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Curiosity Roving Print E-mail
By David Warren   
Thursday, 09 August 2012

The U. S. space program cost me several hours of sleep Sunday night. Along with some millions of media-linked others worldwide, I glomd onto the Mars landing. Aware of the complexity of the mission – among the most intricate technological feats ever attempted by man – I was reasonably prepared for disaster.

An uncle of mine played a prominent role in the Canadian and British space programs, and from other odd relations I have often identified with that kind of engineer – a list that now includes my elder son, in the field of electronics. I love the understated poetry in many of their pronouncements, the instinctive use of such figures as litotes. These convey a kind of good-humored stoicism in the face of incomprehensible nature.

The northern, pagan, Germanic peoples – old Norsemen, old Goths, old Angles, old Saxons – delighted in the inversion of hyperbole. But St. Paul, too, who came from “no mean city,” could be Germanic in that way. And perhaps Christ, too, in his appreciation of the droll Nathanael, “an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile.”

Neil Armstrongs “small step for a man” – a consciously rehearsed attempt at poetical speech – rightly fell to pieces in his mouth. The line that instead made my hair stand on end, as an adolescent during that lunar landing, was: “Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.” It was engineer talk, without guile. It was pure poetry.

On Sunday night, though hard to make out, I seemed to hear a delicious parallel to that: “Gale Crater touchdown. Were safe on Mars.”

Followed, of course, by an explosion of emotion throughout the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the wild cheering after thousands of man-decades of work, and the “seven minutes of terror” while the little capsule dropped through the thin Martian atmosphere. Then promptly the first low-resolution pictures from the surface; and grown men actually weeping at the sight of a wheel, and the dust it had kicked up.

The feat, according to one expert, was comparable to teeing a ball at the Brookside Golf Club in Pasadena – that must score a hole-in-one on the Old Course at St Andrews in Scotland. It was a much better trick than the previous cannon-ball landings on Mars; and the stakes were much higher.

Yet I thought they just might pull it off. Id watched previously the explanation of a key engineer, who frankly acknowledged that the multiple-step landing system looked crazy, sometimes even to him. That, I thought, was the voice of a man who truly knows what he is doing.


      Scientists celebrating the success of Curiosity

But of course, one may fail despite total preparation. Olympic athletes do it all the time, after years of focused training; for nothing on this planet, or any other, is assured. The best engineers know that a magnificent bridge may suddenly collapse from a freak rhythm. They appreciate the cardinal virtue of prudence, which in demanding cases resembles sanctity. Indeed, real science is a training ground for all the virtues, and requires unrelenting humility in the presence of phenomena vastly beyond our little sphere of control.

Physics, the most precise of the natural sciences, is also the narrowest, as good physicists know. It cannot provide answers to general questions, only to very specific questions, formulated in physical terms. The engineering that most depends upon physics is, like the Mars mission, extremely specialized. The other sciences acquire their prestige by aping this precision.

Chemistry, at the dirty end of physics, begins to detach from the entirely predictable. Biology disperses into hare-like tracks. By degrees we “progress” to the vapid positivism of statistical social science, where what we seek to know is unobtainable with any degree of precision, or even logical consistency.

As we proceed away from the very narrow trajectory that can put us down safely on Mars, towards the oceanically broad, we depend less and less on measurable precision, more and more on wisdom and revelation. The same for the technology that follows our quest: for we are less and less able to engineer a result.

By the time we reach sociology, the engineering is a farce. Everything we do in the line of “social engineering” produces serious, unintended consequences.

While I could appreciate the spectacle as well as they, I was slightly distressed by the yammer of the crowd assembled in Times Square, New York, to watch the Mars landing on a big screen. “USA! USA!” might be harmless enough, in context; and ditto, “NASA! NASA!” But when they cried, “Science! Science!” I began to detect that spirit of partisanship, which bespeaks a mob. For the worship of science is not science. It is scientism.

