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What's up at NASA?

By SIGFPE in Technology
Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 10:33:48 PM EST
Tags: Science (all tags)

In recent years I have been getting a little concerned about the quality of some of the scientific work going on at NASA. Clearly NASA (who IMHO have performed the greatest feats of engineering short of the Pyramids of Giza) have a difficult line to draw between doing research and providing tangible benefits (education, entertainment, a sense of wonder) to the public who ultimately fund them. However it seems to me that they have been stepping way off this line for quite a while now and that ultimately this could damage space research.

A couple of years ago I was watching a documentary about the Hubble telescope and was astonished to hear one of the senior engineers involved expressing great scepticism about general relativity. I found this a little bizarre and it made me wonder a little.

Then several years back I heard about the Breakthrough Propulsion Physics program. It's a good idea when you're facing a difficult problem to brainstorm and look at alternatives but NASA have been looking at Alternatives with a capital 'A'. Consider this list of proposals. Much of this is the stuff of science fiction. They are highly controversial (which is a polite way of saying that in many cases nobody can repeat the results and exteremely few physicists would take them seriously). Consider a recent example that has had some publicity: the reactionless drive that NASA apparently have taken some interest in. Any student of basic physics will tell you that a reactionless drive would violate basic laws of physics that we have used successfully for 400 years. Now we all know that laws are found to be wrong from time to time but when someone claims to have violated one of these you need very convincing evidence, corroborating experiments from other researchers and maybe some theory. NASA are at best a little premature, at worst a laughing stock amongst physicists.

Another source of concern for me is the number of stories about life on Mars. It almost seems to me that if someone at NASA found some rocks on Mars they'd argue that it's evidence of Martian life because you find life under rocks on Earth :-) The best case to discuss is the famous (so-called) nanobacteria fossil bearing asteroid. An interesting article on this is at Scientific American. Given that the existence of nanobacteria is highly contentious the existemce of a Martian asteroid bearing these 'fossils' is evidence that these formations can appear in a sterile environment and hence that their interpretation as fossils both on Earth and on Mars is to be questioned. But NASA chose to give it the contrary spin, that it is evidence of Extraterrestrial life. BTW A good discussion on pseudoscience and media involvement in this case is this Lecture . (I must add that NASA aren't the only ones playing this game.). Some other recent stories that play the life-on-Mars card are this on Martian seabeds, this on Ancient lakes and this on Martian gullies. And if you thought my example about life under a rock was exaggerated try this story arguing that life could have hitched a ride from Mars. In each case there is no evidence of life and yet there is now a climate, encouraged by NASA, of assuming that it is a sign of life. This is not purely a case of the media giving the ET spin, it is being encouraged by the contents of NASA press releases.

It seems to me that NASA are playing a smart short term strategy. Get the hype machine going at maximum warp so as to get funding. But like with any loan you have to pay it back. NASA won't discover the warp drive in the next 10 years. They probably won't find life by then either. By then we will have a disillusioned public and a scientific agency with a reputation in tatters. I also feel (and this is personal speculation) like there is a certain amount of anti-intellectualism going on - ignoring standard practices in publishing results and flagrantly disregarding hundreds of years of research by physicists.

Is this diversity merely a sign of a healthy culture? Or am I merely taking sides in a traditional disparity that has always existed between the view of scientists and engineers (as you've no doubt guessed I think of myself as one of the former).

(And if you thought I was exaggerating about a climate of we-know-better-than-the-experts at NASA, and you have degree level knowledge of mathematics, check out this research paper from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. The guy has produced a formula for e that is purely a slight modification of the classical (1+1/n)^n formula that is better for small n [formula MIM] (big deal, what you want is better for large n) and then he produces another result [formula BK] that is a simple rewrite of the previous formula that converges faster for completely trivial reasons and using a method that applies equally well to the classical formula. If you're a mathematician this is some kind of poor joke and you certainly wouldn't let it go anywhere near a 'research' web page. My, my, you might start wondering about the other research results on things like, say, global warming.)


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What's up at NASA?
o This is all completely normal. 23%
o NASA are going a bit weird. 39%
o What's the big deal? 37%

Votes: 51
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Breakthrough Propulsion Physics
o list of proposals.
o the reactionless drive
o Scientific American.
o Lecture
o this on Martian seabeds
o this on Ancient lakes
o this on Martian gullies
o this
o paper
o Goddard Institute for Space Studies
o Also by SIGFPE

Display: Sort:
What's up at NASA? | 24 comments (23 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
Science. (3.57 / 14) (#1)
by Signal 11 on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 07:20:59 PM EST

Well, I share your concern for NASA, but for very different reasons. However, in the interests of brevity, I will stick to the issues presented in your article.

