Saturday, November 10, 2012

Weekend Post - Where did the moon come from?

My father used to tell me that the Moon was made of cheese.

I didn’t believe him. Just like I’m told I didn’t believe in Father Christmas or any other mythical creatures. Maybe it was because I had the good fortune to be born and be a curious child in one of the historical golden age of science and engineering, the 1960s. In that decade and in the early 70s humanity achieved some remarkable things. The most obvious was the triumph of the missions to the Moon.

The Apollo missions were famously inspired by President John F Kennedy, who, in 1961 told the US Congress of his plan for "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth" before the end of the decade.

There were several reasons for this. One was that Kennedy was desperate to get back in the lead in the so-called Space Race. Only 6 weeks beforehand Russians cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in space, leaving the Americans lagging behind. Although space exploration wasn’t itself a defense priority any perception of weakness or being in second place was going to be a Cold War propaganda disaster for the USA.

The more uplifting motivation behind the program was a simple human one. Like our cousins, the other great apes, perhaps the one thing we have that separates us most from other species is our curiosity. It’s human nature to want to know what’s on the other side of the hill. Exploration of the world and of space has always fascinated humanity and in the 1960s Kennedy encouraged that with resources, money and a very limited amount of time.

Perhaps the most influential of all the reasons for this was the least planned. Out of this spirit of exploration came innovation and inspiration. There were also enormous economic benefits. It’s been suggested that for every $1 the US Government spent on the space program they received $8 back indirectly. The technological developments you and I now have that came from, or were encouraged by the space program is almost endless. Miniaturization of electronics, water purification, scratch-resistant lenses, smoke detectors, improved solar panels, fire resistant materials, radiation protection, air purification, MRI scanners and even sports bras were all influenced by the space program.

c/o Wikipedia
For me the most important thing was the generation of kids (like me) who were inspired to get involved in science and its often neglected cousin, engineering. The program created a genuine sense of excitement with regular launches of the enormous Saturn V rockets and the sense of achievement that resulted when a mission succeeded. There was also a genuine sense of danger, that technology was being pushed to the very edge as with the Apollo 13 mission which so nearly ended in disaster. If ever you want to see a movie that teaches you about creativity, perseverance and leadership watch Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13.

The trouble today’s generation face is that the space race is over. For various reasons, manned space exploration is effectively shut down. This is partially because of the expense but also because of the growing realization that it’s simply not worth the money. The latest exploratory missions have all been robotic, mainly because robots don’t need air, water and food and they don’t ever get bored. They also don’t expect ever to come home to earth. Robotic missions are therefore cheaper than manned ones. The science done by the robotic Curiosity rover on Mars is wonderful but let’s be frank, it’s not thrilling.

c/o Wikipedia
Last week there was fairly widespread news about new findings on the origin of the Moon. Despite stories of it being made of cheese, the new evidence seems to confirm a fairly recent theory that the Moon was formed from the debris following a collision between the early Earth and another planet, perhaps one the size of Mars. The scientists behind this, from Washington University in St. Louis, analyzed a phenomenon called “isotopic fractionation” and looked at fractional differences in the geology of the Moon and Earth.

The details of the research are fairly interesting to those of who aren’t geochemists but the thing I found surprising (silly me) was how little coverage the story received. This was about something meaningful, how our Moon was created. Forget the myths and fables, forget the business about cheese and forget superstition. This is about how it was really created, using the latest evidence.

But perhaps that’s the biggest result of the absence of excitement in Science these days. At the moment it’s hard to get people excited about the one thing that can possibly improve their lives in a genuine, measurable and meaningful way: genuine progress in material, knowledge and well-being.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Weekend Post - Admit you're wrong occasionally

A key component of the scientific method is being able to admit that you were wrong.

In his best-selling book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins describes an occasion when he was a student. An elderly and highly respected professor attended a lecture at which a visiting American academic publicly disproved the professor’s cherished theory. According to Dawkins, who was also at the lecture, instead of arguing with the American, or just ignoring his ideas, the elderly professor walked right to the front of the lecture hall, shook the visitor firmly by the hand and loudly said “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.”

I’m not going to say that all scientists are as grown up and noble as this. A very good example of scientific conservatism is the reaction from the scientific establishment in the early 20th century to the theories of relativity and quantum physics. These ideas were so revolutionary that the establishment couldn’t accept them. Many “scientists” at the time even thought that they were close to a complete understanding of the universe, that classical science from the time of Newton, Kepler and Copernicus explained everything. The new science, complicated by the fact that much of it came from Germans and Jews, was too revolutionary for the old guard. The resistance was formidable.

However the good thing is that the scientific community realized in the early 20th century that science doesn’t have to be convenient, it has to be correct. Einstein and his colleagues WERE right and progress was necessary.

The rest of the world often seems to find inconvenient evidence hard to digest.

Take the example of nuclear power. Almost everyone in the world thinks that nuclear power production is massively dangerous. Ask people and they’ll think of disasters like Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima.

But if you drill a little deeper, it’s not quite as simple as it seems. The biggest risk with exposure to radiation is cancer. It’s obviously impossible to say with any particular cancer victim that a particular thing caused their cancer but you can look at the number of deaths in an area and time and see if they’re different. In the initial explosion at Chernobyl 25 years ago, 57 people were killed but the long-term effects were significant. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimated that the long-term effect might be as high as 9,000 deaths. They also noted that there was no evidence of higher levels of birth defects or “solid cancers”.

The situation in Fukushima is similar but less significant. The Japanese government estimated that the release of radiation was about one tenth of that at Chernobyl. Even today, a year later, there remain some after-effects of the disaster. The BBC reported recently that fish caught in local waters remain contaminated above acceptable levels for human consumption. However that was at least in part due to the Japanese authorities changing the acceptable level to appease local consumers. The generally accepted predicted death toll is expected to be in the low hundreds.

It’s critical to understand how both of these disasters occurred. Both of the reactors were outdated, Chernobyl in particular, and used designs that haven’t been used in new reactors for decades. Although it was initially thought that the disaster at Chernobyl occurred because technicians at the plant were fooling around, it later transpired that the main cause was a combination of design flaws in the reactor and it’s catastrophic misuse. The main problems with Fukushima were its age and, again, operator errors.

No recently built nuclear reactor has any of the design problems that led to these two disasters. Of course new disasters can’t be ruled out but the chances are lower than ever before. There’s also the fact that although radiation can be dangerous, it’s not nearly as dangerous as the so-called “green” lobby would have us believe.

What about “conventional” power production, such as coal-fired power stations? They’re a much safer alternative, surely? There’s another uncomfortable truth we have to face.

Generating electricity by burning coal is by far the most dangerous way to produce power. It’s estimated that over 13,000 people in the USA alone are killed directly by inhaling particles from coal-powered power stations every year. The World Health Organisation estimates that around 3 million people around the world die every year from the results of air pollution caused by the combustion of fossil fuels.

Let me put it another way. For every one person killed by nuclear power, it’s been estimated that 4,000 die from coal. And which type of power production are we investing in? Why are we digging up large amounts of coal instead of encouraging more prospecting for uranium?

Is it possible we’re wrong but afraid to confront the truth?