queen; 
Ye fairies, from all evil keep her! 

And see the town where I was born! 
Around those happy fields we span 
In boyish gambols;--I was lost 
Where I have been, but on this coast 
I feel I am a man. 

Never did fifty things at once 
Appear so lovely, never, never;-- 
How tunefully the forests ring! 
To hear the earth's soft murmuring 
Thus could I hang for ever! 

"Shame on you!" cried my little Boat, 
"Was ever such a homesick Loon, 
Within a living Boat to sit, 
And make no better use of it; 
A Boat twin-sister of the crescent-moon! 

"Ne'er in the breast of full-grown Poet 
Fluttered so faint a heart before;-- 
Was it the music of the spheres 
That overpowered your mortal ears? 
--Such din shall trouble them no more. 

"These nether precincts do not lack 
Charms of their own;--then come with me; 
I want a comrade, and for you 
There's nothing that I would not do; 
Nought is there that you shall not see. 

"Haste! and above Siberian snows 
We'll sport amid the boreal morning; 
Will mingle with her lustres gliding 
Among the stars, the stars now hiding, 
And now the stars adorning. 

"I know the secrets of a land 
Where human foot did never stray; 
Fair is that land as evening skies, 
And cool, though in the depth it lies 
Of burning Africa. 0 

"Or we'll into the realm of Faery, 
Among the lovely shades of things; 
The shadowy forms of mountains bare, 
And streams, and bowers, and ladies fair, 
The shades of palaces and kings! 

"Or, if you thirst with hardy zeal 
Less quiet regions to explore, 
Prompt voyage shall to you reveal 
How earth and heaven are taught to feel 
The might of magic lore!" 

"My little vagrant Form of light, 
My gay and beautiful Canoe, 
Well have you played your friendly part; 
As kindly take what from my heart 
Experience forces--then adieu! 

"Temptation lurks among your words; 
But, while these pleasures you're pursuing 
Without impediment or let, 
No wonder if you quite forget 
What on the earth is doing. 

"There was a time when all mankind 
Did listen with a faith sincere 
To tuneful tongues in mystery versed; 
'Then' Poets fearlessly rehearsed 
The wonders of a wild career. 

"Go--(but the world's a sleepy world, 
And 'tis, I fear, an age too late) 
Take with you some ambitious Youth! 
For, restless Wanderer! I, in truth, 
Am all unfit to be your mate. 

"Long have I loved what I behold, 
The night that calms, the day that cheers; 
The common growth of mother-earth 
Suffices me--her tears, her mirth, 
Her humblest mirth and tears. 

"The dragon's wing, the magic ring, 
I shall not covet for my dower, 
If I along that lowly way 
With sympathetic heart may stray, 
And with a soul of power. 

"These given, what more need I desire 
To stir, to soothe, or elevate? 
What nobler marvels than the mind 
May in life's daily prospect find, 
May find or there create? 

"A potent wand doth Sorrow wield; 
What spell so strong as guilty Fear! 
Repentance is a tender Sprite; 
If aught on earth have heavenly might, 
'Tis lodged within her silent tear. 

"But grant my wishes,--let us now 
Descend from this ethereal height; 
Then take thy way, adventurous Skiff, 
More daring far than Hippogriff, 
And be thy own delight! 

"To the stone-table in my garden, 
Loved haunt of many a summer hour, 
The Squire is come: his daughter Bess 
Beside him in the cool recess 
Sits blooming like a flower. 

"With these are many more convened; 
They know not I have been so far;-- 
I see them there, in number nine, 
Beneath the spreading Weymouth-pine! 
I see them--there they are! 

"There sits the Vicar and his Dame; 
And there my good friend, Stephen Otter; 
And, ere the light of evening fail, 
To them I must relate the Tale 
Of Peter Bell the Potter." 

Off flew the Boat--away she flees, 
Spurning her freight with indignation! 
And I, as well as I was able, 
On two poor legs, toward my stone-table 
Limped on with sore vexation. 

