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SHUBBER ALI ON THE SPACE SHOW October 1, 2008

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Listen to Shubber on the Tuesday evening, Sept. 30, 2008 episode of The Space Show. Shubber is hard hitting, witty, and at times, in your face with reality and facts. We had a surprise caller, Thalia.ad.astra! Listen to her questions and answers in her own voice. Yes, she is a real, independent person who called in from Seattle. During this show, you will hear Shubber do a hard analysis on our nation’s economic crisis and apply the consequences to space development now and for the future. Shubber dissects space solar power from the economic perspective, pulling the rug out from underneath those that belong to the Church of Space Solar Power as we discussed during our Cynics discussion roundtable at ISDC at the end of May. Other topics that Shubber addressed included the Zubrin plan for flex fuel engines to become energy independent, the gap, space tourism, both orbital and suborbital, space investment, venture capital, and financing. Other favorites, such as spaceports, were dissected with Shubber’s hard hitting, reality based analysis. If you listened to the program by means of this Space Cynics link and if you have comments or questions for Shubber, the callers, or for me, please post them right here on the Cynics blog, do not send them to me at my Space Show address. This is a transparent process, so please post right here. If you do send them to me, be advised that I will immediately post them on the Cynics blog as a comment, name and all. Also note that this is a Space Show program and as host of The Space Show, I obtained permission to link this Space Show program here with Space Cynics.

Listen Here: http://archived.thespaceshow.com/shows/1027-BWB-2008-09-30.mp3

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1. space » Blog Archive » SHUBBER ALI ON THE SPACE SHOW - October 1, 2008

[…] Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides . Excerpt: 30, 2008 episode of The Space Show. Shubber is hard hitting, witty, and at times, in your face with reality and facts. We had a surprise caller, Thalia.ad.astra! Listen to her questions and answers in her own voice. Yes, she is a real, … […]

2. John McGowan - October 1, 2008

Somewhat off topic.

Shubber made a comment during the show regarding his experience with Scientific American magazine. The gist as I understood the comment was that Shubber had found the coverage of space very exciting before actually working in the space business. Once he had direct experience with space, he found the articles on space in the Scientific American to be nonsense (or words to that effect). He wondered if people in other fields had similar experiences.

I got a Ph.D. in high energy physics (aka particle physics). I was very influenced as a young person by reading articles on both theoretical and experimental particle physics in Scientific American which were very exciting. I had a somewhat similar experience. In my case, it is difficult to say that the articles contained demonstrably false statements but I feel they were highly misleading.

You can see something similar in the PBS/Nova special The Elegant Universe which is very similar to the Scientific American articles on particle physics when I was younger except that superstrings have taken the place of Non-Abelian Gauge Theories, the then reigning candidate for a unified field theory, aka Theory of Everything.

I would say, bottom line, that I have a similar view of Scientific American, and similar popular science materials, based on my experience in a non-space field.

Sincerely,

John

3. OldSpaceCadet - October 1, 2008

I concur with Shubber and with Dr. McGowan. I subscribed to Scientific American from 1954 to 2005. I dropped my subscription because I could no longer accept the increasing level of editorializing in the articles and the nonsense level in the articles related to fields in which I had some familiarity. When the editor flatly stated that the magazine would no longer accept articles or communications that were not supportive of anthropogenic global warming I realized that dogma had replaced reason and critical thinking.

4. Professor L - October 1, 2008

Re Scientific American, here is another story about it. A few years ago, I was doing an off space topic show on the climate and global warming. While I know many of you believe that global warming with humans causing the problem is pretty much an accepted fact in most all communities (to see what 30,000 plus real climatologist and scientists have to say, check out the Petition Project at http://www.petitionproject.org/), Scientific American came up during the discussion. At the time, they had published new editorial guidelines that clearly stated they would no longer print an article that did not support anthropogenic global warming. I found that hard to believe so after the show, I searched for their editorial policy on the net. I did find it and the guest was absolutely right. When I saw that first hand, I decided not for me, Scientific American had discredited its own publication with a politically correct editorial policy. What type of science only considers one possible option regarding a problem or theory? So I understand what both Shubber and Dr. McGowan are talking about on the issue of Scientific American.

