Original Sin

Original Sin

(This article was written in 1997, but much seems still relevant, so I have posted it, for better or worse.)

            In July 1969, when I was a boy scientist, I sat glued for fourteen straight hours in front of not one but two televisions, so as not to miss a moment of the unfolding saga of the first moon landing.   My captivation was more than the captivation of a scientifically inclined youngster; it was a captivation shared with hundreds of millions of other people around the world.  Nearly thirty years later, in the summer of 1997, I found myself cocking an ear to the Pathfinder reports from Mars, paying  a brief visit to the website and going about my business.  As an adult scientist, part of me recognized that the Pathfinder mission was a genuine accomplishment, but I was not then, or even now, able to share the world’s captivation.

Something has gone wrong.  I do not believe I have lost my sense of wonder.  I am still capable of driving into the countryside on a cold winter’s night and gazing in awe at the stars that were largely responsible for my choice of a scientific career.  No, nothing has been lost.  Something has been gained, though.  Robert Oppenheimer once said that in creating the atomic bomb physicists had known sin.  Now they know hype.  And not just physicists.

Many ills beset science in this country but the fact that scientists—the professionals who most loudly proclaim their dedication to Truth—have shown themselves not far above politicians and journalists in their ability to spin reality has been one of the most distressing.

How did we come to such a pass?

For me, a signal incident in the evolution of scientific hype was the nuclear winter campaign of 1983.  Probably more than any other event in recent history the nuclear winter issue signaled the advent of science by press conference.  The idea behind nuclear winter was that a nuclear exchange might inject enough soot and dust into the atmosphere to drastically reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface and thus cause the temperature to plummet, wreaking untold environmental havoc.

Although research on the environmental impact of nuclear war went back at least to the 1960s, the study that made nuclear winter part of the national consciousness was a paper by Richard Turco, Brian Toon, Thomas Ackerman, James Pollack and Carl Sagan (TTAPS).  Actually, it was an article by Sagan in Parade  magazine, which appeared in October 1983, several months before TTAPS paper was published in Science.   The publicity surrounding the announcement was, even by today’s standards, extraordinary:  special conferences, extensive New York Times coverage, Soviet-American exchanges, television and radio talk shows….

In the midst of the furor, I was asked by Princeton University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies to take a look at the work on nuclear winter that was then coming out.  My problem, as it has remained with me for 15 years, is not only that Sagan went public with the study before it had been published but that so much of what he said about it was misleading.  Regardless of whether one regarded the calculations themselves as sound or shoddy, what Sagan actually said about them in public simply did not reflect what had been done and was in some cases merely incorrect.  Moreover, in his bid to enlist scientific confirmation of the results, he not only cited researchers who actually disagreed with the conclusions, but in one case cited a study that had yet to be written.

Despite claims of some researchers, the nuclear-winter calculations failed to prove robust and eventually faded away.  And so nuclear winter left an ambiguous legacy.   On the positive side, it increased the public’s awareness of environmental issues.  On the negative side, it focused attention on the outcome of a few rickety computer simulations, rather than on the unassailable fact that a nuclear war would kill a substantial fraction of the Earth’s population.  In doing so the proponents of nuclear winter launched the kind of public free-for-all that is now commonplace in

science: premature press conferences, a media feeding frenzy, frequent retractions.  Witness cold fusion.  And it certainly increased cynicism among fellow scientists.  I have never been convinced that the positive results of the nuclear-winter episode could not have been achieved without the negative.

Nuclear winter can of course not be held directly responsible for subsequent incidents of scientific overkill but it does seem to have paved the way for them.  Certainly NASA has felt no restraints on its announcements in the past decade and has become the nation’s leader in scientific hype.  Such has been its loss of credibility among scientists that when the meteoric evidence for life on Mars was trumpeted by newspaper headlines and  White House in August 1996, everyone I know immediately assumed it was a bid to secure money for the agency, whose funding is being cut back to pre-1960s levels.  Whatever the motivation, a nuclear-winter type backlash followed and the dispute over the evidence went underground, where it should probably have remained to begin with.   Nevertheless, seeing an opportunity, the well-heeled Santa Fe Institute has launched a new program in astrobiology, funded by NASA.  Origin-of-life studies are a legitimate scientific pursuit.  On the other hand, without solid evidence for extraterrestial life, astrobiology is a buzzword in search of a subject: how does the newfangled astrobiology differ from the decades-old “discipline” of exobiology?

Unfortunately, almost every NASA mission in recent memory has been accompanied by the same misplaced fanfare that welcomed the announcement of Martian microbes.  During the euphoria of the successful Hubble repair mission, I do not believe NASA issued a single statement to the effect that the mission wouldn’t have been necessary had the telescope been built correctly to begin with.

