Archive May 2011

Waking from a coma! Ken Perrott May 31


I was listening to a Science Weekly podcast recently which got me thinking about how crap we are at predicting the future. And how this can lead to humourous situations.

I remembered the excellent film Goodbye Lenin! It’s about an East German woman Christiane, a faithful and idealistic member of the Socialist Unity Party, who had been in an extended coma through the political upheavals leading to German reunification.

When  she awakes her family do not want to disillusion her and resort to all sorts of humourous manipulations to cover up, or explain away, the political changes. Still believing she is living in a communist society she is amazed to see a poster of Lenin on the opposite building replaced by an advertisement for Coca-Cola!

The Science Weekly podcast (Science fiction and the age of astronomy) interviews the author Stuart Clark about the first book in his fictional trilogy on the history of astronomy. The book Sky’s Dark Labyrinth was published in April.

It presents a history of the lives and discoveries of Johannes Kepler and Galileo.  Clark described how different the societies of their time were compared with today. And the concept of science.

Johannes Kepler

He suggested that if either of these great men, heroes of science, were to have gone into a coma and woken up in today’s society they would have been horrified by the situation of science! They would have come from a society dominated by religion. From a time when they themselves included religious ideas in their scientific arguments. To find a modern science which has no place for religion. Where inclusion of religious arguments in science is extreme naivety.


And yet a society where the advantages and power of the scientific method which they advocated is illustrated so well.

Very similar to Christiane’s experience in Goodby Lenin! Falling asleep in a dogmatic political/ideological environment which she idealistically supported. And waking up in a completely different, but very successful, society and ideological environment.

Mind you – if Galileo or Kepler were suddenly brought back to life and woke up in the offices of the creationist Discovery Institute in Seattle – I wonder what they would be told.

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American Imams supporting evolutionary science Ken Perrott May 30

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London Imam Usama Hasan

New Scientist has reported a campaign for Islamic teachers, or Imams, to sign an open letter declaring that there is no clash between their religious faith and evolution (see American Muslim clerics sign up for evolution).

The text of the letter is:

Literalists of various religious traditions who perceive the science of evolution to be in conflict with their personal religious beliefs are seeking to influence public school boards to authorize the teaching of creationism. We, the Imams of the mosques, see this as a breach in the separation of church and state. Those who believe in a literal interpretation of scriptural account of creation are free to teach their perspective in their homes, religious institutions and parochial schools. To teach it in the public schools would be indoctrinating a particular religious point of view in an environment that is supposed to be free of such indoctrination.

We, the undersigned Imams of the mosques, assert that the Qur’an is the primary source of spiritual inspiration and of values for us, though not for everyone, in our country. We believe that the timeless truths of the Qur’an may comfortably coexist with the discoveries of modern science. As Imams we urge public school boards to affirm their commitment to the teaching of the science of evolution. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

Sign Up Now!

If you are an imam and would like to sign The Clergy Letter Project’s Imam Letter, please fill out the form by clicking here.

The Imam Letter, follows on from the similar Christian  Clergy Letter which was launched in 2006 and now has 12,725 signatures. Three years ago the Jewish Rabbi Letter, which has 476 signatures, was launched.

This letter is topical and I hope it is successful. Back in March a London Imam, Dr Usama Hasan, who is also a physics lecturer at Middlesex University and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, was threatened after presenting a lecture on ’Islam and the theory of evolution’ at his East London mosque, Masjid al-Tawhid. (see Acceptance of science — dangerous for some and Imam fears ‘nutters’ could kill him for preaching evolution).


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A secular bible Ken Perrott May 27

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Here’s something for your winter reading – The Good Book: A Humanist Bible.

I purchased it recently and am enjoying browsing through it. It’s a collection of wise sayings, proverbs, etc. Ideal for browsing – just as well as its 600 pages long.

Wisely, A. C. Grayling does not describe himself as the author – rather the book was “made” by him.