First, interest in a device which may be entirely impossible doesn't mean someone is being unscientific - quite the contrary - if the laws of physics are going to be repealed, a full and in-depth investigation is certainly called for. If I show an interest in chemistry, does that make me a chemist? If I show an interest in violent TV shows, does that make me violent? No, of course not. Don't read into this any farther than what it is - NASA is curious. It has a responsibility to seperate fact from fiction, and if this "reactionless" drive isn't on firm scientific foundations, they'll debunk it and move on. I would be more concerned about them spending serious money on it, or making public announcements that it is feasible - none of which I have seen, and none of which is mentioned in your article.

The essence of science is skepticism and questioning. Einstein himself said he would be dissapointed if nobody ever proved him wrong, because then there would be no progress. A NASA scientist deeply questioning general relativity is good - it shows he is thinking. In Geometry, I take nothing at face value until I see the proof, and likewise this scientist was likely just asking "Well, why is that true?" There's no harm in that, and it's hardly unscientific. He could have just as soon been discussing why there is no conclusive evidence that crystals have psychic powers. If you must judge, judge on their published works and experiments.

The questioning of NASA's scientific reasoning aside, let's examine why they might lie or exaggerate claims. Like anyone else, they are human. Their budget depends on keeping the public eye and they know it - so if that means occasionally releasing a report speculating on life on Mars, if it keeps people's attention, so much the better, I suppose.

However, by the same token, many people assume that things which are controversial are correct. Take EM radiation for example. There's alot of talk about cell phones causing cancer and whatnot. Well, truth be told, there is very little in the way of proof that EM radiation itself can cause any adverse affects on someone's health. The principal danger in high energy EM radiation sources is in the AC voltages carried on the line. There's not much dispute about what'll happen if you happen to touch one and form a path to ground. That isn't to say there isn't a risk. It hasn't been conclusively proven that no risk exists. It may be entirely possible that the radiation is highly dangerous, it's simply unlikely.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that there are other, perhaps more important, things to be questioning besides NASA right now. If you have to question anything about them, question their leadership and the management that would allow something like the Challenger disaster. Question your elected officials for not persuing the final frontier, arguably our future as a country, and maybe for the entire species.

Now for some pure speculation... NASA's total budget for fiscal 2000 is less than what it would cost to build a couple stealth bombers. With overpopulation and the current expenditure of our natural resources, if we don't change something soon, we'll bring about our own destruction. Space may very well wind up saving the global economy as resources dwindle and prices skyrocket. We gotta get off this rock.

Society needs therapy. It's having
trouble accepting itself.

beat me to it (3.80 / 5) (#2)
by kei on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 07:26:56 PM EST

I also don't find anything incredible about the research topics that NASA chooses to explore. Many "straight out of science fiction" ideas were the seeds of real inventions. I would say that without science fiction, we wouldn't even have the curiosity to go out into space, let alone any drive or determination!

I voted +1 section because I'd like to hear what others have to say about NASA's approach to getting funding, but I don't think it's something "heavy" enough for front page.
"[An] infinite number of monkeys typing into GNU emacs would never make a good program."
- /usr/src/linux/Documentation/CodingStyle
[ Parent ]

Too True (3.50 / 2) (#10)
by aeil on Sun Dec 10, 2000 at 12:00:36 AM EST

The human species are too involved with everyday (personal) life to consider a gain in the future. What someone needs to do is "sell" this to people ie: take advantage of personal greed. use that and we are in alpha centari before people know what has happened.

[ Parent ]
Whoa Boy (1.00 / 1) (#18)
by TranceState on Wed Dec 13, 2000 at 04:37:23 AM EST

While I agree with your last assertation that we need to get off this rock, all estimates of overpopulation are generally wrong. To give a rough idea, check out the population densities of America and England; are either of those countries overpopulated?

[ Parent ]
what laws are violated? (2.71 / 7) (#3)
by skeezix on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 07:27:07 PM EST

The "reactionless drive" that is described in the link you give does not violate any laws of physics that I'm aware of. Now whether it's really practical is another matter. But it's certainly feasible.

