My answer is here.
If you read the expensive media, you might have formed the impression that the Republican Party is more or less defunct. It could not prevent Obama’s second term, and its policies are being driven by the fruitcake right, reducing its future electoral appeal yet further. One of its congressmen, Paul Broun, has stated publicly “as a scientist” that the Earth was made in six days, about 9,000 years ago. He is a member of the House committee on science, space and technology.
So far, so droll. But look: Broun got reelected to Congress unopposed last year. The Democrats appreciate (and elections for the House, especially, prove) that there are significant areas of the US where their appeal is limited. Although the main Republican demographic is being reduced, principally by death, it is nowhere near extinction.
So while there are folk out there who think the Democrats have already won the 2016 presidential election, the truth is a little trickier. The Republicans may even solve the problem that only extremists whom the voters will reject can get to be candidates to start with.
In addition, it seems to me that there is a new spirit of expansion among at least some Republicans and right-wingers in general, and I fully appreciate that these groups do not overlap completely. One of my heavy duties is to stroll through cyberspace looking for interesting news about universities. It’s interesting just how often this mission brings me to some right-wing US web site or publication that is lamenting left-wing bias or excessive unpatriotism in universities, and urging students, parents, academics, employers or some other group to do something about it. Here is an example from the foaming American Free Press, accusing the University of Michigan of damaging the US by sharing knowledge with China. (Not for years have I seen a publication that routinely bills people as “Jewish” or indeed “black.”) Here is another in which Pat Robertson claims Ivy League university attendance is reducing the incidence of miracles in America. (He is a graduate of the more modest Washington and Lee University in Virginia.)
The number of such hits I see is growing fast enough to look like a campaign with central direction. Obviously universities are a breeding-ground for all sorts of things Republicans hate, like proof of the validity of climate change or of same-sex relationships. But what is the aim of pointing this out? I can’t believe that a general campaign to change the ethos of US universities is going to work.
In any case, today’s universities are not exactly socialist training schools. The fastest-growing subject in many of them is, after all, business. Most universities have no choice but to engage with market forces for student recruitment and many other activities. And the financial structure of higher education lumbers the alumni with debts that push them into the workforce, and often into a lifetime of conformism.
Maybe the real idea of all this university-bashing is to get liberal faculty to look over their shoulders and fear career damage if they promote their own values to students. But it wasn’t the unemployed who just gave $1 billion to Stanford. The donors were educated people doing well in a low-tax society. Little sign here that universities are producing zombie Bolsheviks.
As I have said in this slot before, you would have to be mad not to be in Burlington House, Piccadilly, on the second Friday of the month. That’s when the Royal Astronomical Society meets for about the most gripping couple of hours of intellectual life that I know about. Stuff that would be the high point at TED or Davos is completely routine here. One hint: the meetings are held only from October to May. The gentlemen who started the Society in 1820 (most prominently Charles Babbage) would never be in town in the summer.
Last week’s high point for me was an appearance by Martin Elvis from Harvard. His double focus was on quasars and asteroids. Both of them get their names from the fact that they look like, but are not, stars. That is where the similarity ends. Quasars are distant, ancient galaxy cores, while asteroids are nearby bits of rock that never quite got swept up when the planets formed. Some still do get swept up, as the dinosaurs found to their cost.
All Elvis wanted to do in his life as a scientist was to look at quasars more closely. He wants a telescope that will resolve their detail, not just allow for higher-quality guesswork about them. However, the business pages suggest that on the current model, he won’t be able to. The big space observatories, most famously Hubble, may not be replaced, much less improved upon. And the next generation of Earthbound telescopes, with light-gathering surface up to 100m across, are also a long shot in the current funding climate. Today’s big telescopes cost $1 billion, let alone these much bigger ones. As he sees it, we are reaching the end of a Golden Age for astronomy, because it is hard for any Golden Age to last more than maybe 50 years.
However, the energetic Elvis is not one to despair. Instead, he has decided that private enterprise can save the day. Mine some asteroids: make a profit: build a big space telescope. Only in America.
The plan he has developed (which he tells me has distracted him massively from his life as a quasar investigator) starts with current plans to cut spaceflight costs massively by avoiding state agencies and their box-ticking mindset. It envisages low-cost spaceflight which would, as he put it, have greed as a prime motivator.
