What Language on Mars?

02/08/2010

Predictions Revisited

What Language Will They Speak on Mars?

The planet Mars in Chinese script. Credit: About.com: Chinese Culture, written by “js”

Chinese, on present showing. Never mind that seven men – Russian (4) European (2) and Chinese (1) – are now two months into a 520-day isolation trial in Moscow, simulating a manned mission to Mars. That’s for show. Political willpower will settle the issue.

In 1964 the rocket engineer Wernher von Braun forecast a human visit to Mars by 1984. That might well have happened had the US not cancelled its proposed Orion rocket in 1965 – the year after von Braun made his prediction. The trouble was that Orion would have had nuclear propulsion, not merely by nuclear motors, but by nuclear bombs. So it had to be abandoned in the aftermath of the nuclear test-ban treaty, much to the annoyance of Freeman J. Dyson and other enthusiasts.

Orion – the gigantic might-have-been

Here’s a diagram from my book Spaceships of the Mind (1978) which accompanied the BBC-OECA series with the same title, produced by Dick Gilling of BBC-TV. Assembled in Earth orbit, Orion would have carried about 2000 10-kiloton nuclear fission bombs, released at a rate of one a second to explode close behind a large spaceship. With a pusher plate absorbing the shocks, the spacecraft would quickly reach a speed that would take about 20 astronauts around Mars and back to Earth in just six months.

It may seem daft now but Orion was a recognition, at the very start of the Space Age, that if human beings are ever to become serious about space travel, they’ll have to think nuclear. That’s still the case, although nuclear fusion will be preferable, of course, with ignition as far from the Earth as possible.

When von Braun contributed to the New Scientist’s 1964 series on “The World in 1984” he remained mute about Orion although he glanced the nuclear option. At the time he was director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, with the Apollo missions to the Moon at the top of his agenda. Here, for a start, are two early extracts from his article entitled “Exploration to the Farthest Planets”:

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Rebels in the Royal Society

28/05/2010

Climate Change – News and Comments

Rebels in the Royal Society

Let the tempest rage”

Forty-three brave Fellows of the Royal Society of London have challenged the Society’s notoriously uncompromising pronouncements in support of the man-made global warming hypothesis. In breaking this news, the BBC’s Roger Harrabin quotes one of them as saying:

We sent an e-mail round our friends, mainly in physical sciences. Then when we had got 43 names we approached the Council in January asking for the website entry on climate to be re-written. I don’t think they were very pleased. I don’t think this sort of thing has been done before in the history of the Society. But we won the day, and the work is under way to re-write it. I am very hopeful that we will find a form of words on which we can agree.

A panel chaired by nano-materials expert John Pethica, Vice-President of the Royal Society, has two critical sub-groups, each including some doubters. The panel is due to complete a report in July, for publication in September.

Will it moderate the intolerance of the Royal Society towards sceptical climate scientists over the past ten years, under the presidencies of theoretical biologist Lord (Robert) May and astrophysicist Lord (Martin) Rees? It may clear the air a little before the geneticist Sir Paul Nurse becomes the next President in November.

But I note that the panel is supposed to come up with a consensus! That same silly word, out of keeping with the process of scientific discovery, and inevitably bound to protect the vested interests of the climate catastrophists. Why not just a forthright minority report?

The role of the Royal Society in cherishing scientific excellence is in any case at odds with the wish of eminent Fellows to tell governments and the public what to think. For a couple of centuries an “Advertisement” in Philosophical Transactions expressly forbade pronouncements by the Society as a whole on any scientific or practical matter.

... it is an established rule of the Society, to which they will always
adhere, never to give their opinion, as a Body, upon any subject, 
either of Nature or Art, that comes before them.

That sensible “Advertisement” disappeared in the 1960s when a politically ambitious physicist, Patrick Blackett, was the President.

If only the Fellows would all stick to their motto, Nullius in verba. It means roughly “Don’t take anyone’s word for it”, but more picturesquely it derives from an epistle of Horace:

Nullius addictus jurare in verba magistri / Quo me cumque rapit tempestas, deferor hospes.

No master’s words bind me in an oath / Wherever the wind blows me, I’ll be a visitor.

So, Fellows, please let the tempest rage in climate science, and don’t be bound by opinionated Presidents or even by consensual panels.

Consensus is the enemy of surprising discoveries and its goes a long way towards explaining the present slackness of science as a whole, which I discuss under WHY IS SCIENCE SO SloooOW? – see https://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/05/06/why-is-science-so-sloooow/

For Harrabin’s BBC report see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/science_and_environment/10178124.stm