For today, bringing you up to date on a few past posts.
Adieu, Philae. Or is it au ‘voir?
In our last episode, the plucky little lander Philae was finally on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. But Philae wasn’t getting enough sun, so its solar battery was running out. European Space Agency scientists to the rescue! Could they move Philae into the sunlight in time for its several-week mission to continue?
Or, long shot, maybe not. There’s a literal ray of hope. It’s possible that the comet’s position as it nears the sun (its closest approach is next August) will move Philae out of the shade and its battery will recharge. Stay tuned.
Clara Moskowitz’s SciAm post is a nice summary of our necessary mixed feelings about Philae’s traumatic landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko: sorrow that the little lander ended up in a shady place where its solar battery gave out and put an end to its mission, joy that the Rosetta mission did, in fact, put a lander on a comet. Pretty unlikely, really. A triumph, even.
Bad astronomer Phil Plait rhapsodizes a bit–justifiably–about human successes in space, pretty damn marvelous when you remember that we’ve only been flying for a century or so. “We’ve sent our spacecraft to every major body in the solar system, and quite a few minor ones besides. We’ve continuously occupied space for years, and we’ve launched observatories into orbit that examine the Universe in every wavelength regime of the electromagnetic spectrum. And we’ve done even more: We’ve set down on other worlds.” All this in a few decades, less than a human lifetime.
Doing science on a comet
During its brief lifetime, Philae did manage some science. It detected organic molecules. That might be a big deal because one of the theories about the origin of life on Earth is that it was triggered by organics delivered here by comets. But George Dvorsky at io9 says organics are not a big deal, or at least not yet, because the European Space Agency hasn’t released information on just which organics.
Amino acids could be a very big deal. Methane, not so much, even though it can be produced by living creatures. Organics, as it happens, are abundant in the universe.
Scientists gathered lots of other data too, in the couple of days when Philae’s battery was still functioning. Those data will take months to analyze, according to Eric Hand at ScienceInsider, and Rosetta will continue to orbit the comet for another year. Science also has an open-access slide show of its favorite photos of the landing process.
Final Frontier Miscellany
It’s nice that Rhett Allain at Dot Physics has enough time on his hands to figure out how big Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko is in relation to other big things. For example, if you laid the six 725 meter-long concourses at the Atlanta airport end to end, they would be about the length of the comet. Looks like quite a bumpy surface too, so a long uncomfortable walk, even with a spinner bag.
A Brit consortium wants to go back to the moon and has launched a Kickstarter campaign to pay for the project.
Conspiracy Theory about the comet mission
The conspiracy theorists at the Breitbart site are alleging that Philae could have survived to do its work except for those !@#$%^&*! environmentalists. “[G]reen lobbyists were behind moves to bar rocket scientists from using nuclear energy to power the device forcing scientists to rely on solar power instead.”
It seems possible that this is not just right-wing nutcase babble but that nuclear power for a spacecraft is a question for reasonable debate. See, for example, the brief post by Ethan Siegel at Starts with a Bang and his longer argument at Medium about why the ESA scientists should have used Plutonium-238 to power Philae.
I await some journalist(s) to explain the arguments pro and con.
I can’t leave this topic without a brief mention of the #shirtstorm over the garment that ESA project scientist Matt Taylor was wearing, and the comment he made, when he appeared at a press conference to talk about the Philae landing. His inevitable later apology seemed sincere, and I have no reason to think that the episode wasn’t misogyny but rather largely a manifestation of clumsy, clueless geekery. I wish deeply that one of his colleagues had had the wit to say, “Hey, Matt, I’d wear a different shirt if I were you,” and I expect he does too, now. Maybe they are all clueless geeks.
I won’t recap because several others have done so. A selection: Phil Price at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, an odd-sounding repository for this screed; Janet Stemwedel at Doing Good Science; the anonymous physicist at Skulls in the Stars.
What these critiques argue is that the shirt and comment are just another small expression of the idea that the point of women is their orfices, and that science is a boys’ club, No Girls Allowed. Isis the Scientist sums it up: “So, the issue isn’t that it’s one shirt. It’s that as a woman scientist, I see the equivalent of that shirt numerous times a day.”
I know that’s true, but it seems to me unnecessarily parochial. Women in other professions–indeed, women of every age and occupation–can tell similar stories. If you’re in science, of course you want to fix the problem in science. But I don’t want us to forget that this is not a problem just for women in science. It is a problem for women (and, worse, for girls.)
The Skulls post recounts the usual particularly appalling eruptions on Twitter, directed at a (female) friend of the blogger who tweeted an objection to the shirt. “Since being targeted, my Female Friend has received thousands of insulting tweets and emails. Her personal information was released online — a process known as doxxing — and the messages included death threats. Don’t believe me? As of today — nearly a week after the landing — people are still attacking her.” If you want proof, he provides it, quoting tweet after noxious tweet. “Trigger warning: lots of nastiness here, a true snapshot of depravity.”
Update on the virus research moratorium
Late last month, I posted here at On Science Blogs about the White House’s moratorium on disease virus research involving making the virus more virulent or infective.
On Monday Jocelyn Kaiser reported at ScienceInsider that the moratorium is affecting virus research at 14 institutions. Lots of detail. At Shots, Nell Greenfieldboyce has a post recounting the particular problems of a MERS researcher.
The re-Return of Jonah Lehrer
Are you surprised? I’m not. Disgraced science writer Jonah Lehrer has yet another book deal, this one a collaboration with UCLA behavioral economist Shlomo Benartzi. At New York Magazine, Katie Zavadski tells us that it is to be “a Lehrer-esque pop science self-help book focusing on increasing productivity online — at least according to its product description on Amazon.”
Lehrer’s doings and undoings have been recounted in several posts here at On Science Blogs. Most of them appeared when the blog was still on the site of the National Association of Science Writers, before PLOS invited me to become part of the PLOS Blog Network. You can find a list here. It’s a long, juicy story. To science writers, at least. Possibly inside baseball for the rest of you.
When last heard from, Lehrer was supposed to be writing a book about, gasp, Love. Zavadski reports that Simon & Schuster says it has a draft of the love book but no pub date yet.
There’s been next to no blogging about this more recent book development, and that is a bit of a surprise. Razib Khan has a rambling post at Gene Expression urging Lehrer to take up a different line of work and let some other science writer have a chance. Dream on.
Next week I will be taking Friday off to continue giving thanks, and among the things I’m thankful for is readers of On Science Blogs. Much obliged to you all. Next post, Friday December 4. Good grief, December already.