This is where the asteroids come in. They are fascinating things to know about because they are leftover bits of the early solar system. But they also contain useful stuff such as water, indispensable for people in space, and precious metals such as platinum – nice for jewellery, vital for catalysis, eg in motor car exhausts. One 200m asteroid would contain $30bn of platinum, so much that you could not bring it all back to Earth without killing the price.
This raises all sorts of fun questions. First, we need a better way of characterising asteroids and finding out which ones might have the good minerals. Second, we need technology to do the mining. Elvis recommends we start small by parking a 7m asteroid to practice on. Mastering this technology probably gives you the ability to divert dangerous incoming asteroids, by the way.
But I have always thought that this tale of mining asteroids and bringing the good bits back to Earth is only the beginning. The real story is that doing this allows massive structures to be built in space from asteroid material. That’s got to be where the action is eventually.
Meantime, as Elvis puts it, this new business creates a subject called “Applied Astronomy.” He says that people might even be able for the first time to go into astronomy for the money. Certainly the loose change would buy him his quasar-cracking telescope.
At the RAS, his talk (which reveals a high level of thought and planning) was received with enthusiasm. In the US, there has been more hostility, and the Ayn Rand jibe. Watch this space for more on Elvis’s maturing plans.
TO anyone British and not exactly youthful, Reginald Turnill was the voice of the space age in its heroic era. It would be easy to use his death at a great age to crank up a metaphor about how US astronauts now have to hitch a ride into space with the Russians. (In fact it is not hitching – the fare is colossal). But let’s not do that even though his death, so soon after that of Patrick Moore, does invite nostalgia.
Instead, let’s celebrate all that he did. In his book The Moonlandings (the link is to my review in the Times Higher), he made it clear that he regarded his life as a blessed one. He said that the most exciting thing he ever read (in a USAF plane over the North Pole, inevitably), was a US government report on the impending era of space exploration. He saw his future in that plane. He made sure that he saw it all in the space race, and knew everyone.
Having started his professional life as a boy reporter in local papers, he always felt that his BBC bosses never paid him the respect that they would have given to a university graduate. But maybe he would not have been happy climbing the BBC hierarchy, and his viewers and listeners would certainly have lost out. He did have one big win over them. He attended the Apollo 11 and 12 launches, but by the time humankind got to its third Moon landing mission, they had got sated and decided to save money by not sending him. After Apollo 13, he was there for all the four remaining flights.
His role as aerospace correspondent meant that he also got to observe a less than heroic era for UK aviation – he penned a book on Concorde alongside his many space books. Of these the classic is the Observer’s Spaceflight Directory, still available 35 years after publication at a noted online bookstore.
From my limited and long-ago discussions with him, I’d say he would have got excited about the current era of machine exploration of the solar system. But as a journalist he would have appreciated that even the most amazing findings by a robot don’t have the news value of a crewed mission.
And I’ll always bore people with one line from the Spaceflight Directory, surely the classic case of metric madness. Writing about one failed launch, it says simply that the rocket rose “2.54cm” from the launch pad before exploding.
Yes, that was the title of Walter S Sullivan’s 1960s classic about extraterrestrial life and the human hunt for it. (Younger readers note: he was the canonical New York Times science correspondent, not the character in Silent Hill.)
Have things moved on in the 40+ years since he penned the book? In one massive way, yes. On many interesting topics (the origin of the universe, the formation of the Moon, the genetic predisposition to addiction), we now have solid data on matters that were pretty much speculation then. And for our purposes, one important one is that we now know that planets are common. There are billions of them in the galaxy, and presumably in every galaxy. So, ripple of applause for the US and European taxpayer (mainly).
Because existing methods find it easiest to detect big planets with orbits near a star, we know that our existing knowledge of exoplanets (planets of other stars) is statistically skewed. But we also know that a lot of what we used to think about planets, for example that it would be impossible for them to form in multiple star systems, was wrong. The proof? A planet in the Alpha Centauri system, our solar system’s nearest cosmic neighbour.
However, it is simply human to want to go beyond this knowledge, and to find out about life elsewhere in the universe. Here things get tricky at a rapid pace. First, our knowledge of what amounts to life, where it dwells and how it gets going is surprisingly patchy. Previous unfunded biologists have now got money to study “extremophiles,” things that live in places that are very hot, deep, dark, salty, acidic, alkaline (flamingoes) etc. But there is a big difference between something living there, on a well-populated and generally accommodating planet with lots of genetic diversity, and life getting started there, say in the Antarctic Dry Valleys.
