Category Archives: Space Science

Neil DeGrasse Tyson

…and the science of smug condescension:

Here we see, in action, the signature scientific style of the Neil deGrasse Tyson era. Present a scientific theory in crudely oversimplified form, omitting any uncertainties or counter-arguments. Pass off complex claims as if they are obvious “basic physics.” Then dismiss any skepticism as the resentment of the primitive, ignorant, unscienced masses against their enlightened betters.

Or, you know, file law suits against critics.

It’s not a very good way to get valid scientific results—nor, for that matter, to promote the scientific method. But it’s what we get when we substitute, in place of respect for the actual methodology of science, an attitude of superior posing and smug condescension.

I’d like to say that I was disappointed with the Cosmos reboot, but honestly, I wasn’t that big a fan of the original. But I’d love to buy Tyson for what I think he’s worth, and sell him for what he does.

[Afternoon update]

Some more thoughts:

It seems to me that Neal deGrasse Tyson is a scientist. Heck, I don’t actually know, because I don’t read technical astronomy papers, but I assume he’s published something somewhere, actually done some science in his life. But that doesn’t appear to be his current day job. His current job, near as I can tell, is carnival barker. He’s a salesman, or an advertiser. That’s not science. Inspiring others to want to learn more may be laudable, but it’s not science. Making crap up isn’t science, either, but I’ll let the serial stalkers at the Federalist worry about that.

But here’s a misconception that I’ve discussed before:

Thing is, I’m no scientist. So while I would like to call myself a Science-ist – that is, one who believes in the nature of science and the good results it can produce – I certainly can’t pretend I am a scientist, which is one who does science. Stuff like collecting data, analyzing it, proposing hypotheses, testing hypotheses. You know, stuff that scientists do. Not just looking at cool pictures of galaxies and pretending that makes me smart. (Um, NSFW language at that link)

No. Science isn’t a profession, it’s a way of thinking about the world, and learning about it. Everyone does it, to some degree or another, every day. Check a door knob to see if it’s unlocked? You just did an experiment.

People who believe in “science” as some kind of special realm that “scientists” live in, and that “science” reveals “truth” (as many global warm mongers do, even though they don’t understand the science or, often, even basic math) are members of a religion, that is in fact properly called scienceism. I believe in science as the best means to learn about the natural world, and as the basis for engineering and creating technology, but I don’t worship scientists, and I don’t delude myself that scientific results are “truth.”

Anyway, finally, note this comment:

you make an ass out of neal tyson when it’s pointed out that he has not, in fact, published A SINGLE PIECE of academic work since having talked some committee into accepting the dissertation it took him 11 years (and an expulsion!) to co-author.

no, seriously. if you don’t believe me, you can put his name into the search bar at, where practicing physicists post our preprints:

“Search gave no matches

No matches were found for your search: all:(neal AND tyson)

Please try again.”

In the next comment, he notes that there is in fact one post-doc paper, but it appears that he’s just participating because the actual authors wanted a bigger name on it.

The Hubble Group

So the big news today is that they’ve named the supercluster we live in:

Scientists previously placed the Milky Way in the Virgo Supercluster, but under Tully and colleagues’ definition, this region becomes just an appendage of the much larger Laniakea, which is 160 million parsecs (520 million light years) across and contains the mass of 100 million billion Suns.

Which kicked off this Twitter exchange between me and Lee Billings.

Accordingly, I propose that we rename the Local Group the Hubble Group, in honor of its namer, and making it consistent with the other names. I will henceforth call it that. If anyone asks, I’ll explain.

The Diane Rehm Space Discussion

Marcia Smith has a good summary. This amused me:

Rehm exclaimed that she didn’t understand what Gold meant because the “language you’re using” sounds “proprietary” and one cannot own the Moon. Gold began answering, but apparently the show ran out of time for that segment (music began playing) and he was not able to fully respond. Rehm said it “sounds confusing to me,” and cut him off.

Diane Rehm always strikes me as someone who is easily confused. I’ve never understood her popularity, except that a lot of Beltway denizens share her propensity for confusion.

[Update a while later]

Monumental willful ignorance from Mark Whittington:

The cancellation of the SLS, unlikely in the current political climate, would mean the end of any hope of sending American astronauts beyond low Earth orbit for the foreseeable future.

If you can’t see beyond the next five years, perhaps. It’s the lack of propellant storage and transfer technologies, and landers, that is keeping bound to LEO, not lack of heavy life. Money wasted on SLS is trapping us there.

Expect him to show up shortly with his standard, foolish, “But you provide no alternative,” despite the fact that he’s been shown alternatives many times. We can explain it to you, Mark, but we can’t understand it for you.

The CBO And Human Spaceflight

It’s not surprising at all that it would see it as a potential area to reduce the deficit (see page 74). The entire NASA budget is an option for that, in fact, as is the entire federal budget, really. But it points out how completely out to sea we are on why we’re doing it. Note the underlying assumption.

This option would terminate NASA’s human space exploration and space operations programs, except for those necessary to meet space communications needs (such as communication with the Hubble Space Telescope). The agency’s science and aeronautics programs and robotic space missions would continue. Eliminating those human space programs would save $73 billion between 2015 and 2023, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.

The main argument for this option is that increased capabilities in electronics and information technology have
generally reduced the need for humans to fly space missions. The scientific instruments used to gather knowledge in space rely much less (or not at all) on nearby humans to operate them. NASA and other federal agencies have increasingly adopted that approach in their activities on Earth, using robots to perform missions
without putting humans in harm’s way. For example, NASA has been using remotely piloted vehicles to track
hurricanes over the Atlantic Ocean at much longer distances than those for which tracking aircraft are conventionally piloted.

Eliminating humans from spaceflights would avoid risk to human life and would decrease the cost of space exploration by reducing the weight and complexity of the vehicles needed for the missions. (Unlike instruments, humans need water, air, food, space to move around in, and rest.) In addition, by replacing people with instruments, the missions could be made one way—return would be necessary only when the mission required it, such as to collect samples for further analysis—thus eliminating the cost, weight, and complexity of return and reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

A major argument against this option is that eliminating human spaceflight from the orbits near Earth would end
the technical progress necessary to prepare for human missions to Mars (even though those missions are at least
decades away). Moreover, if, in the future, robotic missions proved too limiting, then human space efforts
would have to be restarted. Another argument against this option is that there may be some scientific advantage
to having humans at the International Space Station to conduct experiments in microgravity that could not be
carried out in other, less costly, ways. (However, the International Space Station is currently scheduled to be
retired in 2020, postponed from an earlier decommissioning in 2015.) [Emphasis added]

There are multiple flawed assumptions in this analysis. First that the only purpose of sending humans into space is about science. Second, that it is about exploration. Third, that Mars is the goal.

If we aren’t going to develop and settle space, there is no point in sending people there, or hazarding their lives. But we never have that discussion.

[Evening update]

Seemed to be a link problem. Hope it’s fixed now, sorry.