5. John McGowan - October 2, 2008

I read Scientific American heavily from about 1974 until about 1990. 1974 is the date of the so-called “November Revolution” in particle physics which was accompanied by extensive articles in Scientific American on particle physics. 1974-1984 was the heydey of the Non-Abelian Gauge Theory hype which was actually very similar to the superstrings hype that prevails to this day.

My sense is that Scientific American has declined significantly since 1990 with increasingly fluffy sensationalistic articles, covers, and so forth. But I also feel that the articles on particle physics during the period that I read it heavily were misleading in various ways, a sort of higher brow hype and sensationalism than the current magazine. As I said it is difficult to cite instances of demonstrably false statements in these articles or more generally in popular physics, but the presentations can be highly misleading, especially to young people.

With occasional exceptions, Scientific American has always tended to uncritically repeat and promote the reigning orthodoxy of the scientific fields that they cover. This is very common in popular science reporting. The issues can be very technical which makes it difficult for reporters without a strong background in the field to understand or question what they are told. A good recent example of this is Sharon Weinberger’s book Imaginary Weapons in which the author repeatedly makes clear that she did not understand the physics issues in the “hafnium hand-grenade” and clearly was relying on the expertise of the physicists from the national laboratories for her belief that is was “pseudo-science”. Now the “hafnium hand-grenade” may well be nonsense, but the point is that the journalist simply could not understand the technical issues and relied on the authority of the top physicists, who had an obvious conflict of interest since the hafnium technology, if successful, could replace the thermonuclear fusion weapons that are the lifeblood of the national labs funding.

Popular science writers need access to scientists for quotes and information which I believe can be difficult if one starts to question the orthodoxy. Through magazines and journals the scientific field in question also often has influence over employment opportunities for popular science writers.

In the 1974-1990 time period, nearly all the articles in Scientific American were ostensibly written by leading scientists in the field of the article. I say ostensibly because the style, structure, and wording of many of the articles, looking back on it, were very similar so that I think there was at least substantial editing and guidance given to the authors to produce a very similar style and “message” in all of the articles.

John

6. Professor L - October 2, 2008

The “hafnium hand-grenade” has been a topic on many Space Shows since her book was discovered by listeners and brought to my attention. I really recommend people read it. At a rating of two kT, all I can is that whoever throws the damn thing, better have a good throwing arm and a really fast running speed. And a thermal protection clothing layer worth of the shuttle. I will try again to bring the author on The Space Show. It is a terrific book.

7. Carnival of Space: October 2, 2008 « Alice’s Astro Info - October 2, 2008

[…] S – Shubber Ali of Space Cynic is interviewed on The Space Show. […]

8. OldSpaceCadet - October 2, 2008

Ah yes, the hafnium hand grenade. I was interested in nuclear weapons bioeffects off and on during the first half of my career. The hafnium hand grenade idea provided lots of laughs when I learned of it. A five pound hand grenade with a two kiloton bang as well as lots of prompt radiation and fallout would give new meaning to the term “blowback.” There is still an office in the Pentagon that considers isomer energy storage and release to be potentially viable for an assortment of applications.

Dr. McGowan’s points on the inadequacies of science and technology reporting in the popular media are on the mark.

9. John McGowan - October 2, 2008

This is a bit off topic, but Imaginary Weapons and the “hafnium hand grenade” illustrates the difficulties in popular physics. To the extent that I can extract the issues from reading the book, the hafnium isomer clearly contains about 1 MeV (one million electron volts) of energy in each hafnium nucleus. Here is an image of the situation:

There is an energy barrier that the nucleus must “quantum tunnel” through to reach the lower energy state and release the 1 Mev of energy. Under normal conditions this is not too easy, so the hafnium isomer has a half life of 31 years.

