Weekly Roundup

Mehrdad Hariri recommends that Canada engage in more science diplomacy, connecting our current lack thereof up with the recent loss of our seat on the UN security council

William Easterly applies some interesting work on “physics envy” in finance to thinking about Third World development. Find the original paper on physics envy in finance here.

Matthew C. Nisbet over at Age of Engagement observes that the mood in the United States is not best described as “mad as hell”, but as “anxious”. Nisbet wonders how this will affect people’s reaction to climate science, given this article from the National Science Foundation. From the latter:

In the study, subjects with individualistic values were over 70 percentage points less likely than ones with egalitarian values to identify the scientist as an expert if he was depicted as describing climate change as an established risk. Likewise, egalitarian subjects were over 50 percentage points less likely than individualistic ones to see the scientist as an expert if he was described as believing evidence on climate change is  unsettled.

In a move that could have huge implications for the biotechnology industry, the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a brief arguing that genes cannot be patented, as they are part of nature.

In an article sure to give Curtis fits, Michael Robinson at Whewell’s Ghost,

just published a short piece in the Journal of Cosmology’s special issue Colonizing Mars: The Mission to the Red Planet. It argues that humans will not reach Mars on the power of peripheral arguments about science, national pride, or technological spin-offs. Advocates of a human program need to articulate the core values of human spaceflight and justify their missions accordingly, even if they are difficult to measure. Although the essay leans towards science policy rather than history of science, it discuss the importance of historical analogies in contemporary debates about spaceflight.


  • Michael Robinson Reply

    “In an article sure to give Curtis fits, Michael Robinson at Whewell’s Ghost, just published a short piece in the Journal of Cosmology’s special issue Colonizing Mars: The Mission to the Red Planet.”

    Maybe the issue will give Curtis fits, but I doubt my article will. It claims that the failure of human spaceflight programs to Mars is ultimately a failure of arguments rather than funding, public support, etc. As such, I think it’s fairly consistent with the position Curtis lays out in his post of 27 October.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      Aren’t you advocating for an appeal to Star Trek ideals of exploration in order to promote a mission to Mars Michael? Isn’t Curtis saying that we need to stop dreaming about such things and worry about our present problems?

  • Curtis Forbes
    Curtis Forbes Reply

    I wouldn’t say this throws me into a ‘fit,’ since Michael is really just recommending that the space program check their scientific values against the non-scientific public who is more interested in exploration than in science. For scientists, sending robots to Mars makes far more sense than sending humans, but some people want to send people, science be damned, just like Palsy did when he dashed for the North Pole. What does upset me a bit is that, like Paley did, NASA is reportedly canvassing billionaires to help support a mission to Mars, and that they’re also working with DARPA to look at “the business model needed to pay for the technology which could make long-distance manned space flight possible a century from now.”

  • Michael Robinson Reply

    Curtis makes the point that the excitement about the “Goldilocks planet” Gliese 581g is overblown for two reasons: first, it’s technically unfeasible to send human missions there at present, and two, it’s a bad idea anyway since it essentially ducks the issue of environmental policies here on earth.

    I agree with him on both points. As I tell my kids, they need to clean up their rooms before they make a mess somewhere else.

    I remain agnostic on the issue of human spaceflight; I am still waiting for someone to explain why the benefits outweigh the danger, expense, and environmental impact of such missions, especially given the extraordinary advances in tele-robotic exploration in the last twenty years. Lofty talk about future visions, inspired children, and amazing spin-off technologies do not cut it when you are talking about a multi-trillion dollar investment of public funds. If we are paying for it, we should have a better metric for what we get out of the deal.

    Unlike Curtis, I have no objection to private companies or individuals funding these missions as long as they abide by the same standards of planetary impact that are currently enforced at NASA (eg. that spacecraft are sufficiently sterilized before they are sent into space). We also need to establish international laws about planetary conservation, resource extraction, territorial status, etc. before we allow private groups to go pioneering on other planets.

    • Curtis Forbes
      Curtis Forbes Reply

      I wouldn’t actually object to private companies or individuals helping out with funding space flight – in fact, I would much prefer that, for the same reasons that Michael is resistant to public funding. If Bill Gates wants to liquidate his assets and dump it into funding spaceflight, that’s fine. I just don’t think the public should be working with him unless, as Michael suggests, a much better justification can be generated for funding the massively expensive endeavour of interplanetary exploration.

      So really, I think we’re pretty much at a point of consensus on this one, Michael!

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