As far as I can make out it does (4.20 / 5) (#4)
by SIGFPE on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 07:51:26 PM EST

It fits a description of a classic crackpot magnetic drive - create an object with coils and wires so that its own magnetic field pushes itself along (I used to maintain a list of 500 or so science crackpots so I've seen this a few times!). Calling it a reactionless drive would confirm that opinion. However as the popular science press generally fails to provide pointers to the original press releases it's hard to know exactly what is going on. I guess there is a possibility that they are describing a drive that carries away momentum in an electromagnetic field - some sort of low frequency photon drive. But that's not reactionless. A reactionless drive is AFAIK in violation of the laws of physics. Do you have a better interpretation of that article that I may have missed? Given the interest of NASA in things like the so-called zero point field I have to wonder.
[ Parent ]
Magnetic Solar Sails? (none / 0) (#11)
by Khedak on Sun Dec 10, 2000 at 09:32:28 PM EST

Uh, aren't we discussing magnetic solar sails here? You know, generate a magnetic field around the craft, allow the solar wind to push the craft at a constant acceleration away from the sun, and if you have to go towards the sun simply use a gravitational assist (well, not simply, you'd have to work out the trajectory really well to slingshot yourself around Jupiter at just the right angle, but that's what Rocket Scientists do, right?).
,br>You'd probably still need a propellant system on board for course adjustments like most space probes, but being able to utilize the solar wind for propulsion away from the sun (i.e., without using propellant) seems not only feasible, but probably also very efficient and elegant, after a fashion.

[ Parent ]
Well I hope it's something like that... (none / 0) (#16)
by SIGFPE on Mon Dec 11, 2000 at 05:49:08 PM EST

...though (1) it's not reactionless and (2) it doesn't seem to fit the description to me.
[ Parent ]
nope, we're talking about a big jumping magnet (none / 0) (#24)
by delong on Mon Dec 18, 2000 at 05:42:27 AM EST

No, the reactionless drive mentioned refers to something that is totally ludicrous. To over simplify: propulsion through repulsion to onboard magnetic field. As I read it referred to: like in the cartoons, pulling yourself up off the ground by tugging on your own hair. har.


[ Parent ]
One theory of a reactionless drive (none / 0) (#21)
by eroberts00 on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 03:22:27 AM EST

One of the ideas for a reactionless drive is this:

Imagine a system in space in which you push on a mass attached to a tether away from you and then pull it back towards you. Obviously you would normally not experience any net motion, because you are pushing and pulling the same mass.

There is some data to suggest that an object with a changing energy density has a reduction in mass. If this were to be true, you could imagine a system like the above in which you pushed the mass away from you while it had a large mass and then pulled it back towards you when it had a small mass. Thus you would experience a net motion in the direction you pulled the mass, without using up any mass in the process.

Nice, if the gravitation effect really exists. This is one of the subjects being studied by the BPP program. I believe involving charging capacitors in some type of harmonic motion. That no one really knows yet if this is possible just goes to show how little we really know about the fundamental nature of gravity and if it can be modified, controlled, etc. We know far less about such things than it would seem. There's not even an accepted version of quantum gravity at this point, so anything may be possible. We have to do the experiments to find out.

[ Parent ]
Bad science (2.83 / 6) (#5)
by weirdling on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 08:14:38 PM EST

All magnets do this. At least everyone I've ever used has. That superconducting magnets do it as well shouldn't be a surprise. Fact is that they create a field, the field acts on the metal, which creates a field normal to the field in the magnet, the metal jumps, causing the magnet to jump. Turn the magnet off, and voila, the system returns to normal. What is the big deal?
What worries me is that the current NASA may build a large-scale vacuum test system, perhaps on board Discovery, to test this hypothesis. Geez.
The article does say they think it might just vibrate. My money is on that outcome.
Anyway, NASA has been odd lately. The expense of the Space Shuttle was bad enough, but that was pure greed. What is coming out now is stupidity. I think it is the Clinton administration, which has consistently put diversity above competence when selecting people to run posts. No doubt we have the most diverse and the coolest NASA we could have, but they can't figger out if a superconducting magnet jump is reversible or not. Geez.