The implicit notion in the book is that if you “activate” the hafnium nucleus with a 10 KeV (10,000 electron volts) x-ray or thereabouts, this activation doesn’t make much difference since the barrier is supposedly much larger (in my picture, I make the barrier around 200,000 electron volts). If you assume that the absorption of the 10 KeV x-ray photon does not significantly change the energy levels of the hafnium nucleus and that these levels are those measured in other contexts, then you can perform a back of the envelope computation in quantum mechanics that would show that the x-ray photon could not significantly accelerate or “trigger” the decay of the hafnium nucleus. The activated nucleus would still have a long half-life of say 30 years. Assume, assume, assume.

Now, the problem is that if the absorption of the x-ray photon for some weird reason changes the internal configuration and energy levels of the hafnium nucleus (for example):

so that the energy barrier is much lower than the vanilla hafnium isomer and the energy barrier implied by levels presumably measured in other contexts, then all bets are off. This is unlikely, but the hafnium nucleus is quite complex with many neutrons and protons, so some bizarre unexpected effect is hard to rule out. Actually modeling the hafnium nucleus, not a back of the envelope calculation, is quite complex and the models are almost certainly imperfect.

Then, there is the additional possibility that quantum mechanics could be failing for some reason. This would of course be a major unexpected discovery. But, well, it happens.

Some weird effect, whether due to the collective behavior of the many protons and neutrons in the hafnium nucleus or “new physics”, could be sensitive to the exact energy or other characteristics of the x-ray photon. This means for example that the experiment done at the Argonne x-ray source need not rule out the “dental x-ray experiment” villified in the book. In fact, a rigorous replication would require recreating the “dental x-ray experiment”.

This is a very common pattern in alleged “pseudo-science” where the mainstream scientists do a “better experiment that will definitely show the effect” instead of replicating the exact experiment performed by the “outsider”. Then, the “outsider” will say with some justification that the test did not replicate their experiment.

The book would be much stronger if the author understood and could explain the technical issues in the nuclear physics. It is quite clear that she doesn’t. Returning to the main point about popular physics, which is also relevant to space, it is often quite difficult for popular science writers to deal effectively with the often subtle or complex technical issues involved in the topics that they are covering. Really understanding what is going on in the “hafnium hand-grenade” requires at least advanced undergraduate physics (3,4th year usually), probably much more advanced. It is a misnomer to call it “basic physics” as the book does. Possibly in the rareified world of Steve Koonin and the JASON “advisory panel”, this might be considered “basic physics” — I have my doubts — but most people including most physicists would not describe it this way.

Sincerely,

John

10. John McGowan - October 2, 2008

I would add that I am rather skeptical of the “hafnium hand grenade”, but my point is about the limits and problems with popular science and physics.

John

11. Professor L - October 3, 2008

Here is a heads up. Sharon Weinberger who is the author of “Imaginary Weapons” will now be a guest on The Space Show on Monday, December 1. This show is 2-3:30 PM Pacific Time.

12. John McGowan - October 3, 2008

I would be interested also to hear a show with one of the hafnium scientists to hear the other side of the story.

John

13. Monte Davis - October 4, 2008

I hate to break it to you, guys, but everyone with specialized expertise has the same experience of dissatisfaction with accounts written by and for those less specialized — not just in science, but right across the range of human experience, to the 7,125,347th person to say: “After seeing how the local paper mangled the story of what happened at Thursday’s school board meeting [or the accident on Maple St., or…], I’ll never trust the media again.”

News flash: a book such as Weinberger’s is not Scientific American, which in turn is not Physics Today, which in turn is not Physics Review Letters. All communication, even the most painstakingly scrupulous, suffers from the “Chinese whispers” effect. The alternative is to renounce any effort at explanation to anyone not your peer. For my part, given how recently we were savannah apes snacking on each other’s fleas, I’m impressed we do as well as we do.

You are, of course, free to be freshly shocked and aggrieved every time you encounter another example.

14. Monte Davis - October 4, 2008

Sorry about the botched href: should have been

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_whispers

15. John McGowan - October 5, 2008

Hello Monte,

I think my basic position stands. I don’t expect popular science writers or magazines to operate at the same technical level as Physical Review Letters and I would expect some technical errors.