One cannot deny that Hubble has provided us with remarkable new discoveries (as powerful, new scientific instruments tend to do), and one rejoices in the new view of the cosmos it has provided.  But in their haste to justify the mission, even scientists have forgotten that many of the pictures to come out of Hubble are not great discoveries, but merely pretty pictures.  I once attended a colloquium given by a leader of the Hubble mission, who spent an hour showing Hubble’s spectacular images of celestial phenomena, including the famous images of the impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy on Jupiter.  After the show I asked the speaker whether any scientific information had come out of the impact studies.  He replied no, not to his knowledge.  It turns out he was mistaken; some information about the composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere was gained, but the fact that one of the mission’s leaders didn’t realize this—and didn’t seem to care—shows where their heads are pointing.

The confusion of science with glitz and propaganda has had the effect of obscuring  some fundamental principles.  And I mean fundamental.  In Discover magazine [July 94], Daniel Goldin, NASA’ s chief administrator, advocated a lunar-based observatory to search for Earth-like planets on the grounds that the discovery of such planets “might inspire us to invent warp drives.”  Here is where I part universes with NASA.  My universe is ruled by the laws of physics.  Goldin’s is apparently ruled by Star Trek.  One can only be deeply ashamed that the country’s scientific leaders make such statements to secure funding.

NASA, of course, is not entirely a scientific organization, but it advertises its missions on the basis of scientific return and the public believes that’s what it’s getting.  Pathfinder was a scientific mission, as will be, we are told, the others in NASA’s sleek new line of budget expeditions,  This is welcome news except that the highly touted savings are virtually negligible in light of the one project that eclipses all the others: the space station, which is not scientific and on which the General Accounting Office has put a life-time pricetag of very nearly $100 billion.

I read with amazement an essay by Robert Zimmerman in the July/August issue of The Sciences , in which he advocated cutting loose the Russians from the project because of the extraordinary problems their participation has engendered.  Yet nowhere did he ask why we are building the thing to begin with.   Scientific organization after scientific organization has gone on record opposing the space station because no coherent scientific mission has been articulated for it.  As for microgravity experiments, the President of the American Physcial Society once said, “microgravity is of micro importance.”

Actually, NASA itself has told us the raison d’etre for the space station in its advertisements.  “It’s about life on Earth.”  In other words, it’s about building pyramids.  If one wants to make pyramid building a national priority, let’s at least have a national debate on it.  And let’s not confuse it with science.

For me, even the space station is not the ultimate illustration of NASA’s politically-driven “science.”  The honor goes to the tether satellite system (TSS).  What the world remembers of the tether mission is that on the first attempted launch in 1992, the tether got tangled up, preventing deployment, and on the second attempt, in 1996, the tether broke.  What is public knowledge is that the first mission went arwy because at the last moment NASA engineers put an extra bolt in the base of the tether launch boom.  The tether unreels like a fishing line from a rod but the bolt head was too long and snagged the line.  So one might call it the most expensive bolt in history, costing taxpayers in two countries $360 million, the official mission cost.  What is also true is that between the missions the satellite sat for four years in a hangar uninspected.   Metal particles, in all likelihood left over from the first mishap, were not cleaned from the tether.  During the second deployment these metal particles caused electrical arcing along the tether, which conducts 5,000 volts, and severed it.

None of this is exactly secret but it can only convince the public that tethers are cumbersome and unworkable, when they are actually a promising technology.  What to my knowledge NASA has never publicized is that, between the two failures, members of the design team, fed up with TSS-project shenanigans, designed, built and launched three successful tether satellites on unmanned boosters.  The cost for the missions was between three and ten million dollars apiece.  However, since they managed to do it on the cheap and that neither the shuttle nor astronauts were involved, as far as NASA press releases were concerned the missions never happened.

NASA is an easy target because it is big and bureaucratic, but scientists everywhere have forgotten the distinction between achievement and advertisement.  When in 1992 the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite detected ripples in the cosmic microwave background radiation, ripples that represented the first stirrings of galaxy formation, mission scientists proclaimed it was like “seeing the face of God” and Stephen Hawking declared it “the greatest discovery of the century, if not of all time.”  One wonders, or course, whether in two years Time magazine will run a list of “century’s best discoveries” and how the editors will rank the expansion of the universe or the discovery of DNA’s double helix.  The COBE incident was doubly unfortunate; of all the space missions its achievement was magnificent enough not to require the blizzard of Disneyland glitter.

It would be a mistake to think more earthbound scientists are above celestial hype.  Congress has recently authorized construction of a National Ignition Facility (NIF) to be built at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory for an estimated $1.1 billion.  NIF is a larger version of the already colossal Nova laser system, which is designed to produce fusion energy by imploding small deuterium-tritium capsules.  NIF is ostensibly being funded in order to use the miniature explosions to model hydrogen bombs rather than having to test them.  A cynic might translate this to mean that NIF is being funded as a way of getting around the test-ban treaty and of keeping Star Warriors employed.  One thing NIF isn’t is a prototype commercial fusion reactor.  And yet that is exactly how NIF scientists advertised it in the September/October 1996 issue of The Sciences.   Even if it works as designed, NIF will produce six bursts of fusion per day, each lasting several nanoseconds, whereas a commercial reactor would require at least ten such pulses per second.  That is a factor of over two thousand and no one has any idea of how to cross it.[1]

