Monday, April 30, 2012

Falcons and Dragons reaching for the stars

Today marked a major milestone for the private space company SpaceX in their quest to launch the first commercial spacecraft, the Dragon, to the International Space Station. The milestone in question was a dress rehearsal test fire of their rocket launch system known as the Falcon 9. For the uninitiated, this is a pretty mundane event, but for spaceflight geeks everywhere this was nail-biting stuff. A recorded video of the test is up on SpaceX's LiveStream account.

I followed the event on the SpaceX stream, on Twitter and on the forum. According to the manager of NSF (Chris Bergin) the number of visits to the forum came close to about 50% of the number of visits for a big Shuttle launch! Remember, today was only a test fire, so interest in the upcoming launch is massive and the number of visits to sites such as NSF may end up breaking past records.
Artist’s rendition of the Dragon spacecraft separating from the Falcon 9 upper (2nd) stage. Image credit:
I'm not gonna go in to too much details on the event as that's best done by the professionals (for example, here and here). What I will say is that it's days like this that I get true confirmation that I'm a space geek! I spent almost two hours to follow a two-second rocket fire test! It's difficult to explain to those who aren't space enthusiasts just where the enthusiasm comes from. Moreover, with today's communication networks of forums and social media, space geeks the world over can come together to share in the excitement. For me, reading the various forum posts and tweets really amplified my own personal enthusiasm for the event.

Now we all have to wait another seven days for the real thing and it's gonna be hard not to keep checking back on the forums and Twitter for every little update. In fact, this kinda all goes to show that sometimes it's the anticipation of something, and not the thing itself, that brings the greatest joy. Still though, I'm really looking forward to seeing that rocket and spacecraft ride into the Floridian sky next week! Go SpaceX!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Asteroid mining!

The coolest thing ever was just announced a couple of days a go: a group of rich billionaires have started up a venture which has the ultimate goal of sending robots to mine asteroids for water and precious metals! As Jon Stewart on the Daily Show said, this is a news story that looks and sounds in 2012 what we thought it would look and sound like in 2012. Also on that same Daily Show episode, astrophysicist gives the project his own version of a thumbs up by calling it "not bullshit" :)

Characterizing an asteroid’s value and preparing for mining operations
(image copyright: Planetary Reources)

Anyway, I'm not going to rant on about this too much, except to say that I'm pretty excited and hopeful about this project. We are now getting to a situation where private billionaire investors are starting to embarrass some (though not all) of the current efforts by the big space agencies (NASA, ESA and Roscosmos). Here are some more links about this whole story: - official website of the venture, called "Planetary Resources"

Phil Plait's (aka The Bad Astronomer) take on the announcement.

Forum discussion by the space enthusiast community over at

Monday, April 23, 2012

Psychoanalysis in France

The website recently posted an excerpt from the following article in the New Statesman:
Simon Singh also linked to the article on his Twitter account. The article follows right on the heels of a BBC report where France is criticized for still applying Freudian psychoanalysis techniques to treat autism. This whole subject area is very new to me, and I have to admit that I know very little about Freud, psychoanalysis or autism. Before I began digging some more into the issue, this is what I knew: that Freudian techniques are outdated (though I wasn't quite sure of all the details as to why they are outdated) and that autism is a neurological disorder.

The New Statesman article decides to bring the criticism of France to another level by accusing the French of a "difficult relationship with evidence-based science". Now, I do have some misgivings about science and scientists here in France, but the arguments and "evidence" put forward by the author, Michael Brooks, just come across as plain silly. Here's one of his arguments:
According to LSE researcher Martin Bauer, support within a population for science is inversely proportional to the strength of that country’s scientific research. As Bauer and his colleagues put it in this paper, “if the national science base is strong… science initiatives find less support and vice versa.” And, as it turns out, the French are highly supportive of science initiatives – suggesting their science base is actually rather weak.

Have you ever heard of such a silly proposition. To take this argument all the way to ad absurdum, one could conclude that to get a population to support science, one should aim to weaken the country's science base. Is it just me that finds that logic preposterous? So, if I'm understanding this right, countries that are extremely weak in science, say Mali, should have a population that protests on the street for more science initiatives? 

