That Tingling Feeling

 

There is a word in Japanese, Yūgen (幽玄), derived from the study of Japanese aesthetics with no English equivalent, that perhaps comes closest to describing the profound sense of the enormity of the cosmos: to despair and be humbled by the insignificance of the struggle against the indifference of the universe, whilst also appreciating the sad beauty of human suffering. I often find myself grasping for a word to describe this reaction when discussing astrobiology with people, other scientists or members of the public, who find the entire field incredibly depressing; who, at some level, acknowledge the futility of our search for meaning in the distant reaches of space. Some find the emotional burden too great to bear, triggering a minor existential crisis. “It’s better not to know”, they say, “Not to think about it. Besides, [insert reality TV show name here] is on!”

On one hand, who can blame them? It’s not like we’re expecting answers to many of The Questions that astrobiology and astronomy are trying to solve in our lifetimes. Science is a gradual process after all, and one that will last as long as there are still questions to be answered. The relative insignificance of our personal lives, our careers and relationships, cast against the enormity of the cosmos and separated by orders of magnitudes of space and time, so clearly presented, can prove a bit too much. The Astronomical Perspective can be overwhelming, and astronomy, as Carl put it, is a humbling experience. I’d like to adopt yūgen as a general descriptor of these feelings.1

Yūgen-inducing perspective: Over the Top. Credit: Luc Perrot

Astrobiology is a scientific discipline practised from deep within in the realms of bounded rationality. These bounds stem from a definite, fundamental and detrimental lack of information about the system, as well as a possible cognitive and technological limitation in processing of the limited information available to us. We definitively lack the resources to arrive at an optimally rational conclusion regarding our place in the universe, the existence of suitably habitable environments elsewhere, and the possibility of life on other planets.  And yet, we know we’re close. We suffer a kind of collective Dunning-Kruger effect regarding how little we know, and how little we know about how little we know. We’re approaching that greatest of unknowns, cobbling together a piecemeal scientific narrative as we go, but missing so many parts of the puzzle that it’s not even clear what it is we’re building. Yet, something innate drives us onwards. Some part of us that has always been, as if a distant memory or half-remembered dream, within our genetic luggage and passed on to us from pre-human ancestors.

The size of our brains relative to our body size (also known as the encephalization quotient (EQ)) has, in fact, gotten smaller in recent times, peaking ~30,000 years ago after 2 million years of expansive growth. I’ll leave the anthropologists to argue over why and what this means, but making some crude assumptions about intelligence and EQ we can assume, therefore, that our extremely distant ancestors may have gazed up at the canopy of the night sky and felt that same intangible yearning as we do. At least, there seems to be no cognitive reasons that they couldn’t have done so. Maybe it was even more pronounced by the gulf of knowledge that separates their knowledge of the cosmos from our own? The bright band of the Milky Way stretched out overhead, unobscured by pollution, but hidden by ignorance; an unknowable story waiting for a narrator, one that would not arrive in earnest for thousands of years. In the meantime, complex and anthropomorphic mythologies were borne and woven by the tapestry of human imagination and fuelled by our penchant for storytelling.

Perhaps, that sense of insignificance, that yūgen, was even more heart-wrenching in the very distant past when we were young, when our contemporary achievements in understanding of our place in the greater Story would seem unfathomable, akin to magic. Perhaps, yūgen has been a driving force in our history as long as we have existed? I’m not suggesting an evolutionary driver akin to bipedalism, but perhaps a minor constituent of the human story that contributed an unquantifiable edge to our tale. An ember burning near the edge of the campfire of humanity’s intellectual awakening, smouldering away throughout the ages whilst we built our temples and cities, waged our wars and battles, waiting for the spark of enlightenment to burst into an inferno of curiosity and discovery.

That’s why I’m optimistic about our search. Sure, we may not find any concise answers to the ‘big’ questions in our lifetimes, and we’ll probably always have that sense of yūgen when faced with incomprehensible enormity on galactic and light year-scales, but rather than hiding in the dark, we should embrace the feeling of astronomical despair and turn it into a creative force for discovery! If you don’t like being insignificant, find something that makes you significant. Yūgen will be passed on to the next generation of curious scientists and philosophers, and as it has done in the past, it will drive us on to more profound questions and more mysterious unknowns.

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1 If any Japanese speakers are reading this, please let me know if I’m using this word incorrectly – my understanding is that the context is important.

Throwing Paradigms to the Wind of Climate Change

       

This is a guest post by Daniil Bachkirov, a joint master’s student in the School of Environmental Sciences and Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, where he studies at the juncture of the natural sciences and the humanities in order to use interdisciplinary philosophical, historical and political insights to solve the environmental crisis. He can be reached by email, and (from September) can be found at the Brockwood Park School in Hampshire. 

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Calls for a collective behavioural and attitudinal shift with regards to the environmental crisis abound these days, but does the language we use reflect want individuals want? Are there cultural processes at work that we continue to participate in even when we’re basically saying, “We want things to be different?” And can these cultural processes actually undermine our capacity to change our attitudes?

While it may seem piddling to be talking about language when there are real, observable, physical processes and social inequalities at work that threaten life on this planet, I ask, what enables us to come together and act on these issues? Language!

For that reason, I want to inquire into the specific terms we use to call for these “collective behavioural and attitudinal shifts”.