"O, here he is!" cried little Bess-- 
She saw me at the garden-door; 
"We've waited anxiously and long," 
They cried, and all around me throng, 
Full nine of them or more! 

"Reproach me not--your fears be still-- 
Be thankful we again have met;-- 
Resume, my Friends! within the shade 
Your seats, and quickly shall be paid 
The well-remembered debt." 

I spake with faltering voice, like one 
Not wholly rescued from the pale 
Of a wild dream, or worse illusion; 
But, straight, to cover my confusion, 
Began the promised Tale. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Heart disease - the 7.5% solution?

Statins are in the news again, and not just because of the new PCSK9-based drugs, at least one of which is likely to be approved by the FDA this week, probably for a small class of at-risk patients.  These drugs will drive LDL cholesterol levels through the floor, while generating an estimated 17.8 billion for pharma by the year 2023 (and that's before we even know whether they will reduce risk of heart attack and stroke).

No, this is about your run-of-the-mill class of LDL-lowering statins.  In late 2013, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology recommended new guidelines for determining who should be on statins.
  • anyone who has cardiovascular disease, including angina (chest pain with exercise or stress), a previous heart attack or stroke, or other related conditions
  • anyone with a very high level of harmful LDL cholesterol (generally an LDL above greater than 190 milligrams per deciliter of blood [mg/dL])
  • anyone with diabetes between the ages of 40 and 75 years
  • anyone with a greater than 7.5% chance of having a heart attack or stroke or developing other form of cardiovascular disease in the next 10 years.
Risk score is based on the ASCVD calculator, which uses basic data (age, sex, total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, systolic blood pressure, and smoking and diabetes status) to calculate risk.  Unlike the previous Adult Treatment Panel III (ATP III) guidelines which were based on a target LDL level and risk factors determined by the long-term Framingham heart disease study (using the Framingham Risk Calculator), these new guidelines were based on a risk profile.  With these new guidelines, it was thought that about 13 million additional Americans would benefit from statins, for a total of a third of all Americans.

study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last week asks whether these guidelines were better at identifying at-risk individuals than the old ATP III guidelines.  The prospective study followed up 2435 people from the Framingham study who had never taken statins.  Based on the ATP III guidelines, 14% would have been 'eligible' compared with 39%, based on the 2013 guidelines.
The median follow-up was 9.4 (interquartile range, 8.1-10.1) years. There were a total of 74 (3.0%) incident CVD events (40 nonfatal myocardial infarctions, 31 nonfatal strokes, and 3 with fatal CHD) and 43 (1.8%) incident CHD events (40 nonfatal myocardial infarctions and 3 with fatal CHD).
Among those eligible for statin treatment by the ATP III guidelines, 6.9% (24/348) developed incident CVD compared with 2.4% (50/2087) among noneligible participants (HR, 3.1; 95% CI, 1.9-5.0; P less than .001). Applying the ACC/AHA guidelines, among those eligible for statin treatment, 6.3% (59/941) developed incident CVD compared with only 1.0% (15/1494) among those not eligible (HR, 6.8; 95% CI, 3.8-11.9; P less than .001). Therefore, the HR of having incident CVD among statin-eligible vs noneligible participants was significantly higher when applying the ACC/AHA guidelines’ statin eligibility criteria compared with the ATP III guidelines (P less than .001).
That is, according to this study, the 2013 ACC/AHA guidelines identified more people at risk of heart disease than the ATP III guidelines.  That's presumably progress in understanding heart disease risk, and so a good thing. (Does anyone else find the use of the word 'eligible' odd, though?  Like statins are a reward for passing the risk threshold?)

But why don't they ask about family history?  That is one of the most useful bits of data a physician can have about a patient's risk of heart disease (and other things).  Is it too cynical to suggest that acknowledging its usefulness might diminish the importance of what has been learned from the Framingham study?