Particle physicists, to no one’s surprise, have not lagged behind in the hype wars.  When the Supercollider was dying in 1993 some supporters resorted to claims that collider spinoffs would benefit medical research.  The energies produced by the Supercollider would have been far higher than anything conceivably useful for medicine, and most of the claims rather referred to the design of superconducting magnets, also used in MRI scans.  The logic is strange to say the least: medical

research needs superconducting magnets (which they already have); the Supercollider requires superconducting magnets, therefore the Supercollider will benefit medical research.   (Ironically, medical research is exactly what the Supercollider will have turned out to be used for: recently the government auctioned off the booster accelerator for $20 million to a start-up company, which plans to use it for producing medical radioisotopes.)

One might have thought that the collider’s death would have led to some sober reflection among physicists.  Yet, two years later the Austin American Statesman ran a sort of post-mortem interview with Supercollider Director Roy Schwitters [Nov 9, 1995].   The author, presumably paraphrasing Schwitters, wrote “Television and computers grew out of the tools that particle physicists use to study the subatomic universe.”  Historically, it would be more correct to claim that particle physics grew out of the television, since both evolved from the cathode-ray tube, a 19th-century curiosity invented by (among others) the glassblower and mechanic Heinrich Geissler.  As for computers, what did particle physics have to do with the early innovations of the 1930s and 1940s?

Physicists have historically stood out among scientists for their arrogance, but other disciplines have evidently determined to scale the heights.   In commenting on the human genome project, its director Francis Collins said, “This is the single most important organized endeavor that mankind has ever undertaken.” [Houston Chronicle, Oct. 26, 1993]  As interesting and important as the genome project is, what is gained from such a statement?  The money had already been secured.

One might reasonably object that human nature has not changed over the centuries and scientific hype is far from a new phenomenon.  Galileo, after all, was a master publicist; the chemist Joseph Priestley made no bones about how he “did not wait to perfect a discovery by more elaborate research but at once threw it out to the world, that I might establish my claim before I was anticipated.”  Newton was not known as a shrinking violet on such matters either.

Nevertheless, if human nature has remained constant since the age of Newton and Priestley, other things have changed.  One thing, of course, is that in our era of scarce resources and many scientists, researchers have come to live by the principle of scientific Darwinism, “Without Publicity there is no Prosperity,”  and there is little question that the declining fortunes of research have much to do with hype’s exponential increase.   We have trapped ourselves in a “marketability equals respectability” society where self-promotion is considered not merely acceptable but essential.  During Galileo’s time, art, music, science were regarded as the treasures of the age.  Now they have become economic activities, valued only for the money they generate, and are no longer recognized as human pursuits valid in their own right.  The Olympic ideal is no match for capitalism.

But scientists can’t entirely blame economics for the state of affairs.  This year I have been visiting my old haunt, the University of Texas physics department.  For a change I have been sitting in the guest office for string theorists.  It has proven an enlightening experience.  More than any other scientists I have met, string theorists and particle physicists believe they are doing God’s work, that all other science is less fundamental and therefore less worthy.  I have asked a few if they were given a choice of spending $10 billion on the Supercollider or ITER, assuming it would work, which would they choose.

The Supercollider, had it been built, would have been devoted to pure, fundamental research (and medical advances).  The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is the huge multinational fusion reactor now being designed by a number of countries.  It is a big, dumb machine and will probably never be constructed, but if it is built and it does works, it will indeed be something like a prototype commercial reactor.[2]  Even with my caveat “assuming it would work,” the string theorists I’ve asked have all voted for the Supercollider on the grounds that

the physics is more interesting.

The unconcern with the fate of the human race disturbs me and it is this sort of provincialism, I am convinced, that has helped put science in the fix that it is.  It is the provincialism that makes particle physics responsible for everything from television to computers.  It is the provincialism of the “Great Adventure,” to which NASA lays exclusive claim, or of the genome project being the Greatest Adventure.   Two thumbs up.  Well, I for one believe there is no Greatest Adventure but many great adventures.  Exploration of space is a great adventure.  Fundamental physics is a great adventure.  But to me it would be a great adventure to understand the workings of the brain or a single living organism.  To me it would be a great adventure to see the government spend half as much on renewable-energy research as it plans to spend on a useless space station.  It would be a great adventure if NASA would give one percent of its budget to the arts, not to propagandize its missions, but to lessen the hostility with which artists view scientists.  To me one of the greatest adventures would be to put enough effort into schooling our children so that by the time I see them at the university level they know what a ratio is and have not had the light of curiosity crushed out of them.

I am not sure how to instigate the many great adventures awaiting us but I do know that if scientists want to feel like they belong to society they are going to have to start acting like it.

[1]  As of 2013, NIF, after enormous cost overruns, has been online for several years.  It is apparently malfunctioning.

[2] As of 2013, ITER is under construction, with enormous cost overruns.  It is currently scheduled to go online sometime in the next ten years.


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