Vague ramblings

Philae and Rosetta: On the unexpected beach

Posted in Musing, Reason, That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 16 November, 2014

The speeding bullet aimed at a speeding bullet

In a private corner of the internet I was discussing the ESA’s Rosetta/ Philae mission. The general consensus was – quite correctly in my view – that this is one of the finest achievements of science ever (and, let’s not forget, engineering) as well as, perhaps, the greatest single act of navigation bar none. Who would have thought that watching a group of uber-geeks staring at screens could be so damned enthralling?

But the inevitable question came up: couldn’t the €1.4bn have been spent on something more useful. What use is it?

Setting aside that this sum would only buy you about half of a modern nuclear submarine – and that a sub can’t “land on a speeding bullet from a speeding bullet” I’m not convinced by the value for money arguments, but there is much more that the small-of-vision should consider. Here are some points I raised.

When Clair Patterson set about establishing the age of the Earth – which he achieved – he also discovered a mounting environmental crisis caused by putting lead – one of the most toxic substances known to man – in petrol. It wasn’t his objective, but in looking for one thing he discovered another;

When Alexander Fleming failed to tidy up his Staphylococcus experiment, he did not know he would discover penicillin. He was working on one problem, but stumbled into a much bigger solution;

If Horace Wells hadn’t been paying attention at an exhibition, then nobody may have benefitted from him realising that a chap playing with nitrous oxide had injured himself without feeling it, thus discovering anaesthesia (he wasn’t the only one, but he was a key player).

Lack of imagination as to the benefits of seeking knowledge for its own sake is the cross to bear for the small of mind. But let’s look forward and consider these ideas that could, potentially, benefit from the Rosetta mission:

1. Celestial navigation
Parking Philae has been compared to hitting a speeding bullet from another speeding bullet. With manned missions to Mars in early planning, and OSIRIS-Rex launching next year to (potentially) explore the commercial exploitation of asteroids, the knowledge gained from this mission is incalculable (including the failures: rockets that spend 10 years in sleep mode turn out not to be that reliable);

2. The nature of threats
That sooner or later an object big enough to threaten civilisation will head towards us is inevitable. The knowledge gained in missions such as Rosetta will make an invaluable contribution to our chances of being able to park it somewhere harmless. (The Voyager probes’ discoveries about the atmospheres of the outer planets have greatly improved meteorological models of Earth);

3. Planning
The speed of light delay to Rosetta is about 15 mins. Any practice at remote operation is valuable, especially if it saves having to put people in harm’s way. It won’t be Bruce Willis who saves us from the threat in point 2 above. Further, the lessons in how to make durable equipment will surely make human space flight safer;

4. The origin of the universe
Quantum theory lies at the root of much of the stuff around you that you take for granted. Einstein – who knew a thing or two – was sceptical about it. I read today that we have no quantum theory of gravity, and that it is needed to understand the earliest moments after big bang. The physic is way (and I mean waaaay) beyond me, but the idea that such physics could contribute massively to technology isn’t;

5. The origins of life (which is what the mission is primarily concerned with)
Understanding the most fundamental nature of our existence – in particular how genetic information forms – would have profound implications for medicine, ecology, biochemistry and many other fields.

6. And then of course there’s…
Well, I can’t put it better than Professor Brian Cox did, so won’t try:

“Science is unreasonably effective. It’s generated knowledge beyond all expectation. It’s also delivered perspective. Yes, we are an insignificant speck in an infinite universe but we’re also rare. And because we’re rare, we’re valuable. So what are we to do to secure our future? We must learn to value the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake and not just because it grows our economy or allows us to build better bombs. We must also learn to value the human race and take responsibility for our own survival. Why? Because there’s nobody else out there to value us or to look after us. And finally, most important of all, we must educate the next generation in the great discoveries of science and we must teach them to use the light of reason to banish the darkness of superstition. Because if we do that then at least there’s a chance that this universe will remain a human one.” (The Human Universe, 2014)

It is as well that Isaac Newton didn’t stop at thinking “Oooh, must get some cinnamon in” when he watched the apple fall (although that may well have solved his hunger problem). Or that Columbus didn’t report,”Yeah, we rocked up on an unexpected beach. That nails it. We might as well stay home now.”

The unexpected beach is about the stage we are at with the Solar System right now. The team behind Rosetta and Philae are direct descendants of Columbus, and Cook and Halley and all the others who provide empirical evidence of a simple truth: that humanity is made up of compulsive explorers.

And we wouldn’t be here without them.

Modern explorers

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