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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, February 07, 2003

No Way to Run a Space Program

Via a mailing list that I'm on, I was pointed to a good article on the Columbia disaster. The article claims that Air Force imagery shows that the left wing of the Shuttle was badly damaged (showing a "jagged edge" in photos), which probably supports the theory that tile damage did them in. They also claim that, had they been able to assess the damage and determine it was dire, there's a ghost of a chance that they might've been able to do something to save the crew (if not the Shuttle).

As for my reaction to the disaster in general, I'm sort of torn between the views expressed by Derek Lowe on one hand, and Kevin Drum on the other. I really want to see a better manned space flight program, just because it's so unbelievably cool, and that coolness is part of what drew me into science in the first place.

(There's a brilliant John M. Ford story in From the End of the Twentieth Century (if you haven't read this, why not? Go buy it now, slacker...) about a young geek watching the first Shuttle launch, which I found deeply affecting as I clearly recall staying home from school for the first launch of the Columbia (actually, I missed about four days, what with all the scrubbed launches they had that first time around...))

On the other hand, though, I have a hard time coming up with reasons why we ought to do this, other than the coolness factor. There are all sorts of claims about the science to be done in space, but the vast majority of them are bunk. Everybody who's anybody in atomic physics has applied for NASA money at one point or another, through a program to fund experiments to go on the ISS, but the fact is, most of those experiments could be done just as well on the ground. Some of them could be done better on the ground. There is interesting science to be done in microgravity, but nowhere near enough of it to justify the Space Station and Shuttle programs, any more than Tang does...

And the problem is, the vastly more ambitious programs proposed by many space enthusiasts don't seem much more justifiable. Yes, we could send a mission to the Asteroid Belt, and start mining in space, but, well, why? In the absence of a project that absolutely requires ninety billion tons of iron and nickel, I don't really see the point (again, aside from coolness value...). The standard line about needing to go into space so as not to "have all our eggs in one basket," or so we have some future as a species once we exhaust Earth's natural resources strikes me as alternately hopelessly optimistic (the chances of a realistic Mars colony being self-sufficient enough to last long after the Earth gets eaten by space termites, or whatever, are not good for the foreseeable future, which sort of undercuts any claim of urgency...) and faintly creepy (setting humanity up as some sort of precursor of the rapacious aliens from Independence Day, moving from planet to planet using up all their resources...).

On some level, I do think that coolness value alone justifies some sort of manned space program, and even working toward colonization of space, the Moon, or other planets. There's a certain nobility just in the attempt-- as Neil Gaiman noted (scroll down to February 2) it feels good to be part of a species and a nation that can do something so astonishingly difficult. But, much as it pains me to say this, I have a hard time seeing this as a top priority.

Ultimately, I think we should continue manned space flight, but that we need to step back before moving forward. The Shuttle program is not a success-- it's somewhere in the murky middle zone of complexity between things that are simple enough to be idiot-proof, and the yet-to-be-demonstrated level of vehicles so sophisticated that they almost never fail. I found it particularly disturbing that 1) they had no ability to check the extent of the damage from the tank insulation hitting the wing, and 2) even if they had, they had no way to repair it. This is no way to run a space program, and we need to find a better means of getting people and material into and out of orbit before we can think about doing anything else.

Some people have claimed that it would somehow dishonor the bravery and sacrifice of the lost astronauts if we don't immediately push on with the Shuttle program and the ISS and a more ambitious project to be named later. But I think it would be a greater dishonor to their memory to continue along the unsuccessful and verging-on-stupid path which ultimately cost them their lives. The Shuttle program as it currently exists is more a chain on our ankle than a ladder to the stars, and while we shouldn't abandon the dream of manned space exploration, we need to find a better way to do it.

Posted at 3:25 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Thursday, February 06, 2003

I Recommend Asking Someone Else

I'm a bit behind the curve on this, but there's been a minor furor of late over the Texas Tech professor who refuses to write recommendations for students who don't believe in evolution. Pretty much every blogger worth reading has commented on it at some point while I was painting the house, but a wide-ranging and interesting discussion (with civility enforced by threat of disemvowelling) can be found in the comments to this Electrolite post.

As an academic, the comments which most drew my attention actually concerned the other aspects of the policy. A commenter identified as "T. V." offers:

In a word, my cynic's nose detects a self-regarding prof who has figured out a way of eliminating nearly all of his recommendation- writing: don't bother me unless you have an A, and don't bother me if you're religious, even if you have an A. If you're working in the Texas panhandle, that might eliminate just about everybody who'd knock on your door. And he's figured out how to do this in a way that secures his alpha-male status as the toughest prof on campus--and the Defender of Reason Against Magic in nationwide newspapers to boot! Too harsh? Look again at the fine print of what's required to get a recommendation from the guy IN ADDITION TO a solid A. On his webpage, the good prof adds that he needs to "better acquainted with" supplicants.

There's probably a hint of something to this-- formally stating this sort of policy is probably an excellent way of cutting down on the number of requests for recommendations, and particularly the med school recommendations which must be the bane of many biologists' existence. (And, to be sure, the phrasing of the policy does sort of tend to brand Dini as a pompous ass.) The thing is, though, aside from the evolution business, his "policy" is simply the codification of common sense.