Less cynically, one reason, though we don't know if the various investigators considered it in this way, is that family history integrates all factors, including those that are being specifically measured (like blood pressure, LDL levels, and so on). Whether they are genetic or environmental, they went into determining whether the relative had heart disease.  So counting family history and LDL, or for that matter, weight and BMI, also not included, may be redundant to an unknown extent.  For risk factors, this would perhaps inflate the apparent risk, but for protective factors the opposite.  But family history is debatably the best single factor, perhaps as important as all the test-battery factors.  At least, it's important to consider why that alone, or that somehow corrected for redundancy, should be a part of all of this.

So, apparently we don't know more about the causes of ASCVD now than we did before 2013, we're just evaluating what we know differently.  So, assuming that statins really do reduce risk of ASCVD, that more people are 'eligible' is thought to be a good thing.  Though, as the JAMA commentary on this article notes in urging increased treatment with statins, "Although a 10-year ASCVD risk threshold of 7.5% or higher might initially seem to be a low threshold, many, indeed most, CVD events occur among the low-risk members of the population."

Wait!  "Low-risk" is defined by us, based on what we know about heart disease!  Our understanding is clearly wrong if all these 'low-risk' people are really high-risk!  Not to mention that there's clearly a huge false-positive pool if a risk estimate of 7.5 out of 100 makes a person eligible for statins!  That means that 92.5 of those 100 people are taking statins even though they weren't going to have a stroke or heart attack.  And, all this means, at least to me, that we really don't understand what causes heart attacks or stroke. The Framingham study identified cholesterol, particularly LDL, as a risk factor, but we're not really sure why, and we don't know what levels are in fact most risky, and people with low LDL can have heart attacks, too.  Statins may or may not work by reducing LDL cholesterol, and lower LDL cholesterol may or may not reduce risk.

And, statins can have serious side effects -- physical as well as the cost burden.  So, if of 100 people taking statins a large majority weren't going to have heart attacks anyway, statins are causing a lot of unnecessary side effects without preventing disease.  Though, to be fair, physicians can't predict the future, and must do their best with the information they have.  They don't know who will or won't have a heart attack, because epidemiology hasn't given them enough information.  They've got to treat people with 7.5% risk as if they are at 100% risk of disease.

So, it's not physicians who are failing here, it's epidemiologists.  But I'll even be fair to epidemiologists -- it's the methods, based on population data and probability (which may not even exist; see our series of posts on this starting here), that are failing.  Epidemiologists are doing their best with what they've got.  We don't know precisely what causes heart attacks, but to prevent them, we've got to treat people with low risk as though they are at high risk, and that's because some people at low risk really are at high risk.

No one has 7.5% of a heart attack.  They have 0% or 100% of a heart attack. Figuring out who is in which group is currently impossible.  What we do know for certain is that putting everyone on statins, as though they have 100% risk is very good for the pharmaceutical companies that make them, and good for people whose heart attack or stroke was prevented, even if we will never know which people these were, and unnecessary and even harmful for everyone else.

This is a lousy way to do medicine.  But it's currently the only way we've got.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The wonder of it all

We've expressed our skepticism about aspects of the Pluto mission, as well as many other aspects of our own science (genetics and evolution).  Still, there's the wonder of it all, and two verses come to mind, that you may have been assigned to read in school: 

The World is Too Much With Us  (William Wordsworth)
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreath├Ęd horn.


When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer (Walt Whitman)
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


.....And I guess we'll finish with another by Wordsworth, a more contemplative view of the subtleties involved:

What crowd is this? what have we here! we must not pass it by;
A Telescope upon its frame, and pointed to the sky:
Long is it as a barber's pole, or mast of little boat,
Some little pleasure-skiff, that doth on Thames's waters float.

The Showman chooses well his place, 'tis Leicester's busy Square;
And is as happy in his night, for the heavens are blue and fair;
Calm, though impatient, is the crowd; each stands ready with the fee,
And envies him that's looking;--what an insight must it be!