The Good Book is a collection of comments – proverbs, songs, parables, etc. – advising on the good life. Secular comments originating as far back as Confucius and the ancient Greeks. As Grayling remarks in his Epistle to the Reader:

“Throughout history the commonwealth of humankind has had master-thinkers whose mighty works are monuments to posterity; it is aspiration enough to be a guide among them, and to take from them resources to promote what is true and good.”

To this end he has made this book:

“consisting in distillations of the wisdom and experience of humankind, to the end that reflecting on them might bring profit and comfort. “

Its secular nature is a tremendous advantage. Grayling describes the book’s purpose as:

“not to demand acceptance of beliefs or obedience to commands, not to impose obligations and threaten with punishments, but to aid and guide, to suggest, inform, warn and console; and above all to hold up the light of the human mind and heart against the shadows of life.”

A.C. Grayling was interviewed about his book by Kim Hill last weekend. You can hear the interview at  Saturday Morning with Kim Hill. Or download the mp3 file.

Here’s an example from the book – a list of proverbs on Books:

1. Something is learned every time a book is opened.
2. A book may be as great a thing as a battle.
3. Books are ships that traverse the seas of time.
4. Books cannot always please, however good; minds are not always craving for food.
5. Books give no wisdom where there was not wisdom before.
6. Rather a study full of books than a purse full of money
7. There is nothing so old as a new book.
8. The best companions are good books.
9. The books that help most are those that prompt most thought.
10. The virtue of books is to be readable.
11. There is no frigate like a book to take us to lands far away.
12. Wear the old coat and buy the new book.
13. The world may know me by my book, and my book by me.
14. Word by word the great books are written.
15. The reader’s fancy makes the fate of books.

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Confronting accomodationism Ken Perrott May 25


Or is it accommodating confrontationism? I guess it depends on the image you wish to portray.

I have followed the accomodationism vs confrontationism (or “new atheism,” or “gnus”) debate among US atheist and science bloggers with interest. Mainly because I think it is relevant to the question of the relationship between science and religion, and the current changes in public acceptability of non-theism.

On the “confrontationist” side there are bloggers like PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Eric Macdonald and Jason Rosenhouse. Also authors like Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Richard Dawkins.

They are vocal and unapologetic about their atheism. Rejecting the idea that one should not criticise religion because it is “disrespectful” and that religion therefore has a “go home free card” not available in other areas of human discourse such as politics, sport and science.  Generally they will assert that there are basic epistemological differences between science and religion and they should not be conflated. The boundaries are stark and should be clear. Science should be honest and uncompromising about evidence and conclusions and not feel it has to accommodate religion or superstition by giving lip service to it.

On the “accomodationist” side there are commentators, journalists and bloggers like Chris Mooney, Micheal Ruse and Josh Rosenau. Others such Massimo Pugliocci at times advance at least some of the accomodationist arguments.

Accomodationists generally argue that the “new atheists” are too confrontational. That their insistence on talking about their atheism and the problems of relgion isolates the US public. Their confrontational language is offensive to the religious majority. It doesn’t win friends and in fact is turning people away from science. Scientists, and atheists, should go easy on religion, never confront it, even make concessions to religion, in the interests of winning public support for evolutionary science and science in general. If anything the “new atheists” or “gnus” should STFU – leave the defense of science and evolutionary science to religious scientists.

One of the latest discussions of this issue took place on the podcast Point of Inquiry recently where Ronald A. Lindsay interviewed Chris Mooney. (See  Chris Mooney – Accommodationism and the Psychology of Belief May 09, 2011.) It’s a good-natured discussion which I found useful because Chris does clearly present his arguments.

Several issues interested me:

How we make decisions

Chris stressed that humans are not rational. Our decision-making involves a lot of emotion. Consequently clearly held convictions are not easily changed. In fact the may become even more recalcitrant when exposed to rational discussion, evidence or criticism.

I agree with this – and it isn’t new. It’s an important consideration for the presentation of arguments and participation in discussion. However, Chris uses this to justify his opposition to  any “confrontational” opposition to religion. Even to the independent presentation of atheist world views.

Influence of a public atheist presence.

