Category Archives: science

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?

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Galileo and the Inquisition (1)

A couple of recent events demonstrate chillingly that the human dynamic that drove the Inquisition, and ruthlessly suppressed the scientist Galileo, is alive and well in the UK today. The subjects are of course different: astronomy and even cosmology no longer violate deep taboos.

I’m too tired tonight to do justice to the Big One, so let’s just have a little rant about a normal-size scandal. Nothing abnormally controversial or perilous to a blogger. Just another proposed genocide. Call it a prelude. It doesn’t do justice to the title, but what the heck?

OK, the background. There is tuberculosis. It’s no longer a serious problem amongst humans, but cattle suffer from it. Badgers also suffer from it. The hypothesis is that badgers spread it amongst cattle (vice versa is not an issue, because nobody cares). The proposal advanced by the farmers union, representing big, multi-millionaire farmers (not least the landed aristocracy)[1] is that badgers be scapegoated and exterminated.

So far, the question has been left open. A scientific study was conducted over nine years, to determine whether killing badgers would protect cows. It concluded that anything short of a Final Solution would in fact have the opposite effect, not least because it would increase mobility amongst badgers, and hence the likelihood of their carrying infection to cattle that weren’t already infected.

But that’s the “wrong” conclusion for those whose agenda is extermination. Now the government’s chief scientist has spoken in favour of it, throwing up a clear gulf between science and Politicised Science. I find myself somewhat bemused by this, but it reeks of political agenda: if the science doesn’t support our agenda, let’s fudge it (hmm, anyone for Weapons of Mass Destruction?).

An heretical hypothesis

Since the subject of infection falls way outside my expertise, I can only rant. But one thing that looks very relevant is the nature and history of the disease itself. Historically it was a major killer amongst humans. But it was always a disease of poverty. It was the advance of living standards, notably slum clearance, that caused it’s decline to negligible levels in humans. Could it be that the disgraceful conditions in which cattle are kept (for economic reasons, of course), are the real culprit?

That’s an heretical hypothesis. It cannot be discussed anywhere more significant than a blog. Let alone investigated. Because the consequences of the wrong outcome would be unthinkable.

[1] Not all NFU members fit that description. But they’re the ones with influence in high places. Others are incidental.