I'm not doing this again; last time no one believed it.
Be fair to NASA (3.33 / 6) (#7)
by jesterzog on Fri Dec 08, 2000 at 08:55:22 PM EST

I think you have to be fair to NASA and not judge them too hard for "supposedly" taking an interest in "apparently" wacky projects and ideas. Without being inside the organisation, it's hard to know what the full story is.

Granted that the majority of this stuff probably won't come off, but they don't know that until they investigate it properly. If and when one of them does pay off, the reparations can be very beneficial.

For example, at one time the slingshot effect was being touted as a free lunch, which in the world of physics is impossible. (It's not really a free lunch, it's merely creative use of gravitational and inertial forces of objects in the Solar System.) Now nearly every long range NASA mission makes use of it to propel itself without needing to provide it's own fuel.

The catch-22 situation is that without wacky ideas, science in general wouldn't be able to advance anywhere. 95% of ideas get shot down before they get far off the ground, but for some of what's left over, nobody would have given them any credit beforehand because they were based on a perspective completely different from what anyone recognised until now.

Whether or not people want to spend money on this is another matter, but I don't think that's what you're asking.

jesterzog Fight the light

Breakthrough Propulsion (2.16 / 6) (#8)
by _Quinn on Sat Dec 09, 2000 at 12:26:43 AM EST

   The reason NASA's so interested in breakthrough propulsion is that they're unwilling to spend the money to develop (very) cheap access to space. My understanding is that cheap (single order of magnitude less expensive than now per pound to orbit -- so, about $1000) is a relatively straightforward 'matter of engineering'. Going down another order of magnitude (very cheap) ($100/lb) becomes very difficult, but doesn't require any fundamentally new science, though the ideas I've seen are fundamentally new to rocketry/space.

Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
This is not true. (none / 0) (#22)
by eroberts00 on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 03:31:41 AM EST

The amount of money that NASA spends on the BPP program is insignificant compared to the amount it spends trying to get cheap access to space through the space launch initiative (ex. X-33). Whether they spend that money appropriately is another discussion, but BPP is certainly not taking any money away from it.

Futhermore the BPP program is concerned, almost exclusively, with propulsion once the object is already in orbit. It is looking for new ways to move things quickly and efficiently in space and should really be commended for taking such a progressive view as to try to discover new things.

And I also disagree that $1000/lb is straightforward. It's not impossible, but it's not like NASA is making launches cost so much on purpose.

[ Parent ]
I'll tell you what's up (4.00 / 6) (#9)
by Kartoffel on Sat Dec 09, 2000 at 05:54:24 PM EST

Warning: I do not speak on behalf of NASA or any of their contractors. This is just one individual talking, so relax and consider yourself disclaimed.

I have been working on the International Space Station program for the last 15 months. If you'd like to see some really neat footage of the Station, check out the Discovery Channel special this Sunday. I am part of the Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) in Houston. MOD runs mission control and handles all of the ops planning that goes behind it. There are offices dedicated to robotics, electrical systems, life support, command and data handling, etc..

My perspective on things outside the Space Shuttle and ISS programs is very limited. However, we do get to see what goes on in the space station world. NASA is a political entity. They survive by getting money from congress and by looking good to the public. That prime motivator results in whole lot of politics and bureaucracy.

While there is still good science going on, most interesting programs get mangled beyond belief. The upper management loves to build empires. Everyone is struggling for control of their own sandbox, so to speak. The downside to this is that there is a lot of duplication of effort. There's a lot of red tape.

Imagine a new Cool Project(tm) comes along and a couple of engineers manage to snag some funding for it (no small task, btw). If their project becomes popular or gets any kind of visibility, the higher levels of manglement in NASA will split up the project. They'll spread it around between lots of different department and several NASA centers. The middle level managers in those departments will viciously guard their pieces of the project and hinder progress. But, now that the project is spread out over lots of miniature empires, you can't kill it. What was once a small project with enthusiasm and momentum turns into a Dilbert-style nightmare. At least, that's how I see it.

Now, on to the Space Station:

The attrition rate in MOD is really high. They're hiring young kids and training them as fast as they can to go sit on consoles in the control center. They may even have to push back future shuttle launches because there aren't enough console certified people. People get hired into NASA, work for awhile, get completely disenfranchised, and leave for more interesting work elsewhere.