When Thomas Kuhn, philosopher of science, wrote in 1962 about the way in which scientific theories and practice were embedded within structures that validate certain ways of understanding nature whilst discrediting others, and that these were subject to change over time, it is unlikely that he would have anticipated the degree to which the word for these structures; “paradigms”, would find usage beyond its original meaning, as they have today. In particular, the idea of the “paradigm shift”, where a dramatic intellectual rift occurs in the scientific community about the fundamentals of scientific knowledge, after which one idea usually triumphs over another, turned out to be a popular way of referring to other kinds of shifts in ideas. You could say it’s almost a cliché.

I want to question the popularity of the “paradigm shift”. It is problematic on two fronts: Firstly, it seems to be indicative of a kind of ‘problematising’ that implicitly defines the environmental crisis in scientific terms, i.e, it is a crisis that can be reduced to the physically observable and therefore we can only act to prevent crises with sufficient objective certainty. This normalises one discourse at the expense of others. Secondly, it might not be an accurate term to describe how ideas and practices actually shift in societies. Societies after all, are far more complex than the shared scientific understandings that Kuhn called “paradigms”.

Paradigm Rift (Superglitch comics)

So, firstly, what do I mean by discourse? Broadly speaking: a set of practices and beliefs expressed through dialogue in a given culture. It is a central concept in the work of the postmodern French philosopher, Michel Foucault who was interested in examining the conditions necessary for the validation of knowledge about human beings at certain times and places. He developed an “archaeological” method to excavate historical artefacts, i.e. texts, to establish how knowledge becomes an instrument of power.

Central to this process, and the term I want to offer as a non-scientistic, more open-ended conception was the idea of the episteme, or the “epistemological field of power” which creates the necessary conditions for the emergence of knowledge. These epistemes flow into one another with no natural rhythm or progression, but can be metaphorically expressed as changing climate patterns. In this sense, Foucault was not interested in the weather, i.e. isolated ideas and historical figures, but the climate; the complex interrelations that create the weather.

I’m asking the reader to consider the potential social effects of using “paradigm shift” to refer to social and behavioural shifts in our attitude to global climate change. Does this usage not imply that everyone in human societies, like a group of scientists in the 16th century moving from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican model, is at the same level of understanding and appreciation of the problem of global climate change to collectively understand and choose to act upon a shift to a “new paradigm”?

Does it also not imply that global climate change is only a problem for science? And if the dominant ideology in scientism happens to be one of materialism, does using “paradigm shift” not add to a climate of popular understanding that the problems of climate change can be reduced to its materially observable effects?

We need to remember that when we call for a “paradigm shift” in our environmental beliefs and practices, we are employing a metaphor from the world of science. Metaphors work on the principle of shared understanding and reveal value-laden, culturally embedded meaning-making processes. They also work on the principle of “feedback loops”, so that those meanings and values embedded in a metaphor are circulated back into society through their regular use, validating those meanings and values.

Might we consider using a term more focused on the broad analysis of intellectual climates rather than a metaphor from a specific discipline? Or better yet, abandon the call for “paradigm shifts” all together?

East Anglia’s Giant Purple Blob

     

This is a guest post by Luke Surl, a PhD student in the Centre for Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences (COAS) at the University of East Anglia, where he is researching the atmospheric chemistry of volcanic plumes. You can find him on Twitter, or visit lukesurl.com for his excellent science-inspired comics. 

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Last week a giant purple blob descended upon East Anglia, with commotion and a flurry of newspapermen in its wake. The vulnerable were told to shelter in their homes, powerless to tackle its all-pervasive reach. Wisdom was sought from the sages of this ill-understood art, but all that could be done was hope the blight would soon pass.

Smog over Norwich (iWitness24)

A little dramatic license is appropriate for a guest blog, no? To decode, the purple blob is the region of “Very High” air quality risk shown on the official maps that have been appearing this week. These maps have been accompanied by warnings for asthmatics and others sensitive to such conditions. The “sages” are the atmospheric scientists who, normally eclipsed in the media spotlight by their climatic colleges, have been ubiquitous on in the media.

If you haven’t been keeping track, in short a combination of factors conspired this week to cause parts of Britain to experience an usually high level of particulate matter. Britons were breathing dust blown in from the Sahara, plus some with old-fashioned home-grown pollution. The weather slowed the dispersion of this event causing it to linger and intensify.

While “smog” seemed to be the media’s favoured term for the phenomenon, (evoking memories of the London smog of 1952) the discussion amongst the atmospheric scientists at UEA (where I do research) was of the aerosol counts. “Aerosol” is a catch-all term for solid and liquid particles suspended in air, and there are, critically two sorts. We deem primary aerosol particles directly emitted to the atmosphere whilst secondary aerosol are particles which form in-air from gaseous beginnings

The Saharan dust we have been inhaling is primary. Secondary aerosol is most readily created when the air has been polluted with sulphur and NOx. On an ordinary day, road traffic is the biggest such aerosol offender. In London, one of the principle raison d’etres of the congestion charge is to prevent such an air quality hit in a concentrated metropolis of cars and people.

Such technical distinctions are, however, largely ignored by ones lungs. Particles smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter travel into the lungs. The smallest of these can end up penetrating and settling deep into the respiratory system. This is not good news for anyone, especially asthmatics and others with similar conditions.

In some of the more morbid papers that atmospheric scientists are likely to come across, this air quality impact can be quantified. A 2009 study found Americans living in the most polluted areas can attribute air quality to their lives being about 2.5 years shorter than their cousins in cleaner areas. In China, where the economic boom has been quite literally dulled by thick smogs in its cities, the numbers are quite terrifying.  These numbers are difficult to process. They are cold, dispassionate and cryptic, buried in journal papers few will read. But every data point hides an individual tragedy of a life extinguished early

Thankfully Norwich and London are nowhere near Chinese levels, though there are still thousands of such deaths a year. Britain, and the EU in general, quite rightly holds itself to very high standards with regards to its air.

