Thursday, October 1, 2015

Relativity, Engaging Scientists in Policy, and the US Commercial Space Industry

I've fallen behind in writing about the awesome space and science talks that I've attended in the past week! Now seems like a good time to catch up and let you all know about some cool happenings.


Drs. Jeffrey Bennett and Dan Batcheldor - September 25, 2015 

On Friday evening, unrelated to but coinciding perfectly with a student career preparation conference that I helped with, I attended Florida Institute of Technology's monthly public science lecture series with Dr. Jeffrey Bennett who last year published the book What Is Relativity? I enjoyed conversing with my former professors prior to the talk and ended up unexpectedly taking a front row seat. I'm glad that I did!

Overall, I found the couch-sitting interview-style talk to be informative, entertaining, and even humorous, not what one would expect for a physics talk! I have the advantage of a doctoral-level education in physics and an interest in relativity since high school, so the concepts discussed were well known to me. I could focus instead on the presentation style and perspectives. I was surprised and even amused by the analogous scenarios presented to explain some of the mind-bending curiosities of relativity.

I did not previously know that 2015 is the International Year of Light. It has been approximately 100 years since Einstein's publications on relativity. One of Jeff Bennett's goals is to address the misconceptions about space and relativity. One misconception, a personal pet peeve of mine that my own employer is guilty of, is being too casual with wording by stating or implying that there is no gravity in space. There is always gravity in space, anywhere in space, though gravitational pulls may cancel to a net gravity of zero.

Other misconceptions stem from the fact that when it comes to relativity, we don't have any common sense. We have never traveled at relativistic speeds. Similar to quantum mechanics, it's hard to wrap our minds around something that we don't have any direct experience with. Yet relativity does affect us every day. For example, navigational satellites such as GPS use relativity in their calculations. We've been testing relativity since the Michelson–Morley experiment in 1887. I and countless other physics students have replicated this experiment in physics labs.

One interesting point was that humans don't like being told what we can and cannot do. Relativity tells us that we can't go faster than the speed of light c. We immediately try to figure a way around this. Science fiction writers usually don't even try to break c; instead they speculate about loopholes such as inter-dimensional travel.

The conversation covered gravitational lensing, black holes, determinism, multiverses, and the “theory of everything.” One funny moment came when the speaker stated, “I don't like determinism and I don't know why,” and the moderator responded, “You have no choice.” Ah, geek humor.

I was the first in line to ask a question clarifying Stephen Hawking's latest black hole theory. I was also the only female to ask a question in a long line of curious males. I did see a few female students approach the speaker after the talk, as if they were interested but didn't want to stand up to be heard. Come on ladies, let's show the world that we have brains and mouths!

Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy

On Tuesday I attended an American Association for the Advancement of Science webinar on Engaging Scientists and Engineers in Policy by Dr. Rush Holt, a physicist, the CEO of AAAS, and former New Jersey Congressman. The title of this talk was mislabeled, or otherwise their wasn't much meat in the talk about the topic at hand.

The majority of the presentation was lamenting the lack of science understanding in the general public, which I can totally get behind. The speaker was preaching to the choir, in my opinion. He would often slip economics understanding into the discussion, which seemed out of place, but was obviously on his mind. One of my PhD economist husband's biggest pet peeves is when non-economists act like authorities on economics while ignoring or dismissing actual experts. It is the same in science.

Two of the speaker's biggest concerns were students and news media. Both are not taught well how to ask for evidence but instead take what is presented to them at face value, blindly believing it. I see this all the time in the general public, even among my friends. A celebrity, a trend-setter, or a seeming authority makes a statement or writes an article (or blog post!) about a scientific topic and, without doing any research of their own, people blindly believe it. It's no wonder that scientific understanding in our culture is so poor when even our own journalists don't investigate to make their own conclusions. This is the information age and the world is at our fingertips – use it!

Approximately five minutes of the 45 minute talk was actually dedicated to what scientists/engineers can do in policy. The advice: take on a fellowship to work a temporary position in Capitol Hill. I've been hearing this advice since graduate school and it's so disconnected from reality. Science-trained politicians and staffers are a fantastic asset to our government and policy-makers, but the vast majority of scientists are not able to pause their lives, disrupt their families, and move to Washington, D.C. for a year (the term period for most of these fellowships). This just isn't feasible for 99.99% of scientists, so what is the advice for the rest of us?

The biggest take-away from the talk was that we as scientists can help others learn to question. Science is within everyone's grasp and isn't just for experts. Anyone can ask Why? How? What is the evidence? If someone has a misconception about science, ask them probing questions about what evidence was used to come to that conclusion. Make them think. This advice wasn't really relevant to the talk's topic, but still very good advice.

US Commercial Space Industry

Dr. Roger Handberg - September 30, 2015

Yesterday, coinciding well with a university mentorship program that I participated in on campus later that day, I hung out with some of my former professors and colleagues at the University of Central Florida for the Florida Space Institute's lecture series. The talk was by Dr. Roger Handberg, a political science professor. The topic: US commercial space industry.

Overall, the speaker gave a good historical overview of the public-private partnerships in the US space industry. More recent happenings and analysis is where the speaker got a little stuck with lack of knowledge and mixed up a few things. His assessments were very pessimistic, which is actually a refreshing counter to the rah-rah advocacy so prevalent in the space industry. I don't agree with all of his negative outlooks, especially in the areas where his information is lacking, but my skeptical scientist side did appreciate the alternative perspective.

He began by speaking about the decline in government funding in the space program and how that decline is stressing private industry, generally speaking and not mentioning any particular government cuts. He didn't give figures, but I'm curious to know what they are. If a reader could point me in the right direction, I'd appreciate it.

He went over some recent difficulties in the industry, such as the Virgin Galactic, Orbital Sciences, and SpaceX accidents. He also discussed the current challenges with politics forcing ULA to replace its Russian RD-180 engine. With ULA phasing out Atlas V and most of Delta IV, and with the Blue Origin BE-4 engine replacement still in development, he worried that SpaceX may become a national monopoly for government launches. I think that this is highly unlikely, but time will tell.

He spoke about some of the more successful space applications, such as communication, navigation, and remote sensing satellites. Historically, I did not realize that denial of satellite imagry to adversaries during wartime was an actually strategy that the US military used. He said that it's harder to do now with so much Earth observation competition. He also touched upon some of the challenges in the satellite industry that I'm less familiar with such as the limited number of receivers and spectrum interference.

The bottom line is that the cost to orbit is still the number one problem in the space industry. Spacecraft reusibility may lower cost significantly but is very difficult to achieve. High cost holds back tourism, as well as safety concerns and the lack of reliable transportation. State spaceports have popped up all over due to increased popularity and enthusiasm after the 2004 SpaceShipOne X-Prize win, but lack of progress and high cost hinders the industry. Space manufacturing and space mining isn't economically feasible due to high launch costs. The economics doesn't work unless the industry is government subsidized, he said. It wasn't a positive outlook on the industry, but probably more realistic than many would admit.

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