He then digs himself into a deeper hole with this nonsense:
I can offer some arbitrary and rather unscientific figures to back this up. Here’s the question: how many members of a population does it take to create a Nobel prize-winning scientist?
Taking 1970 as the cutoff for modern times, in Sweden, it’s 1.5 million people per scientific Nobel prize. In the UK, it’s 1.7 million. Germany has a prize for every 3 million people (reunification will no doubt have pushed that figure up). France? Since 1970, one scientific Nobel prize per 5 million people.
(bold emphasis mine)

Note to Mr. Brooks: if something is arbitrary and "rather unscientific", then don't use it to back anything up. Also, choosing arbitrary start dates (1970?) puts you on the same level as climate deniers who choose time intervals to "prove" that the Earth is cooling. Finally, one of the foundations of science is an understanding that correlation does not imply causation. In other words, a smaller number of Nobel prize-winning scientists in France compared to other countries is a long, long way from concluding that the French have a difficult relationship with evidence-based science.

There is an anti-pseudoscience association in France known as the "Association française pour l’information scientifique" (AFIS), or in English the "French association for science information". Their website can be found here: They also have a recent article on the issue of autism and psychoanalysis which you can try to read by using the Google translate tool.
In December 2010, the AFIS published a special magazine issue on psychoanalysis. Quickly skimming over the issue summary, it tries to tackle the reasons for why psychoanalysis is still prevalent in France, but that its decline is underway. 
Today (April 23rd, 2012), I just bought the recent edition of Le Nouvel Observateur which has on its front page the title "Faut-il brûler la psychanalyse ?" ("Should psychoanalysis be burned"). Within is a dossier of several articles that strongly criticize the discipline. 

There are criticisms to be made of both science culture and scientific research in France, but this article shows that the author is completely unaware of what those problems are and why they exist. I'll try to come back to that subject in another post.

"Scientists and Astronauts" criticizing NASA's global warming policy

I follow the climate change debate a lot and, in the spirit of keeping an open mind, I follow a variety of blogs on both sides of the debate. One of those blogs, Watts Up With That by Anthony Watts, posted this article yesterday:

In that article, Anthony posts a press release entitled:
Joint letter to NASA Administrator blasts agency’s policy of ignoring empirical evidence

The letter in question is signed by "49 former NASA scientists and astronauts" who admonish NASA for "it’s role in advocating a high degree of certainty that man-made CO2 is a major cause of climate change"

In the following post, I will lay out my criticisms of the letter. Just to be clear before you read any further, let me state that I am a strong advocate of the general consensus that human actions are leading to global warming.

Anthropogenic Global Warming - a testable hypothesis

I follow several climate change blogs and two of them recently published some interesting articles on what we knew about global warming back in the early 80's and how the models of that time predicted the changing climate of the past 30 years.

From Climate Denial Crock of the Week, by Peter Sinclair, comes the following video:

In that video we get to see how the scientific predictions from 1982 have been validated. What I found really interesting in that video was the explanation of the "fingerprint approach", which is the method used to distinguish warming caused by carbon dioxide from warming caused by other factors.

On the Real Climate blog, two contributors wrote a post about a paper by James Hansen and co-workers (here's the pdf) that was published in 1981. The real eye-opening part of that post is a graph (click here for a direct link as I'm not sure about permissions for reproducing images) where they superimpose the temperature data of the last 30 years over the model predictions by Hansen et al from 1982. The correlation is astounding! It's not perfect, but I can tell you from experience that in science, such an agreement between two curves is considered a home run. If I could get experimental data that fitted just as well with models, then publishing science papers would be a breeze!


  • J. Hansen, D. Johnson, A. Lacis, S. Lebedeff, P. Lee, D. Rind, and G. Russell, "Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide", Science, vol. 213, 1981, pp. 957-966.

First post

Ok, time to bite the bullet and post some of my musings on this new blog of mine. To start, I've got three blog posts that have been lying idle and are ready to be published. Allons-y !