Chris made a concession on this point, referring to recently published research indicating that there is less opposition to atheists in environments where they already have a public presence. So he was effectively conceding that the public consciousness raising undertaken by “new atheists” and their encouragements to atheists to be public about their ideas, is having a positive effect.

This was obvious to most people even before the research results were published. But it does expose the accomodationist request to atheists to STFU as basically counter productive. I can understand it from religious apologists hostile to atheism – but not from atheists themselves.

The US population is turned off science by atheists?

Chris is convinced this is happening in the US, but acknowledged he doesn’t have data to back up his conviction. He suggests than it would be very difficult and expensive to get that data.

However, I discussed this in my articles Myths within a myth and Is atheism bad for science? where I commented on Elaine Howard Ecklands use of polling data to support a similar assertion. But in fact the data does not support this argument (See figure below from Is atheism bad for science?). If anything the vocal presence of “gnus” since the mid 2000′s seems to have undermined respect for religious leaders! With no obvious effect on the respect for science! Certainly no negative effect.

%age of US public considering professions of "very great prestige."

Tactics should fit situations

I think Chris is confusing the different tactics which are suitable for different situations.

I agree that confrontation is a bad tactic when used at the personal level. In the one-to-one or small group situations ideas are advanced better if their presentation does not anger the receiver. In such situations one should seek the common ground and use it to advance one’s ideas. Of course this does not mean dishonesty or denying one’s own world views. Not at all.

But this is not the situation Mooney is criticising. He attacks the talks, articles and public appearances of Richard Dawkins. He criticises the blog articles of PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne. These are not one-to-one or small group situations. These are communications with the public at large.

They are part of public discourse. Contributions to the overall market of ideas.

Responsibilty to provide information

Atheists have a responsibility to communicate their ideas. Just as do theists, agnostics, Buddhists, etc. It’s part of contributing to the overall market of ideas and human thought we find so interesting. The fact that some people don’t like some ideas in that market is not a reason to prevent contributions.

From a presentation on "new atheism" by Victor Stenger

For example, I find the biblical Psalm 14:1 offensive:

The fool says in his heart,
‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they do
Abominable deeds,
There is none who does good.’

That cannot justify any request to remove that Psalm from the bible, or to deny theists using it in their articles or lectures. It is part of the market of ideas and thought and just as open to being advance or critiqued as any other idea or though

Similarly scientists have a responsibility to communicate their findings, and to be honest about them. Research results should not be hidden because they conflict with the beliefs of some people. Historians should not deny the truth about the Galileo affair just because it offends some religious sensibilities.  And philosophers should not hide or confuse the fundamental epistemological difference between science and religion just to protect the sensitivities of religious fundamentalists.


It’s important for non-theists and scientists to contribute their ideas to the general market because many theist activists promote misinformation about these, consciously or unconsciously. For example the vilification and misrepresentation of non-theists like Richard Dawkins. This might be intentional or it might just  be an emotional response to his criticisms. But the concept of Dawkins being a “militant,” “strident”, “fundamentalist” atheist is promoted. And it gets picked up by people who should know better. By some non-theists, even those in academia. (Although the latter might just be examples of a common professional jealousy).

And, such ideas can easily be assumed by those who have no other source of information. How often have I heard Dawkin’s books denounced by people who have never read them.

Accomodationists commonly vilify Dawkins, Hitchens, and other “gnu” authors – often simply repeating the complaints of religious apologists. Of course this must be challenged. However, the more people who are familiar with the writings of people like Dawkins, or view them on internet videos, or hear them in person, the less believable such vilification and misrepresentation is.

However, there is a more serious way that theistic idealogues will spread misinformation about atheism and science.  Currently religious apologists question the epistemological basis of science – complaining that it does not permit supernatural explanations. This only has a small influence among accomodationist non-theists, but even so it can lead to a slightly post-modernist questioning of scientific epistemology among some academics.