I would make a comparison to popular business reporting to clarify my point. In popular business reporting one sees everything from fluffy hype in which the reporters basically retype press releases and parrot the public relations department of the company or industry that they are following to very hard hitting coverage. I think generally that business reporting has been getting fluffier over the last 20 years but one still encounters a fair number of hard hitting articles. I am sure there are errors and “Chinese Whispers” type problems.

I would say that popular science coverage is much more like the fluffy hype business reporting in which the claims of the companies are uncritically repeated. I think one of the major reasons for the difference is that business reporters can have a better grasp of the business issues that may arise in many cases.

In the case of Imaginary Weapons, the claim that the “halfnium hand-grenade” is obvious nonsense and the “halfnium believers” are kooks is very central to the book. In fact, this is what makes the book amusing and entertaining. This may well be true, but the author should understand and be able to explain the basic physics to the readers, which she does not. I certainly would not expect her to understand or get into abstruse advanced matters in nuclear physics. Rather the book should provide references in the bibliography for the more detailed technical issues (.e.g Physical Review Letters etc.). This is a responsible way for popular science writers to deal with their inherent technical limitations.

In the case of Scientific American, at the time that I read it heavily, the articles were nearly all ostensibly written by top scientists and experts in their respective fields. If the articles were misleading as I feel they were, this cannot be attributed to the limited technical knowledge of the purported authors.

John

16. Monte Davis - October 6, 2008

Agreed on the bibliography. FWIW, there’s been a broad, decades-long decline in publishing — not just popular science — of every kind of “apparatus,” from maps to diagrams to competent indexing. I don’t know how much of that is cost, and how much is reluctance to appear frighteningly scholarly.

17. Professor L - October 7, 2008

Fellow Cynics:

During The Space Show program with Shubber, he discussed some of the very real economic as well as other issues re space solar power (SSP) and why they are formidable barriers to creating SSP. My friend and professional engineer Mike Snead is a supporter of SSP and he is also preparing an incredible world energy survey which when ready will be discussed on The Space Show and in other formats. He listened to part of the program with Shubber and sent me a note saying “I listened to about the first hour of Shubber Ali’s recent show and did not find his remarks helpful to the debate on SSP.” A follow up comment by Mike invites help here on this blog regarding the following: “David, What I am looking for is the point-by-point criticism of SSP that you mentioned. If you can point to this, please let me know.” He is talking about the economic criticism that I mentioned in the discussion with Shubber, but also with many other Space Show guests.

The problem is I do not have a point to point discussion to submit to Mike who is a very serious and capable researcher. His work is extremely high quality. Thus, if any of you can prepare a factual point by point economic criticism as to the issues with SSP, it would be appreciated, but also it would prove to be a valuable discussion, a real discussion on the facts and the merit of the argument. There is no shoot the messenger here, this is an opportunity for a solid, real discussion. Shubber, if you see this post and have the time to respond for Mike and other Cynics readers, please do so. I know others who have addressed these issues as well on the show so for them too, please join in using a point by point format.

Thanks.

18. John McGowan - October 8, 2008

This is basically one point for a point by point list:

There are numerous huge hot deserts in the US and the World. For example, Mojave, most of Arizona and New Mexico, parts of Texas, etc. It is hard to see Space Solar Power competitive with some kind of ground based solar array, never mind other energy sources such as nuclear or coal. Certainly, it is not even in the running with current launch prices. But even with $1/pound launch costs, how could SSP possibly be competitive with a ground based array?

Sub-points:

o ground array is easy to access and service
o ground array is easier to protect (put a fence and guards around it)
o ground array is more difficult to use as a weapon (orbiting death ray or crash into the Earth)
o no microwave transmitter or receiver system is needed
o ground array could use a range of technologies such as steam turbines that might be difficult or impossible to use in space
o ground array should be easier to upgrade with new technology

I can’t give specific numbers for the costs of each issue, but it is just very hard to see how SSP could come out ahead compared to a ground based array.

John

19. Carnival of Space: October 2, 2008 - March 24, 2010

[…] S – Shubber Ali of Space Cynic is interviewed on The Space Show. […]


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