Friday, January 16, 2009
After eight years of continental drift in science policy the science
community urged president-elect Barack Obama to act swiftly to fill
science positions. But who expected a much admired professor of physics to
be nominated as science advisor before Christmas? Or a Nobel laureate to
be Secretary of Energy? No scientist could refuse the President's call
to serve their country and the world. Do we only now have a leader who
understands this? The members of the Obama team are linked by their
commitment to the environment. Only the position of NASA Administrator
remains to be filled. It was no secret that Michael Griffin wanted to
keep the job, but as NASA head he consistently ignored environmental
concerns to push a hopelessly outdated space-cadet program of manned
rockets and islands in space. The great environmental observatory DSCOVR
was left locked in solitary confinement. Obama will name USAF Maj. Gen.
Scott Gration, Ret. to head NASA, possibly today. We know virtually
nothing about Gration's position on the issues, but Obama presumably
knows; he spent a lot of time with Gration on a trip to Africa, where
Gration was born to missionary parents. This is the sort of person you
put in charge when you want to sever the shackles of outdated tradition
and totally reexamine its reason for existing.
Plumes of methane have been observed in the atmosphere of Mars. Since
methane is destroyed by sunlight, there must be a renewable source. Could
it be living organisms? Methane seems to be a pheromone to Mars
Trekkies, who immediately called for a human mission to check it out.
Very bad idea; astronauts are huge bacteria cultures that must dump their
contents daily for the 18 months the mission must remain on Mars. Humans
on Mars are certain to discover bacteria but they may look familiar.
Astronauts resist being autoclaved, but methane plumes certainly justify a
sample return mission. Remember the 1976 Viking lander that scooped up
Martian soil, plopped it into a nutrient broth, and monitored the evolved
gas for evidence of life? And behold! There it was. However, NASA later
backed down saying it was most likely an inorganic reaction.
Enrico Fermi, the great Italian physicist, fled Italy with his Jewish wife
to escape Hitler and became a leader of the atomic bomb program. When he
was asked if he thought there are space aliens, he is said to have
answered with a question: “Where are they?” They're where they've always
been. The bad news is that we can't go there. The good news is that they
can't come here. We're alone in our solar system and interstellar
distances are far too great to visit another star. But maybe we can see.
This year in March, 400 years after Galileo invented the telescope, the
United States will launch a new orbiting telescope, Kepler, specifically
to see Earth-like planets hidden by the light of their sun. In May the
final space shuttle trip will make a maintenance visit to the Hubble Space
Telescope. Designed to be serviced by the shuttle, and delayed three
years by the Challenger disaster, Hubble was out of date and had a
construction flaw before it was launched but it has given us a glimpse of