The ISS program never had any clearly defined goals. It's purely designed by commitee. The Russians and other internationals were involved to try to offset costs while building more public enthusiasm. The station is too large and it vibrates too much to get any good microgravity science done. The ISS was never meant to assemble spacecraft to continue on to the moon or Mars. The ISS is not a stepping stone halfway up Earth's gravity well. ISS does not use ANY new technologies. Every single time something even remotely risky is proposed, NASA shoots it down. They're paralyzed with fear and as a result, we're taking tiny baby steps to build a bloated space station with 1970's technology.

Aren't all advances science fiction? (1.00 / 1) (#12)
by JonesBoy on Mon Dec 11, 2000 at 09:39:57 AM EST

First off, I have to say the comments about the "research paper" on the natural log are deceiving. Take a look at the link and go one level above it. It is just one of a few interesting tech briefs on a large scientific page. Useless, possibly, Interesting, yes, waste of money? What money? Sounded like a hobby to me.

Haven't all great scientific advances been thought of as silly? Take a look at the discovery of germs, subatomic particles, quantum theory. They all seemed bogus at one time or another. They may be challenging 400 year old basic laws, but who says old is right? Take a look at the physics changes in small scale. Newtons laws don't hold true, and the laws of Bose, Einstein, et al take effect. I can't remember who said it but, "any science sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from fiction". The church told people that the earth was the center of the universe, and the sun revolved around it. Should the people have taken that as truth, or questioned that "law" with observation and experimentation to prove it? Hey, the bible is a lot older than 400 yrs! Where would we be today without curiosity for the inexplicable?

Perhaps these leads will be dead ends, but we may learn more about our physical world from their failure. For example, Nylon, Teflon, Silly Putty and Post It Notes. We weren't looking for any of those, but managed to stumble on them anyway. I believe it was Laplace who was trying to find a better way to calculate gambling odds, and his equations today are applied to all fields of mathamatics.

Speeding never killed anyone. Stopping did.
Let me tighten up my argument a bit... (none / 0) (#13)
by SIGFPE on Mon Dec 11, 2000 at 01:15:13 PM EST

(1) Haven't all great scientific advances been thought of as silly?
The answer is probably 'yes'. Special relativity must have seemed downright crazy and quantum mechanics is still perceived as weird by many people. The same is likely to be true of many other scientific revolutions. So it's tempting to take this question and turn it into a strategy
(2) To make great advances in science do stuff that is silly
At first glance this may seem like a bad idea but take a look at what other people have said on this issue. For example Popper's view of science is that it is hypothetico-deductive. The idea is that you propose hypotheses and then test them against reality (as opposed to some how applying a rigid process to experimental results and turning them into 'laws' by rote). It doesn't matter where these hypotheses come from - they could be from dreams (Kekule's benzene ring), the occult (Newton maybe) or just plain old working in a lab. It doesn't matter how silly the proposal generating method if it fits the facts. Similar dicussions can be found in the works of people as varied as Feynman and Feyerabend (this guy is excellent on irrationality - when I read 'Against Method' Feyerabend did a really good job of convincing me that the Copernican view of the Solar System was completely irrational - a recommended read).

Anyway, I agree with all of these people - science proceeds irrationally and removing irrationality would kill science. So why am I worried about NASA? One of the key ideas here is that cool new science may seem irrational but it's not good because it is irrational - it just so happens that good science is good for other reasons and just so happens that it is often irrational as well.

In a complex system there are variables you can use to control the system and there are those that are purely diagnostic. For example if you have a person in a sealed room you can have some control over how much work they do by controlling how much oxygen they get but only an idiot would look at the carbon content of a human, decide that carbon is essential to life, and conclude that we need to give lumps of carbon to someone to make them work efficiently.

In the normal course of doing science there will be a certain amount of irrationality. Irrationality is a good diagnostic when trying to understand whether research is going well. However I don't believe that irrationality is one of the control variables in this system. Dialling up or down the irrationality of a research establishment won't improve research. If they were already doing good research there would already be a degree of irrationality. Having carried out research in my life - both in academia and in industry - it seems to me that what is happening at NASA is that they have more irrational projects going on than is desirable. They have plainly solicited wacky research ideas because they are wacky (and hence are trying to dial up irrationality) - and that, I have been arguing, is a bad idea. In a healthy environment irrational looking ideas like the slingshot effect will appear and survive without any deliberate promotion of irrationality.

In conclusion then I'd say that (2) needs to be replaced with
(3) Don't reject something because it seems silly even though it fits the facts
and that NASA are actually using (2).