Personally, I wouldn't dream of asking a professor to write a recommendation for me unless I had both gotten a good grade from that person, and worked closely with them. I can't begin to imagine what sort of recommendation you would get from a professor to whom you were merely one of several dozen faces in a large lecture class, or from whom you'd gotten a B- in the one class you took from them. In fact, at the new faculty orientation, we were specifically told (by the pre-med advisor) that it's better to turn down requests from students you don't know well-- lukewarm recommendations from professors who haven't had close contact with a student are actually more harmful than helpful.

Recommendation writing is one of those more-art-than-science tasks that's really hard to get a handle on. I'm only just getting to the point where I'll have to recommend students for graduate school, but walking the fine line between effusive praise and informative realism is something that I'm sure will take a while to get down. You need to talk the student up as much as possible, because otherwise they'll never get noticed, but you have to keep things vaguely reasonable, lest you be written off as a lunatic by admissions boards. It's not a task I relish, and, indeed, writing this post is in part a way of putting off writing recommendation letters for one of my students (if you read this, Jim, I'm doing the letters right after this. Honest.).

The other thing that makes the whole thing difficult is that the letters are not solely about graduate school, but also in part a statement about character. They're a statement on the part of the faculty member that not only is the recommendee a capable student, but also that they're the sort of person who ought to continue on in the profession, and get the next academic credential on the way toward calling themselves a professional scientist (or whatever).

I didn't actually read the letters that were written for me (by my undergraduate thesis advisors, one of whom I'd taken several classes with, and both of whom I'd worked with in the lab), but I'm told that one described me as "very capable, when properly motivated," or some such phrase. Which is sort of an "ouch!" phrase to have in a recommendation, but also, I have to admit, a fairly accurate statement about my character. Given the opportunity, I have a slight tendency to slack off, and that's the sort of information that graduate schools and potential employers want. That's also the sort of information that can only be provided by people who are "better acquainted with" students than professors who see them as one of many students in a large lecture section.

(That letter probably killed my chances at a couple of places, but it didn't actually hurt with the then-Director of my eventual graduate program, who was the person who quoted it to me. He also helped steer me toward NIST, where I was (mostly) properly motivated, so everything worked out fairly well in the end...)

The "character statement" part of the recommendation is what tips me into supporting Dini's policy. I could maybe be tipped back if he's actually using "affirm" in the strict legalistic sense which is read into the policy by most of his detractors, but I sort of doubt that (though he does seem like something of an arrogant bastard, so anything's possible...). A letter of recommendation is, in part, a statement that the recommendee is someone who should be accepted as a credentialed member of the profession. It's not quite the same as the "character statement" required for admission to the Bar-- young-Earth creationists are dangerous loons, but they don't quite rise to the level of Matthew Hale trying to become a lawyer-- but there's some element of the same thing.

And, on this level of things, Dini's policy is probably fairly effective. A lot of concern has been expressed over people who might get caught up in this who hold fairly reasonable views-- something along the lines of the Catholic Church's position that evolution produced homo sapiens but God created the souls that make us human. But that's sort of a non-issue-- as stated, anyone hoping for a recommendation must first have been able to get an "A" in a biology class, which would require some degree of understanding and application of Darwinian ideas. The vast majority of those people will have no trouble giving the correct answer to the final question, and should lose no sleep over it.

The people it will weed out are the sort of showboating yahoos who would march into the office of a professor of biology to ask for a recommendation, and tell him to his face that the very foundation of his field of research is all a bunch of crap because God said so. And, I suspect, they're also the sort of people who are likely to turn up on the board of the Institute for Creation Science down the road, using whatever graduate credentials they manage to obtain to lend an extra aura of credibility to the quackery they're pushing. These are not the sort of people I would be happy to have calling themselves physicists, and I would certainly hesitate to write a recommendation for someone like that-- I suspect that biologists are probably even less happy to have them around, and would be correspondingly less happy to aid them in their search for credentials with which to impress the credulous.

Or, to put it more crassly, Mark Kleiman notes (in a follow-up to the post which sparked the Electrolite thread):

4. Some anti-evolutionists claim to be doing science rather than making religious claims. Their scientific work has been judged worthless by the scientific community competent to judge. Adherence to "creation science" or "intelligent design theory" is much more at variance with serious scientific practice than mere refusal to let biology trump religious faith in answering the question, "How did humanity come to exist?" A student who insists on writing creation-science answers on biology exams can justly be flunked; the teacher is entitled to determine the range of legitimate opinion in the classroom, in keeping with the practice of the scientific community involved. But writing "I don't believe a word of this" after a completely correct answer doesn't make the answer any less correct.

While it's true that writing "I don't believe a word of this" doesn't invalidate a correct answer, it does rather effectively brand the writer as a grandstanding asshole. And while the correct answer may have earned an "A" on the test, there's no obligation to write good recommendations for assholes.

Posted at 12:25 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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