Blue Horizon Launch A Reminder SpaceX Isn’t Alone

Yesterday Blue Horizon, a rocket company led by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, accomplished a major feat yesterday when it successfully landed the rocket from its New Shepard space vehicle.  The rocket was launched to a height of 100.5 kilometers and returned safely, sticking its landing.  The crew capsule separated successfully and landed via parachute.

Sticking the rocket landing has been the trouble for SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket.  While the Falcon 9 has had trouble with the landing, it has also flown higher than the New Shepard rocket did this week.  Falcon 9 rockets have delivered cargo to the International Space Station several times, and the first stage (what SpaceX seeks to recover) travels twice as high as the New Shepard did.  The New Shepard rocket is not designed to go into orbit, and takes a more compact shape compared to the Falcon 9.  SpaceX CEO Elon Musk compared the New Shepard rocket to the SpaceX Grasshopper test vehicle, which has made 6 successful launches and landings.

While the difference between a sub-orbital (New Shepard) and orbital (Falcon 9) rocket is significant, it is not enough (in my opinion) to completely dismiss what Blue Horizon has done.  SpaceX has been innovative and done a lot to shake up the launch business.  Having another private company in its metaphorical rear-view window should be a good thing, assuming nobody approaches this from a zero-sum perspective.

Either way, the next Falcon 9 recovery mission will be under a little more pressure.

Newest Medal Of Freedom Recipients Include Figures In Science And Science Policy

President Obama recognized the latest recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier today in a ceremony at the White House.  It’s the highest civilian honor a president can bestow for services to the country, and this year’s group include two people recognized for their contributions to science or science policy.

Katherine Johnson is a mathematician whose work for the government included service at NASA and its predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).  Her 33 year career at both agencies included calculations critical to every human spaceflight program from Mercury through the Space Shuttle.  As one of the first African American women who worked for NACA and NASA, Johnson has also worked hard to encourage other women and minorities to pursue education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Also recognized this week is William Ruckelshaus, a two-time Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  He was the first to head the agency, serving from 1970-1973 under President Nixon.  Ruckelshaus instituted the U.S. ban on the pesticide DDT.  He returned to the agency as President Reagan’s second EPA Administrator from 1983-1985.  Ruckelshaus also served as Deputy Attorney General and Acting FBI Director during the Nixon Administration, and was involved in environmental protection matters during the 1960s in Indiana.  Now living in Washington state, Ruckelshaus has kept active in local and national ocean and environmental matters, being appointed to various panels by both President Clinton and President George W. Bush.

Congratulations to both Ruckelshaus and Williams, and the other medal recipients.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of November 23

With the Thanksgiving holiday on Friday in the U.S. many shows are off or in reruns for at least part of the week.  Repeats of note this week are the Tuesday and Wednesday editions of The Nightly Show, when you can see the latest appearances of Neil deGrasse Tyson (Tuesday) and Bill Nye (Wednesday).  On Thursday you can watch Aaron Sorkin, writer of the recent Steve Jobs biographical film, sit with James Corden.  That same night you can see the CEO of GoPro perform camera tricks with Stephen Colbert.  You can rewatch mathematician Dr. Eugenia Chang with Stephen on Friday.

Also worth catching up with is the segment Stephen Colbert ran last week focusing on the influence of new technology on one of the oldest sports – curling.  This segment ran last Friday night.

Ted Koppel continues to promote his new book on cyberattacks (for which he apparently consulted no experts).  He’ll visit The Late Show on Monday (tonight).

There will be a new episode of Going Deep with David Rees, which I think has taken an even more scientific approach to its how-to topics this season.  This week’s episode (Wednesday night on The Esquire Network) is “How to Get Punched”

Coming Up On StarTalk

StarTalk is not premiering a new television episode tonight, but will return next week for what should be the last six episodes of its second season.  You can watch earlier episodes on video if you have an account with a participating cable system.  However, each episode will be released as a podcast.  Four episodes of this season have been broadcast on the National Geographic Channel, and the first three are currently available via podcast.  Each podcast version has a few minutes more material than what was broadcast.  But if you want extra video material, it is available on the show’s website.

