Friday, October 17, 2008
Science made a fleeting appearance in the final question of Wednesday's
final presidential debate at Hofstra University. It was the only time the
word "science" came up; there would be no more chances. The moderator,
Bob Schrieffer, observed that "although the U.S. spends more per capita on
education than any other country we trail in math and science competence
from K through 12 . . . what do you intend to do about it?" Obama called
for us to "recruit an army of new teachers in math and science," with a
tuition tax credit in exchange for "community service." As one who could
not have become a physics professor but for the G.I. Bill, I agree.
However, early in the debate, McCain was pressed to say what programs he
would cut to avoid raising taxes, "An across-the-board spending freeze.
OK? Some people say that's a hatchet. That's a hatchet, and then I get
out a scalpel. OK?" Don't bother with the scalpel, John, much of physics
would need embalming if there was a spending freeze on top of this year's
huge budget cuts (WN 27 Jun 08) . Has
anybody figured out how to run the country without taxes?
Hubble's doctors had been optimistic that rebooting would restore Earth's
aging eye-on-the-universe to health. However, Hubble slipped back into
a "safe mode" coma late last night. A data relay channel, Side A, that
had worked flawlessly for 18 years, failed. We all have components that
fail, but in the case of Hubble there is a backup, Side B. The switch is
complicated, but NASA expects to issue a report on Hubble's condition
An essay in yesterday's Nature by Subhadra Menon, author of Destination
Moon, seeks to explain the ambitious space program of India. Considered
a "developing nation" in which millions struggle to survive, India has 11
communications satellites and seven remote sensing satellites. That's
good. Next week, India will launch Chandrayaan-1 to the Moon, an
ambitious "suicide" mission that will send back high-resolution images as
well as an atmospheric profile as it plunges into the Moon's surface.
The stated goal of Chandrayaan-1 is to further human knowledge, even as
India's space program claims to make money. In 2011, Chandrayaan-2 will
look for He-3, which has no proven value. By simply skipping the
unproductive phase of using human astronauts and going directly to robotic
exploration, India and China could easily choose to outrace the developed
nations by concentrating on remote-controlled robots at far lower cost
while providing better science. The only niche left for human astronauts
would be chamber maids to make beds for super rich tourists.
Launched eleven years and two days ago on a mission to explore the planets
and rings of Saturn, this amazing spacecraft dipped to within 25
kilometers of the surface to the moon Encelades, less than the distance of
a marathon, and analysed the spray from the geyser-like plume of ice and
water vapor near the south pole.