As in everything, the recent incident has had a political dimension. Public debate has asked whether this incident is to be blamed on natural or human causes.

This misses the point. While the primary aerosol from the Sahara and the directions of the winds are beyond the remit of any public policy. But this natural phenomenon is compounded by human action. Regardless of how we apportion the blame, the particulates owing its existence to our cars and factories isn’t made harmless or insignificant by their natural counterparts, rather they can make a bad problem worse, especially for the most vulnerable. And even when the winds change and the purple blobs and media disperse, this pollution can still chip away days, months or years from human lives.

There’s nothing more essential to human life than the air we breathe, which is partly one of the reasons I have chosen atmospheric science as my field of research. It’s also fundamentally something we cannot help but share with our neighbours and community. Our air’s pollution and perturbation, from nature and from man, is something that will impact us all.

Lost in Space: Finding a Sense of Place in the Cosmos

This is a guest post by Sean McMahona PhD student in the School of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen. Sean’s research applies geological perspectives and techniques to astrobiological problems ranging from the origin and distribution of life in the universe to the origin of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Visit his excellent blog, Fourth Planetfor more on his research, his impressive space art and photography, and writings.

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“Though a planetary perspective is a magnificent and enriching thing, places, not planets, are the core of human experience. It is from places that we build our world.”

—    Mapping Mars, Oliver Morton (2002)

“He stood thereby, though ‘in the centre of Immensities, in the conflux of Eternities,’ yet manlike towards God and man; the vague shoreless Universe had become for him a firm city, and dwelling which he knew.”

—    The French Revolution: A History, Thomas Carlyle (1837)

Last year, in a car park in Aberdeen, I saw Jupiter through a telescope for the first time. What I saw was not the familiar red-spotted giant from the Nasa photographs, that great bronze bauble marbled with cream like artisan coffee—no. What I saw, through a gap in the Scottish clouds, was a pale round smudge with three white specks for moons. It was not dramatic but it was a strange and lovely moment. It reminded me that Jupiter, the other planets, and even the distant stars and galaxies, are no less real, no less here—albeit further away—than Scotland, clouds, car parks, and me. They are on the same map, sharing our geography, our humdrum commonplace reality.

In our eagerness to be inspired by astronomical imagery, we are often tempted to forget this fundamental sameness. Documentaries about the cosmos besiege us with spectacular graphics, rousing orchestral music and rapturous, lyrical narration. In the tradition of Carl Sagan, we are urged to adopt a “cosmic perspective”, in which the Earth dwindles to an insignificant1 “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. Meanwhile, digital space art is reliving the Romanticism of 19th Century painting: balance, proportion and subtlety are abandoned in favour of vertiginous perspectives, extremes of colour and contrast, and sublime, mystical lighting: silhouetted planets disintegrate into vast purple nebulae bristling with crepuscular rays. Thus, it seems that an ecstatic, almost mythical vision of outer space, emphasizing above all its spiritual and aesthetic grandeur, has taken root in popular culture.

McMahon juvenilia. This is what I thought space looked like when I was 17. I have since changed my mind.

McMahon juvenilia. This is what I thought space looked like when I was 17. I have since changed my mind.

Maybe that vision has some role to play in attracting public interest to the space sciences. But paradoxically, it can make the “wonders of the universe” seem less accessible than ever; profound, ethereal, miraculous, even unreal. It bolsters the popularity of astrology by reinforcing the illusion that planets and stars are unfathomable, heavenly beings: much more plausible aids to divination than ordinary material things. Most worryingly, it can give the impression that space exploration is an esoteric spiritual quest, unrelated to ordinary human problems and unfit for serious attention from media, government or young, career-minded scientists.

Perhaps the “numinous” view of space reflects a deeper failure to grasp the implications of the Copernican Revolution. Somehow, I suggest, we still make some kind of basic ontological distinction between the heavens and the Earth2. Consequently, we are unable to feel truly embedded in our extraterrestrial environment, which remains a transcendent, detached and coldly beautiful space rather than a homely, material, lived-in place. The Apollo programme helped to bridge that gap for a generation, transforming the moon from an icon of celestial indifference into a humanly intelligible landscape—rather like a golf course, in fact, replete with bunkers, buggies, flags and footprints3. Revealingly, many people today find it easier to believe that the whole thing was a hoax.

A Summer 2012 photograph by NASA's Curiosity rover inside Gale Crater on Mars.

A Summer 2012 photograph by NASA’s Curiosity rover inside Gale Crater on Mars.

The sharp, vivid photographs taken by NASA’s Curiosity Rover can have a similar effect, reminding us that the martian surface is a real place, not so different in appearance from the rocky deserts of Libya or the High Arctic. Despite our unsophisticated cultural relationship with outer space—a mixture of mythology, indifference and reverence—a crewed mission to Mars in the next thirty years now seems very likely. I hope that mission will allow the next generation to feel more at home in the universe, more fully at ease with the fact that even Milton Keynes4 is part of the Milky Way. What we stand to gain is not an exalted “cosmic perspective” but simply a richer, more expansive sense of place, of where it is that we live our lives.

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1     This strain of rhetoric characteristically fails to observe that human beings adjudicate the significance of the universe, not the other way around.

2      Douglas Adams exploited this confusion to humorous effect, juxtaposing ordinary things with cosmic phenomena: the “restaurant at the end of the universe,” the “whelk in a supernova” and so on; “you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist but that’s just peanuts compared to [the size of] space”.