At the same time, we are bound to be influenced by our own experience on Earth when we contemplate these issues. Back in the 1960s, this meant the the Drake Equation, a totally anthropomorphic attempt to find out how many Earth-like planets in the galaxy might have technological life, ie creatures like the role models of the 1960s United States. Nowadays, this Earth-centrism is seen in the concept of the Habitable Zone, an imaginary region of Earthlike conditions, especially liquid water, around a star. We have known for decades that Jupiter’s satellite Europa has a huge volume of liquid water, but it still isn’t in the zone.
The latest contribution to this trope is a pronouncement from the usually sensible folk at the SETI Institute and colleagues, alleging that there can be few advanced civilisations out there because they are not emitting detectable radio waves. Well, so what? The aliens may know things we don’t about communications. (They have probably been advanced longer than we have, so that’s likely.) They may have developed a different technological and social pathway. They may regard radio noise with the disdain we have for intrusive sound or (increasingly) for excessive light illumination. Loud radio noise in certain frequencies would probably indicate life as we know it, but its absence says literally nothing.
What can you tell me about the Royal Institution? First, it is an ineluctable part of the alphabet soup that is British science in its pomp. British Association? British Science Association? Royal Society? As science journalist Tom Wilkie once said, you need to know these things. Royal Association? Never heard of it. British Academy? Yes. Royal Academy? No, that one’s for artists.
OK, the Royal Institution – of Great Britain, to give it its full and glorious title. There are four things you might want to know. It was set up in 1799 and got its Royal Charter a year later. It has given house room to many top scientists (Davy, Faraday, Porter). It occupies a lovely edifice in central London, handy for the poshest of posh shops. And they do those great Christmas lectures, although these now appear on higher-numbered TV channels than of yore.
So what is it? In principle, the RI is a place for science in central London. Hard to argue with that as a mission. It does terrific events, and those I have worked on have been facilitated by great staff. But as someone active in this world, it is a not-many-times-a-year event for me to be there. I tend to slope along to something at the Royal Society, Wellcome, the Science Museum, a university, or some specific learned society far more often. (The Dana Centre is a story for another day.) The RI is in a competitive business and has an unimpressive market share.
In a bid to buy itself a future, the RI has invested in the facilities it needs to fulfil its Victorian role as a venue for the scientific salon in the 21st century. This has cost money and the RI is millions of pounds below water. This is a poor show for a body whose lecture theatre was depicted on banknotes till recently.
To the management, the solution is dead easy. Although I was once told that the RI building was held on the balance sheet at a stupidly low price because it can never be sold, nothing is for ever. The West End of London does not have property price recessions, and the building may now be worth £60 million. So the RI could sell it and move, maybe joining some body with a similar mission. Or it might be feasible to sell it and lease it back. But while it is easy to imagine moneybags organisations in roughly this business (Gates?), the RI may not be cool enough for cutting-edge new moneymakers and the organisations they fund.
Either way, the idea of a sale has produced a rare fluttering among UK science’s equivalent of the retired colonels. There have been comparisons with the destruction of the plays of Sophocles, disproving all that nonsense about the two cultures. Oh, and with Taliban monument-destruction, a stupid and insulting analogy. There is much talk of “saving” the RI, but far less about “getting the RI £60 million so it can take control of its future.”
My own take on this is that if the RI is so fragile that it cannot exist in a new setting, we should let it go. After 215 years, its values and ethos ought to be tough enough to manage a move.
In practice, it is predictable that some middle way will be found. Maybe the scientists who still work there will move to University College or some other venue, allowing the traditionalists to fume and the space to be used more sensibly. But if the RI carries on as it is, it will at some point become a forced seller of its building in less favourable circumstances than prevail today. The RI trustees and management know this and should be applauded for facing up to their responsibilities. In the past, their predecessors have fluffed ideas such as a rationalisation with the British Science Association. Let’s hope more incisive thinking prevails this time.
Ever since Mao took over in China, an island about 40 per cent the size of Ireland has been irritating the powerful in Beijing. The reason, of course, is that instead of surrendering, Chiang Kai-Shek, Mao’s big rival, cleared off to Taiwan, which he declared was only one of the provinces of The Republic of China, which was not to be confused with the upstart People’s Republic. Oh, and he was the real ruler of the whole lot.