PS The thing about 'e' is a bit of an aside from the main argument. But that result isn't just uninteresting - it's unmitigated crap. If it's someone's hobby I just wonder why it's on an otherwise serious page and whether NASA have any kind of peer review process internally because this damages their credibility.
[ Parent ]

Let me explain myself (none / 0) (#14)
by JonesBoy on Mon Dec 11, 2000 at 02:39:42 PM EST

I was not trying to support research into the absurd, but attempt to point out that this may not be so absurd as you think. Many points of electromagnetism and gravitation have not been examined at small scales and tiny distances. Take a look at gravitation. A few weeks ago and article was posted either here of /. mentioning reserch on gravitation at distances < 1mm. Apparantly, its effects do not follow the scaled down equations of larger distances. Yes, right now propulsion by mass ejection is the way to go, but does that mean other ideas are nutty? I hope not. Starting ideas from scratch is not very easy, and as another poster mentioned, ideas can sometimes get out of hand and mismanaged. I get to see it every day. You spoke of people theorizing and then trying to prove their theory by experimentation. From my experience, most science is derived from experiments failing, and scientists discovering something new that screwed up the experiment in the first place. Einsteins universe expansion fudge factor comes to mind. He called it the biggest misteak of his life at the time. Perhaps the ideas posted were a little extreme. Perhaps when a good idea comes along, you will have an army of scientists ready to latch on. Go ahead, call me an optimist :) The main problem I had with your original posting are the examples you used. Lets face it, life can survive in nasty places, including space. Chances are, the stuff is all over the place, and we are just in such a tiny corner that we can't see it. Aren't there meteroites with bacteria in them? I vaguely remember somthing about fields of mold in Canada that are believed to be alien. And the natural log thing, well, on the page that links to that is states, "these summaries are shorn of most technical language and may be thought of as "popular science" discussions of selected GISS research topics." No, not professional review, not top notch research papers, but a way to communicate to the layman, and increase public interest in the GISS research organization. I feel your examples are attempts to emotionally sway readers against the GISS research topics. You mention the topics, with massive generalizations call them silly. You follow with an unrelated hot-topic events, and then a misrepresented web page from the orginization you critisize. Sounds like a personal bias to me.
Speeding never killed anyone. Stopping did.
[ Parent ]
Interesting (none / 0) (#15)
by SIGFPE on Mon Dec 11, 2000 at 03:24:25 PM EST

From my experience, most science is derived from experiments failing
You may be confusing two concepts here. There are experiments that produce unexpected results. For example someone may use theory to predict A but A doesn't happen. This is a failure of the theory rather than a failure of the experiment. This kind of failure is exciting because it tells you something useful - you need a new theory. If Newton's law of gravitation fails at scales of <1mm that's really exciting (hmmm...that's an understatement). It's not nothing to do with experimental failure however. Experimental failure is something different (although that too can occasionally produce good results - eg. the discovery of penicillin).

Aren't there meteroites with bacteria in them?
Hmmm...you may in fact be living proof that there is a bit of a misinformation campaign going on. There have been no findings of bacteria in meteorites that more than a handful people are convinced came from outer space (the main people involved here are Hoyle and Wickramasinghe who are very marginal in the scientific community and have been for a few decades). There have been controversial findings of so-called nanobacteria fossils. There is continuing debate about what they actually are.

I vaguely remember somthing about fields of mold in Canada that are believed to be alien.
On the X-files? :-)

You mention the topics, with massive generalizations call them silly. You follow with an unrelated hot-topic events
Interesting analysis. Think the GISS thing is an aside from my main argument and that's why I only mentioned it in parentheses at the end. I'm not sure about the massive generalisations though. Could you point these out as I'd like to tighten up my argument even more and I'd like not to use unjustified generalisations. Also where do I use unrelated hot-topics. As for personal bias - that's an ad hominem argument that I shall ignore.
[ Parent ]
Generalizations (none / 0) (#17)
by JonesBoy on Tue Dec 12, 2000 at 10:54:29 AM EST

>You may be confusing two concepts here.

I guess I am. Good point.
I will look for the article I saw on the ET molds. I know it was still up for review, but they were abnormally old, or had some other peculiarities that made them different from terrestrial molds.

2nd para, you say a hubble engineer questioned relativitiy, 3rd you call the proposals (6) science fiction, mention the reactionless drive, and insult it.