3      Some readers will know that the American astronaut Alan Shephard did in fact play golf on the moon; two golf balls remain there.

4       Milton Keynes is an architecturally unprepossessing English town and home to the Open University, where much British space research has been conducted.

Public Relations for Astrobiologists

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the 5th UK Astrobiology Society of Britain Conference in the lovely city of Edinburgh. It was a very enjoyable and well organised few days of interdisciplinary science and good whisky, friendly folk and an obligatory bagpipe recital. However, upon reflection sometime in-between the well-lubricated poster session and the céilidh — replete with some fine displays of motility I should add — it seemed to me that astrobiology in the UK has a potentially serious image problem.

Views are shifting, but at present the public perception is that astrobiology is the study of little green men from Mars. However, the reality is very different, as anyone working in the field will tell you. I’ve always seen it as an organic extension and interdisciplinary marriage of the natural sciences, with solid scientific foundations firmly laid by the likes of Carl Sagan and Lynn Margulis. Astrobiology carries significant intellectual clout and I am convinced that contributions made by those working in the field will likely produce some of, if not the most, fantastic discoveries of this century.

This is why outspoken minority opinions that come to dominate discussion can be detrimental to both the public perception of the field, and also the direction and coherence of the discipline itself. When the press is seeking an ‘astrobiologist’ to comment on the latest Curiosity announcement or claim of life from outer space, there is a chance that they will go to the person who shouts loudest, regardless of whether that person represents the broad consensus of others in the field.

Don’t get me wrong, every discipline tends to attract their fair share of eccentrics and contrarians, but if that field is relatively young and already struggling to find a foothold amongst mainstream science in the UK, this can prove a bit of problem. To make matters worse, this field, unlike others, lies on the rational border of the fertile pseudoscientific pastures of aliens and UFOs and associated guff.

So, what to do?

Exclude the relevant parties from the forum and proceed as normal? This strategy risks alienation (ahem), and could end up backfiring as the troublemakers shout from the rooftops about systematic silencing by the ‘academy’ and the existence of an overarching conspiracy to keep their fantastical research from the public, thereby further accentuating the stereotype of the paranoid alien hunter to the public and other academics,and providing them with the attention they originally sought from their peers.

I think the answer is more integration, not less. Yes, these individuals may have made fundamental flaws at nearly every stage of their research, which itself was based on significant misapplication of the scientific method, but that is all the more reason to give them access to the ears and opinions of members in the field. This way, their methods can be improved and some of the more unscientific claims can be weeded out prior to steering any potential publication towards a peer-reviewed journal where its merits can objectively assessed by the wider community.

The organisers of the conference had a difficult decision to make, and made the right one I think by including the research in the schedule. It was then up to the attendees to highlight major errors, foster discussion and debate and attempt to reduce the isolation of this group from the community and the higher standards required to publish good work in this field.

It would have been easy to do this in Edinburgh. Firstly, when given the opportunity, challenge their claims! This could be done after their talk, during a poster session, or in the literature. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a bit reluctant to do this. It might be that I’m an early career scientist, or because of my inherently British fear of confrontation and misguided diplomatic aspirations toward a plurality of opinions, but there should be a limit. When a claim impinges on that limit the immediate repercussions should take the form of an erudite and impassioned, yet polite, rebuttal. Insist on hard evidence, critically scrutinise methodologies and deconstruct their results – this is science in action and it’s how progress is made.

This is where the attendees of ASB5 may have faltered. We all had multiple opportunities to address the relevant parties and their claims, but instead hid behind a passive-aggressive tut and endured comment after comment of rambling through gritted teeth. I understand that any learned society cannot make assertions and give direct answers to difficult questions, but they can take stewardship of the conversation and advance the discussion in a democratic forum, the rest is up to the audience. We owe it to the hard work conducted by researchers in astrobiology to ensure that we adhere to only the highest standards of scientific investigation and scrutiny as a community because the future of this discipline as a viable and respected avenue for research and funding is at stake.

Men and Machines

Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.

- Carl Sagan (Cosmos, 1980)

Since the dawn of civilisation, humans have gazed up at the stars and planets overhead. Even now, separated from our forebears by an expansive gulf of time, technology and knowledge, the stars remain distant, esoteric but evocative targets. Our curiosity and thirst for understanding drives us on, pushing the limits of human endurance, engineering and science to the point where 528 humans from 38 nations have flown beyond the tenuous envelope of gases clinging to the surface of the Earth into wilderness of space. A first, unsteady and cautious step into the vast unknown that surrounds our tiny globe. Of these, only 12 have stepped foot on the surface of the Moon. At over 385,000 km away, reaching the desolate face of our lunar companion remains the pinnacle of manned spaceflight capability, yet it is a mere stone’s throw from Earth in astronomical terms. We peer out from the relative safety of our home, edge into the abyss that surrounds us and tentatively contemplate its content.

The delicate squishiness of the human form is not conducive to the hostile environment of space. Fleshy bags of meat and fluids don’t travel well in a vacuum, the near absolute-zero temperatures dessicate skin and lung and our fragile bones snap and break easily under undue strain. Bombarded by radiation, and far from the protective effect of the ozone layer, our cells mutate and die.  Ingenuity and engineering have surmounted these problems in the short term by wrapping our bodies in spacecraft and suits, but the frailties of our terrestrial form remain.

As with many aspects of our lives, we have increasingly outsourced the monumental task of space exploration to robotic envoys. Obedient, unfaltering and better able to withstand the hardships of space travel, these metallic pioneers are our eyes and ears in the depths of space, straddling the boundary of the known and unknown to help us elucidate the mysteries of our near and distant planetary neighbours. Beacons in the fog, they light the way out into space.