In normal circumstances, he would have had as much chance of success as, say, Bonnie Prince Charlie would of being invited to be King of England in about 1750. But in the world of the Cold War, he could hardly miss. Especially after the Korean War got going, he was able to convince Washington that he was exactly the person to stem the red tide. The US kept up the pretence that he was the true ruler of China until the Nixon era, a little like the descendant of Bonnie Prince Charlie who lived in Paris in the 19th century and styled himself Henry IX.
Nowadays, things are a little different. On my immaculate desk as I type this are a pair of binoculars, a smartphone, a landline phone, a pair of speakers, a laptop and a big computer screen. They were all made in China, although none bears the name of a Chinese company. (I also have a dongle from Huawei.)
You might think that China’s economic rise would be fatal for Taiwan as a separate state. You’d be dead wrong. In fact, much of this Chinese gear is made by Taiwanese contractors, most famously the controversial Foxconn, or even for Taiwanese clients, most notably HTC. Nowadays you can fly to the mainland from Taipei, and the airport is now called something more tactful than the old Chiang Kai-Shek International. Business links are getting denser and deeper by the day.
Most Taiwanese politics, to the casual reader, seems very normal, and today’s noisy democracy is a far cry from the repressive 80s. You have to love a nation whose proposed ambassador to Washington is having to deny (a) being gay and (b) participating in being gay with the President. Indeed, all things lesbian and gay seem to loom large, and there is vigorous debate about same-sex marriage. (Thanks to Ali at Fu Jen for this reference.)
Indeed, Taiwan seems to have two sorts of politics: the usual stuff of most nations (the economy, pollution, transport) and a parallel universe called Cross-Straits. This is the wacky world of dealings with the mainland. These dealings are inevitably tricky. Indeed, the big parties differ mainly on how matey Taipei should get with the new regime in Beijing.
Now this complexity is being felt by Taiwanese higher education. The problem is a simple one. 165 universities for 22 million people (some pretty awful): falling numbers of school-leavers: an over-powerful Ministry of Education: and no scope for domestic expansion, given that 90 per cent of high-school graduates already go to university.
Like every university from Norway to Australia, the Taiwanese plan is to fill at least part of this gap with more overseas students. This idea is not as unoriginal or improbable as it might sound. If twinned with a merger plan to cut the number of institutions, it could mean fewer, better universities. Taiwan is also a low-cost nation – important to students – and offers a gentler way into Chinese culture than full immersion in the mainland.
However, the obvious place to get lots of students fast is the Chinese mainland itself, as universities around the world can attest. At the moment, only about 2000 mainland students are allowed on the island at a time, for fear of, well, nobody quite knows what.
Universities are lobbying for an increase, and a key part of the plan is to get in graduate students as well as undergrads. That means accepting people with first degrees from the mainland. One plan is to recognise any degree from the 122 Chinese universities involved in Beijing’s excellence initiatives as a valid ticket to higher-level study in Taiwan. This sounds sensible enough and might have other collateral benefits, like increased cross-straits appreciation.
However, there are risks. Recognition might well have the opposite effect to the one intended. It could tempt Taiwanese students to study in the mainland, in the knowledge that their degrees would get them back into the Taiwanese academic and employment systems. But less obviously, it also gives Beijing the ability (hard to rescind once it starts) to dictate what entry standards to Taiwanese universities should look like. So in a word, this wrangle is a microcosm of many lively and growing debates on this always-interesting island.
My diary says that I went to a space conference in London yesterday. The truth is more interesting than that.
Unless the topic is chemistry, a sure sign of desperation for any event is the word “solutions” in the title. But the European Space Solutions conference was a rare exception, because the space industry has a great story to tell about how it solves problems that are hard to get at by any other means. How can you determine the Earth’s average temperature except from space? If you can’t, carbon reduction policies are like going on a diet without weighing yourself first.
The conference was in Central Hall, Westminster, the bastion of nonconformism which the Methodists set up across the road from Westminster Abbey a hundred years ago. It had all sorts of themes about satellites helping us to make the trains run on time, cope better with disasters or manage healthcare more efficaciously.
