No planet but this one

The Voyager 2 spacecraft has just passed through the heliopause and into interstellar space, forty years after it was launched.

On the one hand that’s a stunning technological achievement and a reminder of the wonderful universe we live in. On the other, it’s a reminder that humans will never go out to explore this universe, or even leave Earth in significant numbers.

Although Voyager 2 has passed the heliopause it is still within the gravitational field of the sun. It would take another 30,000 years to fly beyond the Oort cloud which marks the boundary.

These facts could have been computed when Voyager was launched though at the time its mission was limited to five years. But if they had been pointed out as an argument for the impossibility of interstellar travel, the response would surely have been that the problem would be solved by technological progress. Forty years before Voyager was launched, flying across the Atlantic ocean was a major feat. Forty years or so before that, the first heavier-than-air flight was undertaken by the Wright brothers.

Extrapolating one could reasonably expect that forty years more progress would produce massive advances in space travel including human space travel. In fact, though no one knew it at the time, the heroic age had already passed. No one has travelled to the moon since Voyager 2 was launched and, quite possibly, no one ever will. The promise of the space shuttle has been abandoned in favour of the 1950s technology of the Atlas rocket. Meanwhile physicists have closed off just about every possible loophole that might allow us to evade Einstein’s conclusion that the speed of light is an absolute limit.

The other achievement of the Voyagers and their successors has been a comprehensive exploration of the planets and moons of the solar system. They have revealed many marvels, but nowhere remotely habitable compared to, say, Antarctica or the Atacama desert.

The biggest lesson of our decades of space exploration is that Earth is the only planet we have.

The Coal Truth

Last week, I spoke at a forum on Adani and indigenous rights organized by the UQ Human Rights Consortium. It was an excellent line-up, with

Murrawah Johnson – Youth Spokesperson Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Council, Activist of the Year (Ngara Institute) and on the 50 Grist list – acknowledging her place amongst the world’s best and brightest fighting for the planet.

Dr Michelle Maloney – Co-founder and National Convenor, Australian Earth Laws Alliance

David Ritter – Chief Executive Greenpeace Australia Pacific, and author of The Coal Truth: The Fight to Stop Adani, Defeat the Big Polluters and Reclaim Our Democracy which is well worth buying and reading.

Having contributed to The Coal Truth I was very interested to meet David Ritter. I was particularly impressed that he took the time to respond personally to this long-ago post, attacking Greenpeace for the sabotage of a CSIRO experiment on GM crops. David assured me that Greenpeace had repudiated this action and re-established a good relationship with CSIRO.  There’s plenty of room for legitimate dispute about the issue of GM crops (I’m dubious, thought not opposed outright) but none about the kind of tactics used in that case.

An unhappy coincidence?

The other day my incoming email included an invitation from an Olla Galal, special issue developer at Hindawi publishers, to be the Lead Guest Editor for a Special Issue of Occupational Therapy International. Nothing too surprising in that, although my knowledge of occupational therapy would barely extend to a paraphrase of the name. I’m always getting invitations like this, and while I had the impression that Hindawi was a cut above the kind of predatory publishing house that does this kind of thing, I wasn’t too sure. (I have received previous invitations of this kind from them, but in fields where I could at least be a plausible candidate.

What made me pay attention was this

In June 2016, Wiley and Hindawi entered into a new publishing partnership that converted nine Wiley subscription journals into Open Access titles. The journals will be published under both the Wiley and Hindawi brands and distributed through Hindawi’s online platform

So, if this is accurate, I could become a guest editor for a Wiley journal in a field in which I am totally unqualified. More seriously, authors of papers in the old version of Occupational Therapy International “very well respected in its field with an impact factor of 0.683” according to Olla Galal, will now be associated with the new one.