There is currently information for only the next three episodes. I am expecting that the show will continue to have an unannounced guest join the in-studio portion of the show via video chat, but as these guests have been unannounced, I can’t tell you who they will be.

Next Sunday (November 29) the main interview guest will be actress Susan Sarandon, and host Neil deGrasse Tyson will be joined in studio by astrophysicist Emily Rice and comedian Maeve Higgins.

On December 6 the main interview guest will be musician David Byrne.  Tyson will be joined in studio by Maeve Higgins and Monica Lopez-Gonzalez, a cognitive scientist and playwright.

The December 13th episode could be particularly interesting, as the main guest is Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp.  Joining Tyson in studio will be comedian Eugene Mirman and retired astronaut Mike Massimino.

New episodes of StarTalk are supposed to run through January 3.

NPR Lets Dark Matter Get In The Way Of Dinosaurs

Lisa Randall, physicist and author, is on this weekend’s edition of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me.  Depending on your local station you may be able to listen to her on Sunday, if you missed her today.  It is, of course, also available online.  As is the case with most celebrity guests on Wait Wait, she was there to answer questions quite unrelated to her expertise in a segment called Not My Job.

Randall is currently promoting her book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, which uses a theory about the extinction of the dinosaurs to explain the current state of understanding of dark matter.  Randall was about to get into the specifics of this theory when host Peter Sagal took the conversation deep into the idea of dark matter.  As distractions go, it was quite a pleasant one, and since Randall’s book is more about dark matter than the dinosaurs, I doubt she minded.

Randall did note on Twitter that some of the discussion was cut – likely for time.  Maybe they did explain the dinosaur part of this and just cut it for broadcast.  Also of interest is the conversation around how Randall dealt with being a woman earning a Ph.D. in a predominantly male field.  (And I think the panel nails how certain scientists would deal with a ‘sexiest scientist’ designation.)

I recommend Wait Wait for a regular listen.  It doesn’t have a science guest every week, but panelists frequently question the methodology of various studies used as question fodder.  It’s a nice reminder that simple bullet points for explaining scientific studies are hard.

Italian Seismologists’ Convictions Remain Overturned

Following a two-day hearing, the Italian Supreme Court of Cassation has affirmed the decision of a lower court to overturn the convictions of six Italian seismologists (H/T ScienceInsider).  They were convicted (along with a public official) back in 2012 based on actions taken right before a serious earthquake in L’Aquila.

Once again, I am not a lawyer, nor an Italian.  I’m certainly not an Italian lawyer, nor a seismologist.

The judgment in the original trial considered the scientists guilty of not discharging their duties under the law as part of an advisory committee.  The judges in the local appellate court overturned the conviction in part because they felt the judge should have focused on the scientific quality of their analyses.  This rationale was contested in the Cassation court because the scientists on the panel did not object to the claim that previous tremors had discharged energy in the area, thereby reducing the possibility of future quakes.

However, as is often the case at the appellate level, the deliberations focused on the legal analysis applied in the cases, and not the level of scientific analysis.  (If you’re confused yet, you’re not alone).  In that analysis, the court found that only the public official should have been convicted because he reassured the public prior to the advisory committee meeting.  The scientists’ statements were considered by the appellate court to be neutral and not sufficient support for the official’s reassurances of a lower chance of tremors.

In related news, the manslaughter trial for another public official connected to the L’Aquila earthquake was delayed until next March.

Homeopathy May Receive Heightened Scrutiny From Regulatory Agencies

While it appears (at least to me) to get more attention (and ridicule).  Homeopathy – the attempt to treat conditions with items that produce the same symptoms in healthy patients – is a business of note in the U.S.  While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates homeopathic treatments, it does not make claims as to their efficacy.

(Let’s put aside the discussion of what reason there might be to regulate a substance without judging whether it does what it is claimed to do.)

That might change soon.  According to Dan Vergano at Buzzfeed, both the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) may act soon on homeopathic treatments.  The FTC has raised concerns that FDA practice in this area runs counter to the FTC requirement that health claims in advertising need to be backed up by “competent and reliable scientific evidence.”

This has, apparently, been a longstanding conflict, as the FDA first promised to put homeopathic products up to a standard comparable to the FTC’s in 1972.  Maybe, just maybe, this long standoff is approaching an end.