But a surprising number of the best presentations had little to do with space. Instead they were about data, gathered by ordinary people and used en masse. Take Ashtag (yes….). It’s a scheme that allows anyone with a smartphone and the right app to report damaged ash trees, a serious threat to these well-loved features of the UK countryside. Described by Sam Neal of Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service, it makes use of automated verification to ensure that the quality of amateur-derived data is good enough to be used by policy-makers and land managers.
Neal and others explained that for almost any natural thing you can dream up – fish, birds, trees – there are far more amateur enthusiasts out there than paid scientists. Modern technology allows their observations to be used. Sam Walmsley of the (UK) Environment Agency pointed out that this can even be done for algal blooms in lakes, via the many members of the Freshwater Biological Association. As he said: “Their people are there when we’re not.”
Of course, space systems make all this possible, by providing GPS to make sure we know where the data is coming from, often by allowing it to be uploaded, and in other ways. But it poses another problem: integrating data from space, from land-based instruments and from citizen science is far from trivial. But despite these issues, citizen science and space share one property. Each has come along when we are messing up the environment on an unprecedented scale, so they are here bang on time.
Oh, and nobody loves the European Commission. But the realisation that the event should discuss data and its uses, not rockets and satellites, is due to the Commission along with the UK Space Agency and the other conference partners.
Between now and December 9 there is a public version of the exhibits at Horse Guards Parade in central London.
End of rant. Best detail at the conference?
A program for route-finding for electric vehicles. Yes, plenty of map software gets you the shortest route from A to B, or the quickest. But electric vehicles have limited range, and their performance falls away horribly when they are faced with hilly bits. So this Irish software gets you the route that minimises the evil effects of topography as well as mileage.
Nobody knows how educated a society needs to be. Obviously a world of satellites and open-heart surgery needs more graduates than one of flint hand-axes and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But how many more? In East Asia, there seems to be a strong argument that Japan’s spending on research, and to some extent the expansion of its university system, followed the nation’s postwar economic renaissance rather than driving it. The same goes (20 years later) for Korea.
The sheer amount of advanced education now going on in the world is easy to underestimate. The OECD points to UNESCO data (page 364, since you ask) suggesting that in 2010, there were 177 million university students, up from 100 million in 2000. It adds helpfully that this is a 77 per cent increase. Within this number there were over 4 million studying outside their home nation.
Now, 177 million students out of about seven billion people looks like a lot. However, there is no global person-power planning authority. Instead, people get educated to get ahead or out of interest, according to taste, and their propensity to do so has a lot to do with national policies and national states of economic development.
Now there seems to be some fresh light on this debate. One problem is that most information on student numbers is about higher education and universities. These have more prestige and are a comparatively simple target for data collection. But a UK consultancy called The Research Base has just published global figures for numbers in both academic and vocational education, drawing on a wide range of sources such as Unesco, the World Bank and the UN Development Programme.
Its new report, The Education Advantage suggests that vocational study, in particular, is on the way up in the developing world. Numbers in vocational education have been on the way down in central Asia and in central and Eastern Europe, suggesting that there is a dearth of economic activity to attract people into vocation-based training. Policymakers there might well find this ominous. Despite political enthusiasm for vocational training, numbers are also static in Western Europe, the US and Canada. But there is big growth in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and most of all, in an arc from Iran (all those nuclear technicians, no doubt) to India, where annual growth rates of 41 per cent have been observed. And its main author, Matilda Gosling, points to strong links between this type of growth and economic development.
Nothing can grow at 41 per cent a year for long. But the clear message is that developing nations with growing economies are also growing their skills base.
A look at the figures for university-type education tells a different but related tale. Again we see falling numbers in Eastern and central Europe and in central Asia, but this time there is a slight growth story in Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Again, South and West Asia have big growth, at 12 per cent, but this time it is Sub-Saharan Africa, with 16 per cent annual growth, that is expanding fastest. This must have something to do with Africa’s fast-growing middle class.
Does this suggest that these nations are positioning themselves to overtake older and more comfortable competitors? I think not. More likely, these big numbers suggest a catch-up phase that will run its course. But there is a definite challenge here to the view that only university counts as a preparation for life. With an election campaign there now running hot, these figures might be of specific interest in Korea. Here families spend years of effort and untold amounts of money to get their kids into university. University enrolments there have been on the up while vocational numbers have been falling. Maybe as the realisation grows that families have been beggaring themselves for little return, Koreans and other very big higher education enthusiasts will look for new models.