I suspect they hunger not for the disinterested pursuit of truth, but rather, the politicized “settled science” of anthropogenic global warming, or of neo-Darwinism, or of evolutionary psychology, or of many another enterprise that employs the techniques and gadgetry of physical science to pursue ends beyond its reach. We enter fields where the variables defeat all human comprehension, and keep moving as we count. And we acquire tasks compared to which merely scoring a hole-in-one from California to Scotland is a slam-dunk affair.

To take global warming off the top, we must remember that the rocket scientists who shot the Atlas V-541 from Cape Canaveral, could not reliably predict the weather for the launch. It may well be that we will never be able to predict weather with perfect accuracy even one week hence, because the frontal systems themselves retain too many options. The much grander accomplishment of “settled” climatology recedes from there; and trying to end-run the weather with atmospheric chemistry is playing the naive child.

Prudence requires the very comprehension of our limits that the cry for “Science! Science!” forcefully denies.


David Warren
is a former editor of the Idler magazine and, until recently, a columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
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written by Gian, August 09, 2012
Engineering is fine but I don't get why James Lovelock argument about the presence of life on other planets is not widely accepted. Lovelock argued that to last over geological timescales, life must cover a planet entirely and thickly. Otherwise the life is not going to be stable against the external shocks and internal instabilities.

The thick coverage of a planet would then be observable through analysis of the planetary spectra. Planets without life show an atmosphere in chemical equilibrium while Earth's atmosphere has non-trivial amounts of both oxygen and methane existing together thus showing evidence of non-equilibrium processes.
Life could be a source of non-equilibrium but an equilibrium could never harbor life.
Thus there is no need to spend billions of dollars to know what can be inferred from spectral analysis on earth itself.
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written by Jack,CT, August 09, 2012
I agree one would think the "mob" in NY would scream USA USA" but i feel we have lost so much of our patriatism,
imagine "our" parents screaming "Science"? I would think after a decade of work by Americans we would "HONOR" there
work with a chant of "USA,USA!",The reality i feel is Americans were screaming it to there televisions, Thank God!
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, August 09, 2012
Wittgenstein, in a characteristic flash of humour, divided his Cambridge colleagues into those who knew more and more about less and less, until they knew everything about nothing and those who knew less and less about more and more, until the knew nothing about everything
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written by Othe Joe, August 09, 2012
Anyone with design experience has an appreciation for a brilliantly tuned system that reflects back the skill, the knowledge and the imagination (to envision that which does not yet exist and "see" it in relationship with its environment) and that functions as intended. Our ability to design is one of the ways we are made in the image of our Creator. Only a fool could contemplate the physical world and place his faith in the efficacy of Blind Chance and his stooge Time. Unfortunately, there are plenty of fools.
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written by Dennis Larkin, August 09, 2012
Atheist philosopher Paul Feyerabend wrote elegantly on the reductionist, 'path-of-least-resistance' habits of scientists. For Feyerabend, there is no scientific method, only a collection of methods that vary widely by discipline. He wrecks modern scientific cant, which is why scientists ignore him. Ten minutes with Feyerabend will do the soul good.
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written by Grump, August 09, 2012
David, well phrased. I've always been fascinated with astronomy.

Your column reminded me of this exchange between Tess and her little brother Abraham in Thomas Hardy's (my favorite novelist) Tess of the D’urbervilles:

Little brother Abraham:
Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?"
"Yes."
"All like ours?"
"I don't know; but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound—a few blighted."
"Which do we live on—a splendid one or a blighted one?"
"A blighted one."
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written by Richard A, August 09, 2012
Good heavens, Mr. Warren, no wonder you lost your job at the Ottawa Citizen! Your editorials always struck me as a bit more insightful, a bit more learned, than one is accustomed to in modern Western media. Clearly, you were holding back: you are way over-qualified for mere journalism. I look forward to many more articles from you, if this be a sample.
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written by Jacob R, August 09, 2012
I love it!

Even Zeus cloud-gatherer obeys the Lord and not the bratty scientists who worship at his grandmother's altar.

What a strange and frightening time it is when clever inventions are enough a reason to hand over all the power and potential we do have to such callous and immature men.

