Rocket Science vs the Real World

I’ve been listening to the story of the comet mission with mild interest, and mild bemusement.  Slightly surprised the comet has sufficient gravity to put a satellite into (presumably very slow) orbit around it or to land a craft.

Anyway, my past life working at ESA was completely unrelated to any of this, and I’m observing this story as a member of the general public.  Like the rest of the world I can watch with awe the engineering triumph of getting to the comet.  I can get mildly excited by the cliffhanger story of whether the landing would be successful.  I can take a layman’s interest in scientific results from the mission.

I can even learn a lesson from it: if sending a scientific vehicle into space where it might end up in persistent shadow, the marginal extra cost (and, I imagine, weight) of equipping it with nuclear power is probably well spent.  A technology that’s been standard in submarines since about 1950 is, after all, not exactly rocket science!

But it seems I’ve completely missed the real point of this mission.  Indeed, I never even heard of it until it became top “news” story (in my defence, not having a telly I never even saw him).  Who cares about a stupendous engineering feat and any scientific insights we might get, when some errant scientist appears on telly wearing a politically-incorrect shirt?  Obviously that’s all that really matters: else why should it provoke such a storm in the meeja, and why should the scientist (like Galileo before him) be pushed into a grovelling apology to the Inquisition of his time?

BTW, anyone know where I could get a shirt like that?  Wonder if it was given to him by a woman, as my three most outrageous shirts were?

Talking of the sartorial police, it’s not just the Strict Taliban wing of feminism that’s in the ascendant.  In another recent story, the so-called Naked Rambler Stephen Gough has lost an appeal against being locked up.  Whilst I have no wish to see Mr Gough doing his thing, I hope the powers-that-be who’ve arrested and locked him up over the years are not so hypocritical as to apply double-standards to other cultures, for example by criticising Saudi or Taliban dress codes for women.  If (as I do) you support a woman’s right to dress as she chooses, how can you not support extending the same rights to Mr Gough?  Or to a scientist who must’ve missed the Thought Police element of his media training?

Posted on November 15, 2014, in freedom, science. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I think it might’ve been legal / practical issues on the nuclear power, don’t believe the ESA has a reactor.

  2. The reactors used in submarines are in the megawatt range, and weigh in the hundreds of kilos. I don’t believe anyone’s ever designed a reactor small enough to fit on a probe the size of Rosetta. I don’t doubt it could be done, but the engineering challenges would be non-trivial even compared with the rest of this project.

    There may also be legal problems with the launch. I’m pretty sure there are treaties about attaching plutonium to a rocket and firing it into the air…

    I read about Mr Gough’s case with interest. Seems the European Court’s view was that, while it was regrettable that he should spend so much time locked up for such a trivial offence, he does bring it on himself, and he does it in full knowledge of what he’s getting into, so really he has no-one but himself to blame. I can’t help but wonder if they’d be quite so sanguine about a dress code that they (meaning, European middle-class consensus) disapproved of.

    The treatment of Dr Taylor is all kinds of stupid, but it’s a natural product of our burgeoning outrage industry. I may blog on that myself one day soon.

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