Moreover, these scientific emissaries are more than merely (very expensive) collections of navigational equipment, cameras, sensors and propulsion. They are more than laboratories, more than the experiments they conduct, or the raw data they return. More too than the images they record, most never seen by the eyes of a human. These magnificent machines, representative of the peak of human exploratory technology are much greater than the sum of their parts. Often the result of years of international collaboration, teamwork, anguish and joy, these are the ambassadors of our knowledge, the manifestations of the spirit of human curiosity and the first steps of a lonely species wandering out into the darkness. Whilst they wander space in isolation, they have the dreams and imagination of many people behind them.

This is why, when a launch fails or an unmanned probe goes missing, the loss is felt by us all. The cost can be counted in dollars or euros, but the real price is the setback to the campaign for understanding that our failed or lost probe was spearheading. A scout lost to the enemy. I’ve heard stories of folks who cried at the loss of Beagle II (the British-built Mars lander lost to the Martian atmosphere in 2003/4), and who amongst us are not moved by xkcd‘s wonderful homage to the late (but very successful) MER Spirit rover?

On the eve of the landing of MSL Curiositythe most complex rover ever designed, it is worth bearing in mind the hard work and dedication that it took for the latest generation of scientists and engineers to push the limits of our understanding and put a car-sized robot on Mars. I wish all those involved in the construction and operation of this wonderful machine the best of luck. Earth is rooting for you!

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Follow Curiosity’s landing live at JPL’s site here

The Legacy of the Present

Chaos and causality: the course of our history will be defined by the decisions we make now (Space Time Colour by Keith Peters) (artfromcode.com)

How will the future judge us? Will our descendants be proud of our legacy and the achievements we sculpted at this particular juncture in human history, fondly imagining an exciting and revelatory time gone-by? Which of our many mistakes will be remembered? What, or who, will populate the pages dedicated to the present in the historical documents of the future?

By digitally archiving nearly everything, from our words and pictures, to international news and films, to the triviality of daily emails and receipts, we are inadvertently accumulating an enormous and unprecedented time-capsule of cultural and social information, ripe for the data-miners and historians of the future to peruse and analyse. Looking back, our descendants may celebrate the hope and opportunities that we created and exploited in a time of rapid change and uncertainty. This is an age of exploration and discovery unsurpassed by any in the past. We have human beacons in orbit, on the Moon and Mars, the outer planets and two explorers poised to enter the vacuous expanse of interstellar space. We move the Earth at will, harness the power of the atom and circumvent our own biology, and that of the organisms we share this planet with, to our own means.

However, the passage of time may not reflect kindly on us. Our children, perhaps distant, will study us as remote relatives separated by a gulf of time and knowledge and bear witness to our many and varied failures of foresight, as we our parents’ before us. They will marvel at our fallibility and indifference, reflect on the disasters and injustices narrowly avoided and those sadly and painfully endured. Through the clarity provided by the looking-glass of hindsight, they will picture the beleaguered ark of our young civilisation battered by the waves of ignorance, superstition and intolerance awash in the turbulent melting-pot ocean of this age. Captained as best we can by some modicum of insight and forethought, our leaky ship may just make it to calmer waters yet. The light from the distant shore is weak and easily obscured, yet a beacon of hope and reason guides our course onwards.

The decisions we make now will be our gift, or curse, to them. What tyrants and monsters, manifest of the inhumanity of our time, will carve out their legacies and what atrocities will they commit? These monsters may be people, and often are, but they need not necessarily be so. Rather, they may be fundamental failings of reason and understanding, particularly regarding how we treat each other and this planet; mistakes borne from a myopic lack of perspective that we have all allowed to propagate unchallenged. The crucial, globally relevant decisions we make today, many lacking foresight and made either in haste or with undue hesitation, distorted by corruption and cronyism and sealed by denial and an immature lack of responsibility, will be our legacy. Sensible and objectively necessary modes of action, albeit admittedly depressing and uncomfortable in the short term, are hindered by fickle tribal loyalties over the often short, usually filthy, lifespan of the career politician.

Even now it is easy to recognise those who, in the shadows and back-streets of politics and business, lurk intoxicated and maligned by greed and paranoia and plot the downfall of us all. Those whose machinations, knowingly or otherwise, are determined to dismantle and distort the warnings repeatedly provided by those working to protect our planet from the harm that this uncontrolled, unprecedented ecological and environmental experiment is subjecting upon it. Worryingly, it is these people and their misguidance that will be remembered: those who had the chance to avert a global disaster that may have an untold effect on the future direction of our species and the continued habitability of our planet, and yet did nothing, or even actively fought mitigation attempts at every step. For the psychologists of the future, they will make for rich pickings.

For it is these people, and the organisations and ideologies that they often represent, that epitomise the ugly face of corruption and denialism that may very well go down in the annuls of history as the true monsters of our time. Those who do not heed the repeated warnings that may one day spell the end of our brief stay on this planet, those who put money before reason, denial before rationalism and whose remarkable lack of foresight will condemn us all. They will go down in history books as defenders of the worst facets of human nature. As pitiful, transparent anachronisms and the morally bankrupt pawns of the most destructive, self-centred generation of organisms that this world has ever seen.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic though. There is much potential, but sadly little time, to address and mitigate these mistakes. The future, providing we’re in it, will be one where sense has prevailed. By virtue of our continued existence, it has to be. Any conceivable scenario in which the evidence has been ignored, where the bellowing drone of selfish contrarians have deafened the ears of logic and reason, will be a future that we, in our current social, political and cultural form, will not be part of. There may be no one able or willing to document the fall of our civilisation at the hands of our own inherent inability to manage the finite resources of this world. There may be nothing worth remembering. We may be the last chapter in the brief, eventful history of our species, or worse perhaps, the crucial turning point of an irreversible, yet avoidable, slow decline into chaos and decay. Perhaps all intelligent civilisations eventually destroy themselves in this way and perhaps that is why, despite the statistical implausibly of it being so, we seem to be traversing space and time on our own.

