Today’s Themes in Science! and Media

First: This one just sort of cracks me up, even if it is as predictable as the sunrise: scientists are always surprised and never expected whatever it is they are looking at, once they get a good close look at it. Today’s example: Pandemonium! Motion of Pluto’s Moons Perplexes Scientists

“The orbits of Pluto’s four smallest moons are even more chaotic than scientists had expected, according to new results from the New Horizons mission, which made a close flyby of Pluto in July.”

See? It’s safe to say that no one had yet gotten a close look at small moons orbiting a distant planet-thing, yet scientists had expectations about what they would find when they did, and these expectations were destroyed by the actual observed reality. Evidently, they had expected *some* chaos, but got pandemonium!

This is all fairly harmless, of course, as it is most of the time – as long as observation sooner or later (preferably sooner) is allowed to correct expectations, it’s all good. But taken to extremes, such as where edifices both theoretical and financial have built based on expectations, then the observations become too rude and mean to be allowed to destroy a beautiful theory and lucrative careers. That would be a real problem, one to which astronomy is, thankfully, largely immune.

2. Once got into it in a completely friendly manner with what might be called a technological super-optimist about the plausibility of interplanetary travel and colonization for humans. I, kill-joy curmudgeon that I am, suggested that the dangers to human health in space travel were typically understated. Off the top of my head, all travel to any other planet will end up exposing astronauts to radiation for a year or more. Further, the sun rather unpredictable emits large bursts every once in a while, to which space travelers would be exposed. Staying healthy or even alive in space will be a crap shoot. The idea of people being born and living their lives in space is even a greater unknown, but has similar risks to space travel, only more so. My interlocutor just assumed technology would take care of these problems, and it was just a matter of deciding to do it. I reflexively counter such arguments with commercial nuclear fusion, cancer cures and faster than light travel – there are physical problems technology has not solved in decades of trying, which may simply be unsolvable. .

Anyway, I *want* people to travel in space and colonize planets and moons – it’s just that I have my doubts.

Today we get: Space Missions Have Major Effects On Astronauts’ Brains. And these effects are not good. Like I just said, I hope we figure it all out, and send people traipsing among the stars. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.

3. Occasionally, like today, the Google news science feed sends me the Huffington Post, after the viewing of which I sometimes feel the need for a shower. The articles ‘suggested for me’ (Why? What did I do?) on the right sidebar included tips for having a safe 3-way (I’m hoping not getting involved in one would be pretty safe) and a headline that contained the phrase ‘problematic dichotomy’. OK.. My faith that readers who worry about safe 3-ways would actually need the phrase ‘problematic dichotomy’ to properly capture the subtle nuances and, I don’t know, joie de vivre? of this particular iffy distinction is not high. Sounds like the mewlings of somebody who did way too much (any at all is more than enough) critical theory in college, and learned that the teacher would fail them unless they played the tortured vocabulary game. I like a $10 word or phrase as much as the next guy, but I like it to communicate something.

4. Hope for Humanity Moment: The other day, two younger coworkers and I were visiting a client, and the poor dears were trapped in a car with me for over an hour. I cannot be expected to let pass such a perfectly good opportunity to corrupt the youth.

The subject turned to what we’d each studied in college. Usually, like Arlo Guthrie’s experience on the Group W bench as recounted in Alice’s Restaurant, business people mentally slide away from me when I say I studied classics via the Great Books in college, but decide I’m OK and slide back when I add that I later went to business school.  But my coworkers are too generous or callow for that, bless them! In fact, it turns out that they have, respectively, degrees in Japanese and Sociology – and so code for a living. I love reality in high tech!

Of course, I opined that I would not be able to take sociology seriously unless they rejected the glamour of Margaret Meade and all her works. And – I couldn’t believe it – my young friend said that, in his sociology studies, Meade had only ever been mentioned as an example of what not to do and as a general cautionary tale. He assured me it had been this way for at least the last 20 years! Huzzah!  I must investigate further. Has evidence overturned expectations? Later rather than sooner, but it is good development.

A funny thing: I dragged in something about anthropology, and he reflexively grabbed his 10′ pole – evidently, there’s some sort of chasm in academia between sociologists and anthropologists? Really? I thought the distinction almost arbitrary, except perhaps for paleoanthropology, which does seem like a fundamentally different thing.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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