If you read the article, the researcher directly says "might get some propulsion out of it," and "It's very speculative. We don't know if it'll work." Well, it seems even the researcher finds the chances of this developing as a form of propulsion as slim. It seems more like research into stabilizing superconducting magnets exposed to rapidly switched power. It would really suck if our high tension power lines did the boogie, worse if they decide to relocate. :) With 'scientists' harnessing the powers of crop circles, and the likes of Dr. Warwick running around, I find this research far from humorous.

Speeding never killed anyone. Stopping did.
[ Parent ]
Hype=$$$ (1.00 / 1) (#19)
by TranceState on Wed Dec 13, 2000 at 04:52:27 AM EST

Completely correct, although some of the more interesting work in the advanced propulsion regimes was undertaken in the black through military contracts; NASA has inherited a lot of gear and is interested in taking it forward. Personally I have no problem with this, but then I'm English and our space program consists of a couple of landers. :o) However, to state that this may not be valuable is to wipe out some interesting possiblities; while I understand that there is a certain level of mystique around Newton's laws, there is the possiblity that they don't describe certain things. It took a young physics student, Chandrasekhar Subhrayman, to contemplate what happens if something gets so massive that it could divert light, Newton didn't even attempt to approach this. It's a remarkable effort to come out and state that things are not as they seem. You may remember Pons & Fleischmann's early experiments in Cold Fusion; Frank Close has made it his life's work to generally argue down such things, but the results are interesting if not mind-blowing. NASA is generally pandering to a fickle media that so arrogantly used it towards the end of the Apollo program and shamed it during the Challenger episode, but this is indicative of any agency that's finding it's budget shrinking in the face of more election-worthy programmes.

I think you're way off base here (1.00 / 1) (#20)
by eroberts00 on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 03:01:29 AM EST

Especially concerning the BPP program. First of all, this is just basic research to see if any of these concepts are correct. You're right to say that something like a reactionless drive or antigravity would require extraordinary evidence, and that's exactly what these programs are trying to provide. NASA isn't saying that these theories are correct, they're simply providing money so that they can be tested. Last I heard, that was exactly the attitude that scientist try to encourage. And saying that they are going against 400 years of physics, is a simple falsehood. Last I heard relativity and quantum physics have been around far less time than that. These programs are admitting that NASA doesn't know everything about physics and trying to prove what is and is not possible, and I think they should be expanded. Who knows, but they just might find some breakthrough. Saying that it is impossible that they will is the last thing I would hope to hear from someone who uses the term scientist in regards to theirself.

Second, the BPP program gets only a minute amount of funding. I would say only a few million at most per year. I think we should spend more resources on such basic things as discovering what is and what is not possible.

Think of it like this... (none / 0) (#23)
by SIGFPE on Fri Dec 15, 2000 at 03:13:25 PM EST

And saying that they are going against 400 years of physics, is a simple falsehood. Last I heard relativity and quantum physics have been around far less time than that.
But conservation of momentum has been around for around 400 years and is still working well.

Think of experimentation as a branch of information theory. If you have an experiment that as probability p of producing result A and probability 1-p of producing result B then by performing the experiment you expect to learn -plog(p)-(1-p)log(1-p) bits of information. When p is very close to 0 or 1 your expected gain is very small. Well when you are playing with superconductors and magnets, a field that has been well explored for a long time, the chances of finding an anomaly are pretty small. Yes, the payoff is great if you do find an anomaly but the chances of that happening are small. Given limited resources it's inefficient to set up a program that deliberately seeks out low p experiments. It is deliberately playing a bad strategy. (And of course another reason for avoiding extremely small p is that the probability of fraud or a hoax becomes significant by comparison.)

Saying that it is impossible that they will is the last thing I would hope to hear from someone who uses the term scientist in regards to theirself (sic)
This has nothing to do with what I am saying as I hope I have explained. How many examples can you name of good science coming out of a research program directed towards an extreme p result? Physicists, say, try to get money to build accelerators because they think there is a resonable chance of finding a Higgs particle or a new quark or whetever. Nobody would build a particle accelerator prematurely to investigate a particle that has a one in a million chance of appearing (though they might try if it's something they could do at near zero cost riding on the back of another experiment). But when technology improves such that the particle as a greater chance of appearing they are more likely to consider the experiment. I think that NASA are acting prematurely and irrationally.
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What's up at NASA? | 24 comments (23 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
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