But perhaps, we’re different. This may be the defining moment in the history of our species. Can we overcome the pressures we are exerting on the planet, whilst simultaneously fighting those deeply invested in defending the objectively unsustainable means by which we are attempting to secure our future? Undoubtedly, our own shortsightedness may present the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced; overcoming it is our only means to ensure that the history books of tomorrow will be written.

Stanislaw Burzynski: Cancer, Lawsuits and Intimidation

I’ve been watching the unravelling scandal surrounding the ‘pioneering’ cancer treatment of a certain Dr Stanislaw Burzynski with interest for some time now. Since music journalist Luke Bainbridge published this article in the Observer 3 weeks ago, things have moved rather quickly. This is a heart-wrenching account of a family blighted by cancer; his sister-in-law was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer when it was discovered that her daughter, 4 year-old Billie, had an inoperable brain tumour. The 2-year survival rate for this form of cancer is ~10%, and in the UK radiotherapy offered by the NHS would, at best, reduce symptoms temporarily. By all accounts, an awful and unimaginably distressing situation for any family to find themselves in. However, the catalyst for the building scandal become evident when Luke outlined the lengths that well-meaning celebrities and concerned citizens have gone to to help raise money to send young Billie for treatment at Burzynski’s Texas-based clinic. The estimated cost of treatment is £200,000. A similar campaign called Hope for Laura also emerged, this time in an attempt to raise £150,000 to finance the treatment of a young mother with brain cancer.

The clinic utilises a treatment called ‘Antineoplaston’ therapy (a brilliant pseudoscientific moniker, to be honest) which involves administering several peptides, amino acids and their derivatives, originally synthesised from blood and urine but now produced from commercially available chemicals, under the hypothesis that these compounds operate as ‘molecular switches’ that may be useful in combating cancers. This is not a new idea and was originally theorised by Burzynski in 1976. Since then, the vast majority of research has been carried out by him or his team to limited or no measurable success. To quote the US National Cancer Institute:

“No randomized controlled trials showing the effectiveness of antineoplastons have been published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.”

The treatment is not approved by the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and therefore cannot be administered as a prevention or cure. Because of this ruling, the Burzynski Clinic is charging hundreds of thousands for desperate patients to be admitted on to ‘clinical trails’, a peculiar loophole in US law, that seem to have no end in sight.

Here in the UK, Cancer Research published this balanced post on their blog, stating:

“At the moment, Burzynski’s antineoplaston treatment has to be regarded as experimental and unproven.”

 At this point I feel I should point out, if it wasn’t already obvious from the subject areas of rest of my posts, that I am not a trained biochemist, oncologist or pharmacist, and make no claim to be an expert in any field that Dr Burzynski operates. Yes, I was shocked that an article had made it though the Observer’s editorial process without the above concerns being raised, but at that time I felt that wading into debate in an unfamiliar area would be a bad idea. Besides, the blogosphere is a big place and there are many excellent bloggers out there who are well versed in the field of ‘quackbusting’ and who have my full support. One such blogger is Andy Lewis of the Quackometer, who wrote this concise post in response to the original Observer article.

However, in the wake of this article a tirade of vitriolic frothy-mouthed emails were sent to Andy and also to 17-year-old quackbuster extraordinaire Rhys Morgan by Burzynski Clinic ‘representative’ Marc Stephens, who threatened libel, lawsuits and used a level of heavy-handedness that was certainly tantamount to intimidation, if not assault. Mr Stephens had all the pretensions of an attorney, but with none of the professionalism, candour or qualifications to support them. It soon became apparent that he was a employed in a ‘P.R. marketing and sponsorship’ role. If Burzynski was aware of what Stephens was doing in his name, this was not the work of a scientist, doctor or decent human being.  The rallying cry was sounded and the Streisand effect lurched into action . Since then over 100 articles have been written exposing every aspect of the Burzynski empire, from their threats and intimidatory tactics, to their rubbish science and non-existent peer-reviewed publications. This post by the Anarchic Teapot on some those who Burzynski has failed is particularly upsetting.

For me, the final straw came in the form of today’s Observer editorial. Considering the underhanded tactics that (the now unemployed) Marc Stephens had adopted in an attempt to silence Burzynski’s critics, and despite the lack of evidence for the efficacy of his treatments, the crux of the article smeared the UK bloggers as the trolls and claimed the response was insensitive to the families of those behind the campaigns. It was semi-apologetic to Burzynski, spineless and frankly appalling. In every conceivable situation, it is better to know the truth than seek comfort in a lie, and it is for this reason that I am writing this post. No, I’m not a doctor but I am a reasonable, rational human being and I can no longer stand back and watch whilst this man extracts the life-savings of desperate people by misappropriating science for his own corrupt means.

No one who has written critically about Burzynski has done so in spite of the campaigns mentioned above. It doesn’t take a medical doctor or scientist to discover that antineoplaston therapy does not work, and one of the most distressing parts of this entire affair is the cost. Hundreds of thousands of pounds (or dollars) are raised to finance the futile work of a charlatan, when there are many more legitimate cancer charities and research institutes much more deserving of such contributions. This is a travesty. It is unashamed, blatant and transparent extortion of the most abhorrent variety. Like vultures, snake oil salesmen prey on the desperate, the frightened. Empty promises abound and hope is delivered prematurely and without sincerity. With all avenues exhausted and the battle nearly lost, the vultures swoop.

