Space scariness

April 8, 2011

Anyhoo. Enough of this moral philosophy. I think next time I see Tom S in the pub we will be in a for a several pint session. So. No change there then.

I’m orff ski-ing in the morning so no posts for a bit. Let me leave you depressed. You probably just read Telescoper’s post about NASA bailing out of LISA. That is indeed particularly distressing news for Cardiff. But its bigger and worse than this. I strongly recommend you read the post at Dynamics of Cats. Stein is always worth reading : regularly tickles the funny bone. But not this one. The plug is also pulled on IXO. Now, LISA and IXO are two out of the three L-class missions in ESA’s Cosmic Visions programme… what the hell happens now ?

Comment No. 22 on Stein’s post is interesting … it states that rather than NASA unilaterally pulling out, they did so because ESA pushed … they knew NASA was going to have trouble coughing up so they said they would continue studies alone. Anybody got more gen on this ?

It might get worse. Stein points out that JWST has been taken out of the Astrophysics budget and put in as its very own line item. Maybe this gives it super-high status. But as the US government shuts down because they can’t agree a budget (my Smithsonian chums are on furlough), JWST looks scarily exposed. Don’t think its too far down the road to stop. The US government has proved itself capable of cutting losses.

Remember the Alamo SSC.

The ant, the spider, and the bee

April 8, 2011

Its always good to tidy up. I just threw out lots of ancient viewgraphs, but along the way I re-discovered one with a quote that, many moons ago, I would use to open my trusty seminar on AGN classification. Its from Francis Bacon’s book, The New Organon, or True Directions Concerning the Interpretation of Nature :  Book 1, Aphorism 95 :

Those who have handled sciences have been either men of experiment or men of dogmas. The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. Not unlike this is the true business of philosophy; for it neither relies solely or chiefly on the powers of the mind, nor does it take the matter which it gathers from natural history and mechanical experiments and lay it up in the memory whole, as it finds it, but lays it up in the understanding altered and digested. Therefore from a closer and purer league between these two faculties, the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made), much may be hoped.

Isn’t that wonderful ?

I have spared you the original Latin.

Rees on Religion

April 6, 2011

Bit of a Twitter Buzz this morning about Martin Rees winning the Templeton Prize. For those who don’t know, the Templeton Foundation is an organisation founded by billionaire John Templeton, to encourage open minded and progressive thinking in religion. In the 1980s they also started funding science, where they felt there was some philosophical (not necessarily directly religious) interest. Most interestingly, in 2006 they gave nine million dollars to help found the Foundational Questions Institute, led by by some well known astronomers and physicists.  Some scientists are clearly nervous about the Templeton Foundation, and others are relaxed, as described in this Nature News article.

Martin gave an interview to the Guardian about his reaction to the prize, and the relation between science and religion. Its the sanest thing I have read in ages. Briefly, his attitude is (a) I don’t believe in God. (b) I sometimes go to Church for cultural and work reasons. (c) Relax. Science and religion are disjoint activities. Pretty much like science and music. (d) We need to encourage progressive attitudes in religion, rather than setting up science in opposition.

Dawkins has called Rees a “compliant quisling“. Martin kinda brushed this off, but I have to say I’m with the Astronomer Royal on this.

A little while back I wrote about the Martin Gaskell affair, and was shocked at the level of crudeness and vitriol on the Pharyngula blog. Who needs religious fascism when we atheists can be just as vicious and unreasonable? I do realise that the perspective is rather different in the USA, where it is much more tempting to feel embattled. But it still doesn’t feel right.

Religion ain’t disappearing any time soon. If religion causes a lot of our problems, the sane solution is to encourage better religion, and encourage people to feel they can have their God and Darwin too, as Martin says.

Finally, while we are doing a bit of Rees worship, I just loved his closing quote from Hobbes : “There can be no contentment but in proceeding”

Course, Robert Zimmerman said it better

The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keeping on
Like a bird that flew
Tangle up in Blue