Unlike religion, Science brings so many heartbreaks!

Wednesday, 13 October 2010 01:26 by salim

So much is happening in the world of science these days with new claims of discoveries and inventions, breaking and formation of new theories, wild hypothesis. In an earlier age, people outside the academia could only get, often mistimed, almost always distorted view from the media.

Now, we have an almost immediate access to most of this information, in many cases, the original papers that describe the finding. There are many science blogs that provides background information and further reading guides. This has given me, and I am sure it is a shared feeling, a real glimpse into the process of science in action. Instead of discoveries and inventions being a bunch of static text in a text book or magazine, I can see each of these ideas evolve, painstakingly. It is like watching a live telecast of (substitute your favorite sports here) with continuous upsets and miraculous moves.

So, here is the short history of Gliese 581g, the earthlike, goldilocks planet from last couple of weeks. Here is one of the many overblown press reports (Gliese 581g).

It really was a wonderful feeling to know there is this planet that could potentially harbor life (well, other than say Io, Titan etc. We still have a problem defining the parameters of life, but that is another story). And the best part, it is only 20 light years away. Think about it, if there is a planet that can support life (as we know) right at our neighborhood, then chances are that there are many more around us.

The scientists Steven Vogt, Paul Butler and possibly a large unnamed gang of doctoral and post doctoral scholars analyzed 11 years of data available on Gliese 581 to arrive at the conclusion that there could be up to 6 planets orbiting this star with one possibly at the goldilocks zone potentially with liquid water. This planet could have a minimum of 3 times the mass of earth.

The frenzy followed this included someone in TV saying that it is only 20 light years away and if we trash earth, we could go there. This is true, if you have 180,000 years or energy equivalent of total earth consumption for several thousand years. So, we are not going there anytime soon.

Then came the shocking news. A SETI scientist from Australia Ragbir Bhathal had detected a strange pulse from this planet 2 years ago. This however did not impress Drake!

Speculations, stories, visitations from beings live in Gliese 581g, psychics who claim they are in communication with the great king Atutoao of Gliese 581g, and finally…

You know, there might not be a planet at all…

This is the problem with science. You cannot have faith in anything scientific. The moment you start believing something, there comes an experiment, an observation, a mathematical proof that force you to change.

Unlike religion, where it takes a few hundred years for a mistake to be admitted, and the only thing valid is faith.

Strangely though, I love the heart breaking, invigorating, wondrous feeling of awe, every day is a new day. Nothing remains unquestioned, no truths remain unchallenged.

NASA and the Moon

Wednesday, 3 February 2010 01:54 by salim

After the announcement of 2011 budget by Obama administration, a lot of people who love science, technology and space travel (like me) has been complaining about the lack of funding to NASA to pursue the back to moon program. These comments were anywhere from mild protests to complete denouncement.

I got to thinking! Is NASA the right place to innovate? It is basically a huge bureaucratic conglomerate involved in everything from Defense research to space flight. It is completely dependent on the government to fund, which, in turn has a very low tolerance to failures. Over the years, it has made NASA into this overly protective, extremely secretive organization with very low risk thresholds. It is not the bunch of mavericks from the 60s who were driven by the nationalist agenda of beating USSR.

On the other hand, I do not think the commercial ventures are going to be the way either. There is still a lot of basic research and technology development needed in space travel. The current industrial climate, which only rewards quick money making schemes with a potentially prolonged recession is not the most conducive of such research to be undertaken in private sector.

May be what we need is a global agency that operates in a very transparent way. Currently national space agencies work in extremely secretive manner. This causes a lot of duplication (reinventing the wheel) and sub-optimal production processes. If there was a global agency, even with a fraction of the money that all the nations spend on space research, we could have achieved much more. Especially if the agency works in a transparent manner with as much participation from everyone.

There is also the question of manned versus robotic missions. Here too, I am not sure which one is better. It is true there are so many things a human being can do on the surface of mars than a robot like Sprit or Opportunity. But, there are a lot of things a robot like the MRO (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) can do that no human beings could ever. Our robotic and remote sensing capabilities are growing exponentially (sadly powered by the wars) and there are a lot of things a robot can do that human beings cannot in remote planets. For e.g. I would be more excited to hear the mission to Europa to explore the underlying ocean (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn1786) like Endurance.

But again, is space research the right priority? We are still struggling to get a consensus on climate change and how to resolve it. Going to mars is a very good thing. Going to Alpha Centauri phenomenal. But I am sure we can wait a few more decades to do all that. They are not going to go away.

Will knowing about life in other planets finally make us think more rationally? Most of the religions will have a problem to accommodate extraterrestrial life. Undermining religion is always a good thing. May be, it is worth to look for ET.