Perhaps Burzynski’s worst crime of all is the fact that he robs people of time. Time is a valuable commodity, especially for those with inoperable tumours, and when nearing empty this precious resource should be spent sparingly amongst family and friends. Instead of coming to terms with the inevitable, however unjust and distressing, desperate parents, husbands and wives invest this most invaluable of currencies as hope in the unfounded claims of people like Stanislaw Burzynski.

On Theories

‘Theory’ is a word that is often bounded around in the media and politics. It is also very extensively used in the sciences. However, it is here that it often takes on a different meaning to that which the public assume, a meaning that does not accurately convey the scientific process.

Science is comprised of very little fact and very, very many theories, also known as hypotheses. To be frank, any scientist that presents their work as fact should be discredited immediately and hang their head in shame. Each scientifically accepted theory, or hypothesis, is merely the best estimation available to describe or explain the relevant observation(s). It is an idea that has survived the rigours of peer-review and repeated and independent verification to become accepted as the best explanation available to account for the observed results. Even at this point however, it is not fact. Far from it. New information, analysis or technology may in the future, near or distant, prove it wrong despite years, decades or even centuries of obedient acceptance, and a new theory will have to be devised, tested and retested to take its predecessor’s place. This is how science is done, how it progresses and moves forwards. The ephemeral nature of the process, from inception to acceptance, is perhaps what sets science apart from other disciplines. No theory is sacred; they can all be revolutionised in an instant.

This definition extends to include popular and extensively researched hypotheses, such as the theory of evolution by natural selection and Einstein’s theory of relativity – itself a product of revolutionising Newton’s earlier theory of gravitation that had been accepted for over 300 years. These are the best, the most rigorously tested and repeatedly challenged theories to survive the scientific process and become accepted as the nearest available approximation to describe the speciation of  living creatures and the physical laws governing the movement of large planetary bodies, respectively. They are great examples of theories that have stood the test of time: evolution by natural selection first being proposed by biologists Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the mid to late 19th century.

As a great example of the misapprehension of the meaning of theory in the scientific sense, evolution as a ‘theory’ is one of the favourite jumping-off points for religious creationists who point to the perceived uncertainty inferred by the word as an effective argument against its ability to accurately describe the fundamental driving force behind biology. “Ah, but it’s only a theory”, they say, “and therefore it is merely your opinion that it is more effective at describing speciation than the Genesis saga of the Old Testament”.  This viewpoint illustrates two things. Firstly, a fundamental misunderstanding of the term ‘theory’ as a descriptor of a scientific paradigm, and secondly, a basic understanding of biology.

An example of a testable theory (from the wonderful webcomic xkcd)

Just because it is ‘only’ a theory doesn’t mean it can be completely discredited in one fell-swoop. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and paradigm-changing ideas are only very rarely accepted as theory without serious opposition and incredible evidence. Generally, it is a gradual process – improvement, tinkering, refining, acceptance. If creationist ideas had anywhere remotely near as much scientifically verified evidence in support as evolution does, it would have to be accepted by science. The process is not defined by the religious ideas or politics of individual scientists, despite the insistence of certain areas of the media, but rather by whichever theory has the greater corroborating evidence behind it. If it was the case that it was creationism or intelligent design or aliens that were responsible for differentiating all life on Earth, and the evidence was robust, scientists would be in support. But the fact, and this is a fact, is that it simply isn’t.

Interview with Brian Shiro (CEO of Astronauts4Hire)

