Field of Science

The Story of Fixing Hubble

I can't tell if Charles Pellerin, the director of NASA astrophysics at the time the Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, is a really honest person or a really lucky person. He was able to get a mission together that fixed Hubble after a disastrous design flaw was found in the telescope after it was already in space. In an article over at Computerworld he gives an account of the technical and social workings that led to the launch of Hubble with a spherically aberrerated mirror — the telescope's mirror was flawed such that it would take a space serving mission to make it usable for science. In 1993 a space mission did successfully fix Hubble, just three years after Huuble went to space as a deferred dream. In hindsight Pellerin believes what led to the mistake in Hubble's design, and the 1986 Challenger disaster, was as much technical as social. The pressure put on the rational scientists by management led to the problems.

Large projects have social forces at play such as 'normalisation of deviance' wherein problems become okay logically when you step back from them. An entire mission can drift noticeably into situations where more than a simple technical argument can stop it. Pellerin took notice of research which shows that social context can be a larger determinate of performance rather than individual abilities. Pellerin asserts that Hubble nor Challenger was a product of invisible or unmanageable forces. While certain accidents may be unavoidable, others are avoidable and they may be the fault of leadership. Today Pellerin teaches management techniques founded concepts of mutual respect, authenticity, and efficient action incorporated into the leadership.

There's nothing unusual about having a bad day at the office. But some people have worse days than others, and in his time Charles (Charlie) Pellerin has had a few notable ones. Not many people find themselves having to explain why an organisation has invested a decade and half and in the vicinity of $3 billion on a project that has failed.

That's the position Pellerin found himself in as NASA's director of astrophysics in the wake of the 1990 launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, which had what appeared to be an unfixable flaw in its optical system.

It's difficult to overstate what a disaster this was and the humiliation faced by NASA; not just as an organisation but also the individuals who worked for the agency. A good friend of Pellerin who worked on the telescope fell ill in the wake of the launch and died. Two of Pellerin's senior staffers had to be removed from their offices by guards and taken to alcohol rehab facilities. "These are PhDs sitting at their desk getting drunk; this is how bad the stress was," says Pellerin.

Read on about how NASA's short-sightedness led to a flaw in Hubble's optics.

Science writing versus writing like a scientist

It is a fact that I have written more fiction in my life than science writing and more science writing that I have scientific papers. When my advisor has asked me to write I am able to naturally come up with an abstract and an introduction like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I summarize the current state of the field neatly and present our results as the natural evolution of what comes next. Then when it comes to writing out the details of the research and the work I slow down. My advisor has a bit of criticism about the introduction (it is not specific enough they say), and plenty of criticism for the rest of the writing as if my entire style is not adequate. What is with the style of science writing in grants and research papers?

It as if scientists are bound to a certain kind of writing that is dry, concise (and it has to be when we have to pay per page published in most research journals), and standardized. I think many scientist would agree that our language doesn't have to be dry as long as it is standardized. Expository writing is different from other kinds of writing sure, but we have to ask ourselves how and why? Science writing for journalism is different than that of science writing for papers of grants even though they are both technically expository writing. I wonder if this is because they must be or because mediocre writing has become the style in science papers. Adam Ruben has written a wonderful opinion piece over at Science magazine mocking some of the quirks of scientific paper writing. The piece is worth a read and he includes a list of science paper tropes which are hilarious. Here is an excerpt:

Image of a book, by Flickr user romling1. Scientific papers must begin with an obligatory nod to their own relevance, usually by citing exaggerated figures about disease prevalence or other impending disasters. If your research does not actually address one of these issues, pretend it does, because hey, that didn’t stop you on the grant application. For example, you might write, “Twenty million children die of scabies every day. OMG we built a robot kangaroo!”

2. Using the first person in your writing humanizes your work. If possible, therefore, you should avoid using the first person in your writing. Science succeeds in spite of human beings, not because of us, so you want to make it look like your results magically discovered themselves.

3. Some journals, such as Science, officially eschew the passive voice. Others print only the passive voice. So find a healthy compromise by writing in semi-passive voice.

ACTIVE VOICE: We did this experiment.

PASSIVE VOICE: This experiment was done by us.

SEMI-PASSIVE VOICE: Done by us, this experiment was.

Yes, for the semi-passive voice, you’ll want to emulate Yoda. Yoda, you’ll want to emulate.

Read on you will want to, like a scientist you must write.

What entropy is or is not

A primer of what entropy is or is not at 3 Quarks Daily by Rishidev Chaudhuri and Jason Merrill:
C.P. Snow famously said that not knowing the second law of thermodynamics is like never having read Shakespeare. Whatever the particular merits of this comparison, it does speak to the centrality of the idea of entropy (and its increase) to the physical sciences. Entropy is one of the most important and fundamental physical concepts and, because of its generality, is frequently encountered outside physics. The pop conception of entropy is as a measure of the disorder in a system. This characterization is not so much false as misleading (especially if we think of order and information as being similar). What follows is a brief explanation of entropy, highlighting its origin in the particular ways we describe the world, and an explanation of why it tends to increase. We've made some simplifying assumptions, but they leave the spirit of things unchanged.
Read on.

Perspectives on the Vertical

Cabinet Magazine has an interesting cultural perspective on human's attempts to zoom in and out of nature in the vertical. Particularly they focus on one of my favorite science films ever, Power of Ten.

Powers of Ten was originally inspired by a 1957 book by the Dutch educator Kees Boeke titled Cosmic View. By 1963, the Eameses were experimenting with tracking shots that gave the effect of a camera pulling away with accelerating motion from an object, and in 1968 used these in a film called A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe. Shot in black and white, it was followed by an extended color version—the one known as Powers of Ten—made in 1977. The basic set-up of the latter film is well-known. It opens with a picnic scene in a park in Chicago. From a ground level view, the camera then switches to a vertical, aerial position from which it looks down, the frame centered—as we later find out—on an atom in the man’s hand. At this point the narrator tells us that we are one meter away and looking at a square one meter by one meter. Now the camera pulls away vertically and begins to accelerate so that every ten seconds our distance from the initial scene is ten times greater. The camera continues its upward trajectory until just after 1024 meters (100 million light years) when it gradually slows and begins its descent, collapsing beyond its original position and now decelerating through the ever-smaller dimensions of cells, molecules, atoms, and beyond.

Read on.

A likely Supernova in M95

A bright object has appeared conspicusouly in the outer spiral arm of the local galaxy M95 38 million light years away in the constellation Leo. This new illumination in M95 is probably a supernova. While supernova are not all that rare throughout the entire universe, a supernova occurring this close is rare and interesting as it is a chance to gather higher fidelity data. Conveniently Mars happens to currently be, by projection, right next to M95 so if you look at Mars in the next few days consider what lurks beyond. Unfortunately you need a telescope to see the object.

The Stars seen from the the International Space Station

'Dedicated to those who dream of exploring the solar system, and those who are sharing their experiences while doing it.'