Hopefully the first human on Mars has a revelation there that convinces everyone to return to Christ or else it won't matter if it had been Jupiter instead and a man had gone there.
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written by G.K. Thursday, August 10, 2012
In the last century, there was still enough of the American recognition of God as the divine author of creation (recall the Declaration of Independence's reference to "Nature's God", Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, even Woodrow Wilson's deference to the Bible as the word of God, etc.), that scientism had little chance of becoming a popular ideology. Now the U.S. has undergone a series of political and legal changes that have brought it to the very edge of corporate statism. The state recognizes only itself as author of the common good and has thereby made it illegal to run Catholic hospitals or adoption services. The U.S. teeters on a spiritual precipice.
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written by Layman Tom, August 10, 2012
Mr. Warren,

Welcome! We are going to have a lot of fun together. As an engineer, I truly enjoyed this article on many levels. Firstly, I could not agree more on the beauty of guileless communication. There IS a certain poetry in simple, factual speech, even if many would consider “engineer speak” unnecessarily jargon-littered. It seems to me that much of the jargon is necessary and promotes an economy of thought that typifies the scientific mind.

As for the actual mars landing, aside from all the emotion and the crowd's thrill, it was freaking COOL! It WAS a crazy plan. But many of the best plans in history were a little crazy. That’s what makes scientific exploration and innovation in general exciting. Sometimes, to do something that’s never been done before, you have to take chances. I have no idea who came up with the original idea, but I imagine a harried, disheveled lower level guy thinking about the problem while pounding out his TPS reports and answering his mountain of daily e-mails. Later, I can see him; kicked back in his cheap chair, with his feet up in his crappy little cubicle munching on a granola bar during lunch when it all came together for him. The eureka moment! Then he probably suffered through a phalanx of bureaucrats telling him that it wouldn’t work, but he stayed after it and the right senior level engineer actually looked at it and wondered: “Is this for real?” But the bug settled in and just wouldn’t die as all the other goofy ideas came and went. This too is engineering. Sometimes, it’s not the perfect idea that gets tried, just the least imperfect, or the one with the most dogged champion. Read up on Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. That crazy idea came to be almost exactly like my dramatization of this one.

It’s fun stuff. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of people in modern society that can appreciate it. We are become a nation of end-users. We live in the most technologically advanced times on record, yet as a populous, have the least amount of knowledge about how things work since maybe caveman times. As technology advances, its operation is increasingly dumbed -down so more and more people can use it without having the burden of actually understanding it. Ostensibly, we were all taught scientific method in primary school, but since the education system is woeful, few people graduate high school with even a basic understanding or any desire to pursue further education in the sciences.

In these circumstances, scientism will flourish. As less and less of the congregants of this new religion are equipped to think critically, or have any real scientific knowledge, it becomes easier for the Pharisees to say: “you stay on this side of the veil and we’ll tell you what to think.” Eventually, the dissenting scientists will be cast out as apostates and smeared as blasphemers. Goofy, unsubstantiated, or intentionally misleading theories will rule the day when marked with the imprimatur: “Leading Scientists say…”. I think we are in for more dark days ahead. Thank God for,…well, for Himself. Because He is the only power on Earth that can defeat the amassed ignorance of we humble men and the evil powers that want to harness it.
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written by Graham Combs, August 10, 2012
I was one of those who woke up and stayed up late Sunday night and early Monday morning. I don't think I met anyone that day who didn't think that I was a bit odd for doing so. But as I responded, in 1962 at James Monroe Elementary school as we watched Redstones launch on TV (rockets built here by Chrysler under the supervision of Magnus von Braun, Werner's brother) I believed in the space program and I still do. Paradoxically as science has become more politicized the romance has gone out of it. The romance of the unsentimental but hopeful engineer that Mr. Warren so brilliantly describes. Between David Warner and PM Stephen Harper I'm beginning to have some hope for my neighbor just across the Detroit River. The best essay I've read on the significance of Curiousity.

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