This also occurs with the history of science. It always amazes me how many theologians and religious philosophers pontificate in this area.  And of course their pontifications are revisionist in the sense they attempt to rewrite history to express a Christian chauvinistic viewpoint.

Origins of modern science

There is the common apologist claim that the modern scientific revolution is based on Christian society, even Christian philosophy and theology. I wrote about this myth in Christianity gave birth to science — a myth? There I called it offensive:

“It’s insulting to medieval Islam. To the scientists and philosophers of the Roman Empire and classical Greece. To the civilisations of ancient Egypt, Babylonia, China and India and beyond.”

And I quoted Noah J. Efron on this:

’Modern science rests (somewhat, anyway) on early modern, renaissance, and medieval philosophies of nature, and these rested (somewhat, anyway) on Arabic natural philosophy, which rested (somewhat, anyway) on Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Persian, and Chinese texts, and these rested, in turn, on the wisdom generated by other, still earlier cultures. .  .  .”

Science is a non-sectarian, democratic and inclusive enterprise.

The Galileo affair

In recent years religious apologists have tried to rewrite the history of the Galileo affair to present religion in a better light. Or they may claim that scientists and atheists are misrepresenting that history. For instance they will claim that atheists are actively promoting a myth that Galileo was tortured and imprisoned. He wasn’t. although he was apparently threatened with torture and his sentence of imprisonment was changed to house arrest for life.

But check it out. There are plenty of unreferenced instances of this claim being made by apologists – bit I certainly can’t find anything substantive to support the claim. Its a myth about a myth.

The “conflict thesis”

Similarly apologists claim that a so-called “conflict thesis” is being promoted. Atheists are claiming that science and religion are inevitably and always have been in conflict. Of course no-one is saying that. There are inevitable and irreconcilable difference in epistemology, but historically the history of the relationship between science and religion has never been that simple.

Apologists will rely on cherry picked quotes from old books like John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science published in 1878. But this is disingenuous because it is easy to find other quotes in this book giving examples of the positive role that some religions have sometimes played in science.

Is the US a special case?

Sure there are sensitivities in situations where atheists are a small minority like the US. But this is not the same issue in Europe or New Zealand. In fact these examples indicate the real nature of the problem.

In New Zealand the vocal opposition to “new atheists”  really only comes from the committed anti-atheist. The religious apologists. Those are the very few people who are strident or militant in their criticism of atheist adverts, or the appearance of Richard Dawkins on TV, or Dawkins lecture tour. (Boy, do they have an obsession with Dawkins and the “gnus”). While I am sure that some people like Chris Mooney and Michael Ruse do exist in New Zealand they really don’t comment much here. The accomodationist/confrontationist debate is very rare.

Then again, perhaps there should be such a debate here. Perhaps atheists in New Zealand are not “confrontational” enough. Perhaps they should be doing more to counter situations like non-consential prayer, promotion of creationism, religion in schools, etc.

After all, these are all issues non-theists have important views on and they should make sure that these ideas are part of our society’s appreciation and knowledge.

Maybe our atheists are not living up to their responsibilities?

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Daniel Dennett on conflict between religion and science Ken Perrott May 23

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YouTube – 2/8 Daniel Dennett & John Haught & David Sloan Wilson on Religion.

In this short video clip philosopher Daniel Dennett gives a succinct description of the history of religion and its relationship with science.

It’s a welcome change from the obscure discussion that often occurs around this subject. (Theologian John Haught demonstrated some of the obscurity in his contribution.)

This is a clip from a longer discussion between Daniel Dennett, John Haught & biologist David Sloan Wilson.

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Visible signs of the rapture Ken Perrott May 20

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Credit to Peter Griffin – I don’t know where he gets these things from.

If only I was a student again -  and could afford such a big bill at the local sex shop.

The Magic of Reality for young people Ken Perrott May 20

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This is something we need more of – science books for young people.

And chances are this one, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, will be good. The author, Richard Dawkins is a fellow of both the Royal Society and The Royal Society of Literature. He has a proven track record as an author of popular science books.

And the illustrator, Dave McKean, has illustrated many award-winning books.

