NASA to Move Beyond Ares?

That’s the suggestion by this ScienceInsider story where it is reported that the Obama Administration will request the development of a new, simpler heavy-lift launcher and an additional $1 billion for the agency starting in 2011.  This article is full of anonymous sourcing, so I’m a bit skeptical.  The decision has not been formally announced, and may not be announced until the February release of the fiscal year 2011 budget requests by the administration.  It’s also worth noting that the options described by the article are not the same as those outlined in the Augustine Committee report, though there are similarities.

Should this reported choice be accurate, this represents a change in budget levels for the agency, reversing an earlier decision by the Obama Administration to keep NASA funding flat and below necessary levels required for the current Constellation program.  I do not think the reported plans make up completely for the budget shortfall, so it’s not clear if the flexible path envisioned by the Administration will be achievable under that budget.  Of course, by February, this may all be moot.

Happy New Year, everybody.


Asteroid Deflection: Even Hard in Fiction

Well, not everyone is talking about Apophis (the asteroid, not the namesake Egyptian demon, and most definitely not the crappy Stargate: SG-1 villain*), but the Russian space agency announcement that they want to deflect the asteroid from a collision with Earth has attracted a fair amount of attention.

Coming from the same country where a mayor sees fit to try and control the weather, this declaration should be no surprise.  It may prompt some incredulous looks, especially since NASA recently revised its estimate of how likely Apophis is to hit the Earth.  What was a 1-in-45,000 chance is now considered a 4-in-one million shot.  However, Apophis does present an opportunity to figure out how to handle near-Earth objects that may represent a higher risk to the planet.

Sure, insert your Armageddon joke here (I remember Meteor, which was probably just as awful of a film, but from the 80s), or recall “The Paradise Syndrome” episode of Star Trek where the mighty Enterprise was lain low by attempting to deflect an asteroid.  Yes, it’s hard.  Yes, it’s a science fiction story.  But we may need to make that fiction fact at some point, and Apophis presents an opportunity to try and put some truth to the tall tale.  Not as a target, but as a motivation to put plans on the table and build a framework for making them real.

Putting the truth to this tale will be more about diplomacy than technology, as a recent presentation by former astronaut Rusty Schweickart indicates.  Schweickart and his foundation are advocating for a gradual deflection process, which takes time and requires the patience of countries that face the direct hit while the deflection takes place.  There’s been no definitive indication of what methods the Russians would like to

* yes, that’s redundant

Do You *Really* Need Those Antibiotics?

This is not a new question, and should always be in the back of your mind.  Concerns over drug-resistant infections have been around as long as evolutionary theory and the germ theory of disease contributed to our current methods of fighting many diseases – drugs.  But this recent development – the first case of extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis in the United States – brings it back into the spotlight (though press coverage of this has been spotty).  Most of you probably don’t even remember that last time tuberculosis received much attention in this country, back in 2007 when a man flew commercial with a drug-resistant form of the disease.

While it’s no longer well-accepted that diseases can truly be wiped off the face of the planet, that was the conventional wisdom not so long ago.  That, poor treatment management, and a perspective to kill bugs not just dead, but really dead, have made it easier for drug-resistant forms of various diseases to crop up.  While monitoring and diagnosing these resistant strains is a challenge, developing the drugs (pharmaceutical firms had stopped paying attention to tuberculosis treatments, and will have to catch up to the new strains) and reducing the conditions that contribute to the emergence of these strains is also a problem.

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Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of December 28

As you might guess, being in-between the holidays, new programming is rare.  All the late night shows of note are in reruns or pre-empted.  The notable rerun is tonight’s Late Show with David Letterman, which includes Dr. James Hansen’s appearance from December 10.  That episode is still online, but CBS rotates those episodes off its website rather quickly.

For slightly fresher content, there is another Mythbusters marathon today on the Discovery channel.  Check those local listings for channels and times.

A Pro-Science Christmas Movie

No, the Darwin bio-pic Creation is still scheduled for U.S. release come January.  The pro-science film currently in U.S. theaters (and rolling out across the globe since Christmas Eve) is the latest Sherlock Holmes film.  I’m a bit of a fan, having first read the stories as a young lad.  However, regardless of your perspective of the character, the stories, and/or the other film and television versions of the consulting detective, this much is clear.

He is a fan of the scientific method.  And that is worth celebrating.

Behind his remarkable deductive powers (which are intact in this film, starring Robert Downey, Jr.) is an emphasis on forming theories after collecting data.  Otherwise you’d be “twisting facts to suit theories” instead of twisting theories to suit facts.  Those seeking some tension with non-scientific forces will find them in this movie, but I won’t give additional details out of concern for spoiling plot points (though those familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s later years may find the nature of the villains a touch ironic).   Suffice it to say that those who fancy themselves fans of steampunk (or Brisco County, Jr.) might find some material of particular interest.

As a fan of the source material, I think any concerns over supposed deviations from the ‘traditional’ Holmes are overblown, and they also presume that earlier stage and screen portrayals were faithful to Conan Doyle’s work.  So, go see it already.

Science and Comedy – Temper Before Combining?

An early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation has the android Data trying to learn about comedy.  He visits the holodeck and asks the computer for the funniest person on record.  In what was probably a meta-joke, the computer responded with a comedian that told jokes about quantum physics.  Data asked for something “less esoteric, more generic” and I see his point.

Looking at mixes of science and comedy I see a lot more misses than hits.  When I speak of misses, I mean about a combination of science and comedy.  For instances, self-styled “science comedian” Brian Malow’s bits aren’t really about science but use science for premises/set-ups or as part of the unexpected turns that prompt laughter from most of us.  Much like the edition of Get Fuzzy I posted here in July about a fight between Schrödinger’s cat and Pavlov’s dog. Take a look at current TV.  Most of the time jokes on “The Big Bang Theory” are as situational as you’d expect from a sit-com.  But typically the humor from that show, and other shows that have scientist characters (such as “Bones”) comes from the typical perception of scientific thinking – very literal, and therefore unable to parse hidden meanings, intuition or other nonverbal forms of communication (not that different from Data, really).  Malow touches on this briefly in the first bit of this video clip.

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Executive Branch Looking at Expanded Public Access to Research

In the same week the Obama Administration released its Open Government Directive it also launched a public discussion on expanding public access provisions to the results of federally funded research.  This process will follow the format of the all-too-brief public discussion that informed the Open Government Initiative.

Between December 10 and January 7 (though that timeframe has apparently been expanded a bit), there is an online discussion over whether to expand the National Institutes of Health policy of requiring its grantees to deposit research articles and other research results into a public database, usually after a set period of time.  Senator Lieberman had introduced a bill earlier this yearS. 1373 – to expand the policy to other federal agencies, but it remains in committee.  Here are the three phases of the discussion, which are open for comment at the OSTP blog under postings for each phase (only the first two phases have posts at this time).  You are also welcome to comment under the main post for this discussion.

Implementation (Dec. 10 to 20): Which Federal agencies are good candidates to adopt Public Access policies? What variables (field of science, proportion of research funded by public or private entities, etc.) should affect how public access is implemented at various agencies, including the maximum length of time between publication and public release?

Features and Technology (Dec. 21 to Dec 31): In what format should the data be submitted in order to make it easy to search and retrieve information, and to make it easy for others to link to it? Are there existing digital standards for archiving and interoperability to maximize public benefit? How are these anticipated to change.

Management (Jan. 1 to Jan. 7): What are the best mechanisms to ensure compliance? What would be the best metrics of success? What are the best examples of usability in the private sector (both domestic and international)? Should those who access papers be given the opportunity to comment or provide feedback?”

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