Having got this far, I thought I should check Beall’s list of predatory journals, only to discover that it went dark on 17 January* for unexplained reasons. This is certainly depressing. It seems that even supposedly reputable academic publishers are now engaged, with only the fig leaf of a “partnership”, in seriously predatory behavior. How long before we see them pandering to the demand for “alternative fact” journals to give proper credibility to creationism, climate science denial, antivax and so on, if they are not already?

* Only a couple of days before Trump’s inauguration. Coincidence?

My letter to Paul Offit (updated)

Dear Dr Offit,

I have admired your work in support of vaccines, and your willingness to face down the anti-science attacks on vaccination. I was, therefore, greatly dismayed to read your column in the Daily Beast recently, reviving a set of discredited attacks on public health and environmental science, centred on the spurious claim of a global ban on DDT. I have linked a blog post and article covering the key points, which you can easily check for yourself

As I note in the post, giving credence to discredited anti-science attacks like those of Stephen Milloy is a gift to the anti-vaccination movement which they are already exploiting. I urge you to investigate this issue more carefully and publish a follow-up column setting out the real situation.

I would be happy to correspond further and send you more information if needed.

John Quiggin

Update 21/2/17: I received a fairly terse reply to this email, reiterating a number of spurious claims about Carson. My email in response went unanswered, as did a followup. This is disappointing, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in 15 years of blogging it’s that changing anybody’s mind is very difficult. I’ve done my best to apply this lesson to myself and be more open to new evidence – long term readers can judge if that’s been successful.

A double disaster for science and public health

Zombies never die, and that’s even more true of zombie ideas. One of the most thoroughly killed zombies, the myth that Rachel Carson is responsible for millions of deaths from DDT, has recently re-emerged from the rightwing nethersphere where it has continued to circulate despite repeated refutation. That wouldn’t be worth yet another long post except for the source: Dr Paul Offit, a prominent pediatrician and leading pro-vaccination campaigner, writing in the Daily Beast. Offit’s revival of the DDT ban myth is a double disaster for science and public health.

Read More »

Tu quoque, revisited

Slightly lost amid the furore over the alleged Trump dossier was the news that Trump had held a meeting with leading antivaxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. As is usual, particularly with the Trump Administration, accounts of the meeting differed, with RFK claiming Trump had asked him to lead an inquiry into vaccine safety and Trump apparatchiks denying any firm decision had been made.

This interested me because, on the strength of sharing his father’s name, RFK Jr was, for many years the poster child for those on the right who wanted to claim that Democrats were just as anti-science as Republicans. (I’ve appended a post from 2014, discussing this.) Now he’s eager to work for Trump.

I pointed out the likely emergence of vaccination as a partisan issue in another post. Lots of commenters were unhappy about it, and it’s true that it’s unfortunate in the same way as is the partisan divide on global warming, evolution and just about any scientific issue that has political or cultural implications. But, whether we like it or not, it’s happening and likely to accelerate. The sudden reversal in Republican views on Putin, Wikileaks and so on illustrates the force of loyalty to Trump. We can only hope that, for once, his team’s denials turn out to be correct.

Read More »

Catalyst catastrophe

There are reports that the ABC’s Catalyst science program is to be dumped, and replaced by a series of specially commissioned 1-hour documentaries. The move has reportedly been prompted by the disastrous broadcasts of Maryann Demasi, on the supposed dangers of statins and wifi. I have mixed feelings about this. Catalyst has serious problems, going beyond Demasi, but the alternative sounds like it will require a lot of money to do well. I fear that “specially commissioned” will turn out to mean “recycled from Discovery Channel” and that we will end up with lots of variants on “Shark week”

More generally, it’s depressing to reflect on the near-total failure of television as a communications medium for science. The demands of the medium (flashy visuals, and continuous sound) overwhelm what ought to be its potential. Discovery Channel is a joke that makes Catalyst at its worst look good. Even the great David Attenborough is now presented inaudibly, drowned out by the monotone background noise of Sigur Ros. Overall, radio is better, and text better still.