It will be published in September or October. There will also be an audio version read by Richard Dawkins and his wife Lalla Ward.

You can get an idea of Dawkins approach to communicating with a younger audience from his A prayer for my daughter (see Dawkins’ prayer for his daughter)*. Or you could watch his Growing Up in the Universe. These are Richard’s 1991 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for Children. Available on DVD.

I can think of a few young people who will be getting this new book for Christmas.

*You can download a pdf file of A prayer for my daughter. Or if you have an eBook Reader or Kindle here are ePub and Mobi files.

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Don’t drink the punch! Ken Perrott May 18

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Photo Credit: @snipeyhead New York

I liked this little nerdy counter demonstration at a Judgement day demo in the US.

Apparently many people are getting into the mood with rapture parties on the evening of the 20th May. Anyone familiar with The Simpsons episode on rapture parties will know to avoid the punch. Otherwise its the obvious way to respond to such ridiculous predictions.

I am pleased to see many Christians are also heaping on the ridicule. Mind you, it was a bit disconcerting the find that what many of them are ridiculing is not the concept of a rapture but just the fixing of a specific date! For example local blogger Bosco Peters  at Liturgy injected a bit of humour with Jesus is coming. But his humour was somewhat spoiled by a commenter who said:

“The simple answer to Harold Camping is from Our Lord’s own words: ’Ye know not the day nor the hour.’ It’s more than a little presumptuous of Mr. Camping to presume that he DOES know, is it not?”

And Donald Perkins at the Prophecy Mission in the USA warns of The Dangers of Date Setting:

“The Word of God is clear on this subject of Date-setting. To set dates on the return of Christ is to err. Because of these recent events, the church has become a laughingstock and many Christian faith were shaken by it; some had their hopes raised to high levels, only to have them come crashing down to the truth. Many even quit their jobs, and still others closed their businesses.”

Its  bit of a worry. Criticise Harold Camping because he dares to work out dates! But this whole idea of raptures, destruction of the world and the universe, etc. still seems acceptable to many Christians. I think that’s dangerous.

Seattle Atheists are offering some rapture Relief. Good idea really. They are asking for donations to enable them to help rebuild the lives of all those left behind by the rapture. In the event there is no rapture the proceeds will go to a good secular cause – Camp Quest West.

Seattle Atheists Rapture Relief

But isn’t it amazing what crazy ideas we humans can get. Appparently an all female sect in Russia believes that Vladimir Putin, Russian prime minister, is a reincarnation of early Christian missionary Paul the apostle (see Russian sects: from Rasputin to the ‘Jesus of Siberia’)!

Richard Dawkins had the most sensible comment on all this in his Washington Post article Science explains the end of the world:

“Why is a serious newspaper like the Washington Post giving space to a raving loon? I suppose the answer must be that, unlike the average loon, this one has managed to raise enough money to launch a radio station and pay for billboards.”

But he does take the opportunity to get back to the scientific approach to the end of the world. Which takes us back to the photo above.

Working on Mars Ken Perrott May 16

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Book Review: Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars Mission

Price: US$18.16; NZ$42.97; eBook NZ$20.95
Publisher: Pegasus (April 15, 2011)
ISBN-10: 1605981761
ISBN-13: 978-1605981765

This book describes Andrew Kessler’s experience when he left home and went to live on Mars. Well – almost. As he describes it:

’I spent three months in mission control with 130 top NASA scientists and engineers as they explored, photographed and dug up Mars. I was the first outsider ever granted unfettered access to the physicists, biologists, chemists, geologists and rocket scientists in the control room of a planetary mission to Mars. . . . For 90 days, I sat with the crew of the Phoenix mission working to explore the Martian arctic.  Martian Summer is my non-fiction account of the strange life inside mission control and the people behind digging for dirt on Mars.’

This was possible because of an initiative by Peter Smith, Head of the Phoenix Mission. He organised to bring Kessler on to the team to provide some of the science outreach. Kessler had co-produced Mars: The Quest for Life, a Discovery Channel documentary about the mission. He was now ’embedded’ into the team at the University Of Arizona in Tucson for the 90 days of the early Phoenix programme ’Martian Summer’ is the result.

