Performance art

Nature‘s got a piece up under the headline Duelling visions stall NASA: A US plan to send humans to explore an asteroid is losing momentum.

Summary: President Obama proposes an asteroid as the next major destination for humans in space, but nobody at NASA’s convinced this is (a) feasible or (b) worthwhile.

Here’s the most pro-asteroid part of the article:

But Mark Sykes, president of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, and chair of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group, remains a big fan of asteroids. He notes that human explorers could search for resources such as water. Scientists could seek to understand the subtle pressure of light that causes asteroids to change their spin, and could retrieve samples for dating and chemical analysis that would offer a clearer picture of Solar System material than do meteorites, which, although they are pieces of asteroids, are altered during their fall through Earth’s atmosphere.

But all this could be done more cheaply with a robotic mission, says Sykes. Without a sustained drive towards something bigger — such as a human presence on Mars — even Sykes isn’t terribly excited. “You go to an asteroid, then what?” he says. “If it’s all performance art, that’s not much of a mission.”

“Search for resources such as water” has got to be the stupidest reason imaginable for going to an asteroid. As Bob Park put it a few years ago, “I told NASA that I would be happy to leave my garden hose out and they could come by and take all the water they want.”

Sykes is quite right that all of the listed reasons would be much better done with robots than people. You don’t send people into space to do science.

There’s one and only one reason for sending humans to any given destination in space: because it’d be awesome to send humans there.Is the intrinsic awesomeness of someone going to an asteroid worth the cost and risk? Then let’s send people there. If not, not.

The word “risk” there is a huge understatement, by the way:

Then there is the problem of just getting there. NASA is increasingly concerned about the radiation exposure and bone loss that astronauts might face during a long voyage outside Earth’s protective magnetosphere. “You get a bad solar storm and you’re toast,” says Mackwell.

As far as I can tell, having humans spend years in zero gravity being bombarded by radiation is virtually certain to ruin their physical health and lead to premature death.


A missed opportunity to teach some mathematics

I’m surprised that I missed this scandal in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:

To deal with fuel shortages after the storm, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced rationing on 8 November.

“Drivers in New York City who have licence plates that end in an odd number or end in a letter or other character will be able to gas or diesel only on odd-numbered days such as tomorrow which happens to be the 9th,” he said.

“Those with licence plates ending in an even number, or the number zero, will be able to buy gas or diesel only on even number days such as Saturday November 10th.”

I knew about the rationing. The scandalous part is that Bloomberg uttered the phrase “an even number, or the number zero.” I suppose you could argue that it’s technically correct (as long as the word “or” is inclusive), but it certainly seems to imply that zero is not an even number.

It’s probably true that lots of people don’t know that zero is an even number, so including the clarification makes sense. I just wish Bloomberg had taken the opportunity to educate people a bit by saying “an even number, including zero” instead of “or zero.” He may, inexplicably, not have thought that this was a priority under the circumstances.

By the way, before you use this as a jumping-off point for a jeremiad about the sorry state of American mathematical knowledge, I should point out that this is not an exclusively American problem. From the same BBC report:

It’s not just the public who have struggled to recognise zero as an even number. During the smog in 1977 in Paris, car use was restricted so that people with licence plates ending in odd or even numbers drove on alternate days.

“The police did not know whether to stop the zero-numbered licence plates and so they just let them pass because they didn’t know whether it was odd or even,” says Dr Grime.