Brian Shiro is the Chief Executive Officer of Astronauts4Hire

In this post I have the pleasure of letting someone else do the writing for a change. That person is Brian Shiro and he is the Chief Executive Officer of Astronauts4Hire (A4H). Their official press release footer reads as follows:
Astronauts for Hire, Inc. (A4H) is a  501(c)(3) non-profit corporation whose objectives are to provide opportunities for students and professionals to develop and refine the skills necessary to become commercial astronauts and to assist these qualified candidates with networking opportunities in the space research community. A4H’s commercial astronaut candidates are accomplished scientists and engineers who can support a wide variety of payloads. They are available today for contract and consulting work with researchers to design and conduct experiments on microgravity, suborbital, and orbital missions.
Brian kindly agreed to answer some questions about what it is A4H does, and what his plans are for the future of the company.
1. Do you agree that commercial space companies like Astronauts4Hire are the future of suborbital space transportation and research?
Brian Shiro: I think that the suborbital spaceflight industry will be dominated by commercial companies operating spacecraft for a variety of clients, both private and public.  While tourism is driving much of this development so far, there is only a finite number of people wealthy enough to afford a 5-minute joyride in space.  Once that population of clients has run its course, what will sustain the suborbital spaceflight industry?  Either prices must fall dramatically, or another type of client needs to emerge.  I think researchers are that other type of customer.  Unlike tourists who may only go on one flight, scientists can repeatedly apply for research funding from agencies like the NSF, NASA, or NIH to have their experiments fly in space.  Tourism will never go away, but I think research will eventually dominate the landscape of suborbital flights.  Consider the analogy of Antarctica.  Like space, it is a harsh, remote environment that is expensive to reach.  While some tourists do indeed venture there at great personal expense, almost everyone who goes to Antarctica is a scientist or supports the science activities in some way, I believe that is the fate of the suborbital realm in the foreseeable future.
2. What projects are Astronauts4Hire currently involved in?
Brian: Our most important focus is on building the organization.  At almost 1.5 years old, we are still very young and are evolving rapidly.  Fortunately, we are out front leading the way as this new frontier emerges.  To prepare our members for the rigors of spaceflight and the demands of doing research there, we have developed a comprehensive medical and training qualification program in consultation with expert advisors.  We’re currently working on getting this published so it can get input from the wider community.  Another project has been helping the Commercial Spaceflight Federation recruit Research & Education Affiliate members, which is the status A4H holds in that organization as well.  In collaboration with some of our training and research partners we are working on joint projects ranging from human physiology to developing high fidelity astronaut training courses.  Look for exciting announcements about those projects in the coming months.
3. What are your plans for the future development of Astronauts4Hire?
Brian: Five years from now, I expect A4H to be well established as an authority setting commercial astronaut training standards and as a primary resource to the research community to reliably fly its experiments in space and/or test them on parabolic flights.  Hopefully, we will have already completed at least one actual suborbital spaceflight by that point.  By ten years, A4H should be regularly operating both suborbital and orbital research missions.  In the decade that follows I expect the demand for non-research astronauts to grow to include other “blue collar” support roles to help maintain and operate private space stations, for example.  A4H is positioning itself to serve all of these markets as an astronaut crew service.  Right now, we’re a volunteer-based organization relying upon virtual collaboration tools, but I would expect us to eventually establish a physical office, full-time staff, and perhaps even our own training facilities to help facilitate our activities.
4. Who can become an Astronaut4Hire?
Brian: Anyone can join the organization as an Associate Member.  As an Associate Member you can optionally get involved with A4H projects to support the organization and train to meet your astronaut goals.  Currently, there are 46 Associate Members in A4H.  The other type of members are Flight Members.  These are the “astronauts for hire” of the organization.  Selection as a Flight Member occurs on a competitive basis about once per year.  There are currently 22 Flight Members.  It is necessary to keep this group relatively small to maintain a high degree of quality control on our “product”, meaning the astronauts we can offer to clients.  Also, we don’t have infinite resources to support the training needs of an unlimited number of people, so we have to keep the Flight Member group selective.  The main difference between Associate and Flight members is that Flight Members have access to training scholarships to help offset the cost of astronaut training and can represent A4H as “astronauts for hire” on research contracts with clients.  Generally speaking, to be competitive as a Flight Member, we’re looking for well established scientists or engineers with a broad background indicating adaptability.  Experience in risky operational environments like piloting aircraft, SCUBA diving, mountaineering, etc. are also important indicators that applicants can think clearly under stress.
5. What training do you provide for your astronauts?
Brian: Our training philosophy is that A4H astronauts should be as prepared as possible for whatever situation they might face.  Unlike spaceflight participants who may only fly in space once and therefore only need minimal training, A4H crew astronauts plan to fly many times over the course of a career.  This multiplies the chances for off-nominal events from occurring.  Thus, our training includes preparing for both the planned mission elements and the unplanned emergency situations.  First is academic training, which includes earning at least a Master’s degree in a technical field and completing short courses on spaceflight, the space environment, and human factors.  The astronaut training includes the following major elements: high-G training in a centrifuge, high-altitude hypoxia training in an altitude chamber, microgravity training on parabolic flights, distraction training, emergency egress training, unusual attitude training in acrobatic aircraft, SCUBA diving, private pilot, and survival.  We have organized these into two qualifications we are calling “Research Specialist” and “Operations Specialist”, which are roughly analogous to NASA’s payload and mission specialists, respectively.  Look for a paper from us on this subject in an upcoming peer-reviewed journal by early next year.
6. How can the public get involved?
Brian: One of our important goals of A4H is to excite and inspire the public about the new era of commercial spaceflight.  Members of the public are encouraged to contribute donations, sign up to receive A4H’s quarterly newsletter, or join as Associate Members.  We are happy to come speak to schools or other events anytime too.
7. Do you foresee any conflicts-of-interest between private sponsors and future space missions?
Brian: One can imagine scenarios where sponsors could try to abuse their influence as major financial contributors to the A4H organization.  For example, it would be a conflict of interest for a donor to expect favoritism in an A4H Flight Member or scholarship selection.  Perhaps more insidious would be the notion that an entity hiring A4H for a job could ask A4H to do something to endanger the flight or people on the ground.  Obviously, we would refuse any such requests.  It is critical that all A4H members conduct themselves with the highest ethical conduct, and the missions we perform for clients must also adhere to strict safety standards.  As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, A4H must primary serve the public interest as it builds the next generation of astronauts in the post-Shuttle era of commercial spaceflight.
8. What advice would you give to someone hoping to become an Astronaut4Hire?
Brian: If we’re right, research applications are what will drive the demand for private spaceflights in the foreseeable future.  Therefore, you must either be an accomplished researcher yourself or be very comfortable working with researchers.  Having an advanced postgraduate degree (Master’s, Ph.D.) in a field of science or engineering will be required to have the necessary background to work in this new industry.  Having experience in a broad set of fields will help you be competitive to operate a wider variety of payloads/experiments.  Earning your private pilot’s license, SCUBA certification, and other similar high-demand pursuits will give you experience working in stressful environments which require strict adherence to procedures in order to remain safe and survive.  Last, but not least, experience in the business and/or nonprofit sector(s) is highly valuable.  We need people with fundraising, marketing, and organizational skills to make A4H work.
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Brian answers more questions about Astronauts4Hire in this interview on the Space Business Blog. He is also on Twitter, you can follow him here. You can also follow his personal blog, astronaut for hire.