Yet, Showman, where can lie the cause? Shall thy Implement have blame,
A boaster, that when he is tried, fails, and is put to shame? 
Or is it good as others are, and be their eyes in fault?
Their eyes, or minds? or, finally, is yon resplendent vault?

Is nothing of that radiant pomp so good as we have here?
Or gives a thing but small delight that never can be dear?
The silver moon with all her vales, and hills of mightiest fame,
Doth she betray us when they're seen? or are they but a name?

Or is it rather that Conceit rapacious is and strong,
And bounty never yields so much but it seems to do her wrong?
Or is it, that when human Souls a journey long have had
And are returned into themselves, they cannot but be sad? 

Or must we be constrained to think that these Spectators rude,
Poor in estate, of manners base, men of the multitude,
Have souls which never yet have risen, and therefore prostrate lie?
No, no, this cannot be;--men thirst for power and majesty!

Does, then, a deep and earnest thought the blissful mind employ
Of him who gazes, or has gazed? a grave and steady joy,
That doth reject all show of pride, admits no outward sign,
Because not of this noisy world, but silent and divine!

Whatever be the cause, 'tis sure that they who pry and pore
Seem to meet with little gain, seem less happy than before: 
One after One they take their turn, nor have I one espied
That doth not slackly go away, as if dissatisfied. 


As these verses suggest, regardless of any other issues, there is no mistaking the wonders of Nature out there, or up there, and thinking about what it all is, and means.

Friday, July 17, 2015

More on Pluto (if you're not already fed up with the Big Stories!)

The New Horizons photos of Pluto are, as all the quivering hype suggests, magnificent and truly thought-provoking. But, for us, maybe the thoughts are rather different from what most people seem to be thinking.

The first close-up is here, as given by NASA.

From the news description that we are referring to for convenience here, these are 'historic'. Of course, this may not sound like simple hype, but in fact even my yesterday's dinner napkin is 'historic', unique, and never to be repeated. Perhaps the headline's adjective should have been more like 'first' or 'unique' or something more measured than that.

The photo shows a rocky Plutoscape, with ice, or icy, mountains on the size range of the Rockies. Essentially all of these findings seem entirely within the range of what we know from extensive near-space exploration (Pluto is still near-space in this context). There are wet and cold or warmer or denser or gassier planets, there are various moons and other flying objects. Each is different, of course, just as each, say, watermelon or mountain range is different. But is there something more than more of the same here? More of the same just confirms what we basically already knew about space and the charivari flinging about in it.

To find something curious to report, it was said by one commenter that it is noteworthy that Pluto doesn't have pock marks indicating meteor hits. That might be somewhat different from the routine cataloguing of mountain heights and so on. If true it could be an important fact to explain: How could this planet not have been peppered with meteors like the others?

We are not astrophysicists so can only react to what the news media, quoting various physicists, are saying. The idea is that the 'hits' are occurring, but that the dynamics of Pluto is patching up the holes, so we don't see the remains. This would not be a unique physical process, but could tell us something about Pluto. We wonder about this. Look at these two NASA images, also from New Horizons.

On the top is Charon, the Plutonic moon (these are not to scale; Charon is much smaller even than tiny Pluto). If you look carefully, you'll see that it has what, to an amateur like us at least, looks like meteor-hit pock marks. And if you look at the bottom image, which is Pluto from just after the fly-by, so farther away and showing the whole once-a-planet, you'll see what seem to be pock marks on it as well.

At one point, the BBC quotes a scientist as saying "We have not found a single impact crater on this image. This means it must be a very young surface." Another quote is that Pluto has been "resurfaced by some geological process - such as volcanism - within the last 100 million years". But in the final image, or the latest that was released in the news stories, showing the whole once-a-planet, there is a crater identified, in the lower left part of the image, and we have also labeled the location of the close up (our first reproduced figure above), which shows that it is rather close to the area that is being said to have some particular crater-erasing geological dynamics.

