Tuesday, December 17, 2013

An open letter to save Planetary Science at NASA

Please feel free to copy+paste this letter and change the names or anything you like to send to your representatives. 

Dear Mr./Ms. President/Senator/Representative,

Due to budget cutbacks, NASA may soon be forced to cut short one of its two most important planetary science missions: The Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, and the Cassini Orbiter around Saturn. Despite years of potential life remaining in both vehicles, which have given us wonderful discoveries and images which help captivate and inspire us all --like evidence of fresh, clean water on early Mars and the potential existence of a habitable ocean under the ice of Saturn's moon Enceladus-- one of these missions could soon be cut short in a foolish effort to save an effectively irrelevant sum of money. This is unacceptable, both practically and in principle.

As both of these missions are already active, they require only operational costs to continue providing invaluable data and perspective on our solar system --ending them would mean discarding functioning vehicles already delivered to distant planets at great expense. Further, replacement of these vehicles' capabilities would require an investment of many times the funding required to ensure that both continue operating as planned. If you believe, as I do, that scientific discovery, exploration, technological development, and the marshalling of our best efforts and ingenuity to solve the challenges of space flight have value, then this waste of potential discoveries already within our grasp is not worth the fraction of a fraction of a percent that could be saved from the federal budget by dismantling our crowning achievements. I believe that there are far better, more effective, and less destructive ways of lowering expenses, if that is a goal we wish to achieve.

I also find the very idea of cutting back on our most bold and exciting areas of scientific exploration foolish at a time when people need more than ever to see that the future is bright and that the greatest and most challenging problems can be solved by our best and brightest minds. When pondering the greatest challenges that lay ahead of our civilization, the ingenious systems devised by our engineers and the incredible discoveries made by our scientists are proof that, given the chance, this nation can overcome even the most daunting obstacles. These bold steps taken into the unknown are sure to inspire and energize the minds of millions of young people to dream of better futures for themselves and for all of us. If we long for improvement in our worldly station, then there is no more powerful force that can be marshalled to achieve it than to instill in this generation a dream and the belief that to see the future they have only to dare to build it.

Planetary science at NASA is about more than distant machines exploring the cold, dusty reaches of space; it is about the people who build them, those who use them to discover, and those whose lives are enriched and inspired by the knowledge of our origins. It is about all of us, who live in a world understood and improved every day by those lives. NASA needs $1.5 billion, less than one twentieth of one percent of the 2013 federal budget, for its entire planetary science program to remain funded at levels that will save these missions, most of which is already granted. I support granting them the rest, and I hope you will too.

Thank you,
Dustin Summy

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The wonders of evolution - Deep in the heart of Texas

Over the Thanksgiving break, I was fortunate enough to have a chance to visit the Texas Memorial Museum on the University of Texas campus. It's a small building, but each of its four levels is packed with wonderful exhibits. There were some fantastic examples of the weird and wonderful products of evolution on display, not least of which was the 40-foot Quetzalcoatlus northropi fossil soaring over the great hall. I've embedded a slideshow of some photos I took during my visit for you to enjoy. Don't miss the last few photos of comments made by museum patrons about the evolution exhibit. (Album and more after the break)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Science vs. Wishful Thinking

"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." —Traditional
It seems that there is some distance between most people's understanding of this traditional aphorism, often mistakenly attributed in origin to Carl Sagan, and its meaning. The cause in most cases may be found in the nuance of its usage, but I'd like to explain another principle which is likely leaking into its meaning: the impossibility of induction.

Scientific knowledge is based on inductive reasoning; you take a small sample and infer the larger result. This is actually a very bad way of proving things! Imagine being asked to prove that there are infinitely many prime numbers and responding by listing all the prime numbers you can think of, noting that there are more than you can count, and pointing to a bunch of other problems in math that would be solved if there were an infinity of primes. You'd be laughed out of the room if you claimed this was proof of anything in front of a  mathematician! Mathematicians use this kind of reasoning to make conjectures and hypotheses, but since math is based on a set of axioms (facts that are considered true by definition), any claim in mathematics ought to be able to be proven deductively and inarguably (there are some complicated caveats to this, but for the kinds of math useful in practical problems, this is fair to say. Before anyone goes all Gödel on me, consider that you may be being an asshole, you know what I mean.)