So it is not clear what conclusion one should draw from these images. Are we now in an ad hoc, mode, where we will see specific processes invoked for each specific feature, rather than a more theoretically based unifying idea of the inner nature of Pluto? That could be interesting, if there will be evidence of geographically different regions, in the way that the Earth has seismically active regions, regions where moving plates intersect, and so on. Or will it just be guessing? How accurately can photographic images resolve such issues?

What real scientific news would be like
So the first looks at Pluto from up close, spectacular in their own way, aren't all that scientifically new or shockingly novel as the news blares indicate. If we found that Pluto was made entirely of copper, or contained formations of polycarbonate plastic, or was made of green cheese, then we would really be facing something truly new, something not already very well established in our theoretical cosmological repertoire. That would be something to energize the mind and drive us to explore an unexpected fact of nature! It would be compelling to explore more directly, even with a lander vehicle, for its own sake but more importantly because it would signal that there are fundamental things we don't yet understand, and that probably apply all over the universe. If Pluto were made of green cheese, that would then also engage the biologists, to try to explain it, because it would, so to speak, be a true udderly new discovery, and we'd need to know what type of cheese, and we'd want to find the source animals--and their grazing lands!

In that sense, if researchers must claw and scratch to find something to claim is seriously new in what is really rather ordinary, it's a problem. In terms of basic physical processes, these photos certainly provide new factual knowledge, and the voyage is certainly an engineering feat, but it's only very minor science. But it's early days yet; we will have to see if this mission really shows us anything other than local particulars about the nature of a couple of ordinary rocks roving around in space.

If not, then maybe we already know enough about the basic nature of these aspects of cosmology, and maybe we should be concentrating on other things, such perhaps as dramatically better kinds of telescopes (or other sensing instruments) to explore some of the more fundamental questions about the cosmos, of which there are plenty.

On a positive note, unless there really is something truly new about Pluto or its moons and so on, then what New Horizons shows is that our physical sciences and our instrumentation have been very good for quite some time. We've truly overturned the classics' idea of the earth at the center, surrounded in crystal spheres. We know what's 'out there', at least within the nearby visible universe, and its utter predictability in our solar system, along with the rest of telemetry data, show that we can extend this to the rest of the universe. We can invoke Newton's clear idea about what a 'law of nature' is, as he expressed in his Principia Mathematica: if you find something in some examined corner of existence, you know (if you've discovered the 'laws' correctly, and the cosmos is law-like) that everywhere else is the same, too.

That's why, for example, the orbits of objects, including Pluto and its moon, and the rest of the material in the Kuiper belt, and the various comets and other debris, and the stars, and gravitationally affected spacecraft, all behave as they do, essentially following the laws of motion and gravity. It is marvelous to know these things (our own area, biology is far from that level of understanding at present, but is making progress rapidly). But it is no longer transformative. Diminishing returns have clearly set in. That is the very nature of scientific progress. We should celebrate that this means we really do understand things about the universe. And we should move on to things we really don't yet know.

This sort of mission doesn't seem to tell us anything about dark matter and things of that sort, that may be part of the story even in our own solar system or galaxy, but hide under the space-probe-vehicles' radar. Why don't dark matter or dark energy affect spacecraft? Why doesn't inflation affect the trajectory of a spacecraft? These are questions that to a cosmologist may be quite naive, but they show the nature of new kinds of things we can now be asking about, rather than what particular humps and bumps a given space-rock has on it.

Too hard to please?
The images we're seeing are in many ways spell-binding. Just to imagine a bit of ice, not to mention a Rocky Mountain range of it, so far away and yet being seen close up, is quite amazing. It's not that that bothers us. Our objection to the venture itself is largely due to the cost relative to other human priorities.

This is less profound new knowledge than it is amazing technology giving us views no humans have had before. There's no taking away from that. But documenting another space object up close is not much different than doing another GWAS study of the genetics of some trait. OK, yes, OK--but we already know the general picture. It's time to delve into the deeper questions.

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.