Phoenix Mars Lander

So the book is about the scientists and engineers in the team handling the Phoenix Mars Lander which landed on Mars May 25, 2008. It’s about the people actively involved in today’s exploration of Mars, and their work. Given the problems and cost of manned space exploration by interplanetary and planetary robots is currently the only game in town. The vehicles, and the teams running them, comprises modern interplanetary discovery.

’Martian Summer’ is a non-fictional, almost historical, account. But it has its fair share of excitement, frustration, stress, personality conflict, bureaucratic problems, financial problems debate and scientific discovery. Anyone who has worked in a scientific research programme will recognise the general problems.

I have worked in a scientific institute so know they can provide plenty of human interest stories. With strong characters, human frailties, comedy, sex, scandal and murder – as well as science. Personally I think they could be the basis of good TV soap operas.

But interplanetary research using robots has its own unique set of difficulties. And the Phoenix Lander compounded these with its own set of problems.

Mars sol vs Earth day

Depending on where it is in its orbit Mars is between 75 and 375 km from the earth. Obviously that meant a 10-month delay between the launch and Mars landing. But it also meant that communication with the Lander involved at least a 15-minute delay (or a ’round trip’ of 30 min) — just because of the speed of light. On top of that communication relied on relay by the Mars Orbiter, a satellite in orbit around Mars. So communicating with, and controlling Phoenix, was a complicated and long-winded affair.

The small memory (100 MB of flash memory) aboard Phoenix for storing new commands and collected data was another limit. Memory was expensive when the Lander was designed. Phoenix was basically the spacecraft built for the Mars Surveyor Program 2001 Lander. It contained scientific instruments from the Mars Polar Lander. Both those missions were unsuccessful and the name Phoenix was chosen because the mission was created from the embers of earlier Mars endeavours.

There was a large risk of losing data and power availability depended on sunlight producing another important limit. Temperature needs of the instruments on-board Phoenix limited operations to the Martian daytime and they required a power-consuming warming period before data collection.

As if that wasn’t enough there is a misfit between the Martian day (called a sol) and the earth day — 24 hours and 40 minutes compared with 24 hours. Doesn’t seem much but it meant the team had to work according to the Martian sol. So each individual was living a Martian sol instead of an earth day. They came to work at strange times, had blacked out windows in their workplaces to avoid confusion, ate, slept and celebrated at strange times, etc. The mismatch between the earth day and Martian sol meant they worked in a continuously changing time zone (and suffered long-term ’jet lag’) over a 40-day cycle. They effectively lost one earth day every 40 days.

And the unusual time shift can be a source of psychological and health problems. A Counter Fatigue Group of psychologists and physicians monitored and studied the teams. Partly to help, partly for research. And one result was the common presence of bottles of urine being passed on to monitors.

Management nightmares

The whole management of the Phoenix Lander was complicated enough without progressively shifting times zones and permanent jet lag.  One team handled the upload of new commands and work plans for the Lander. Another handled the download of collected data. Both these had to fit in with the Mars Orbiter and the sol/night cycle at the Lander. Then there was the work of coding new commands. This also involved working with the sister Lander in the sand pit at Tucson – an on-site construction modelling the Mar’s landing site for testing each planned action. And that itself had problems because of the different gravity on Mars.

Then there was the science. Decisions were needed about where to collect samples using the robotic arm, and what instrument to deliver them to. And depending on results (and bureaucratic demands) plans had to be changed and new code written. Often under the pressure of deadlines.

The new discoveries

Many readers will be familiar with the new discoveries made by the Phoenix Mars Lander. The discovery of solid ice below the soil surface. The unusual presence of perchlorate in the soil. Soil nutrients. Observation of snow and clouds. Liquid water on the Lander legs. The unusual flow properties of the soil. And so on.

These discoveries were the outcomes of the mission approach — to look for water and evidence of its past presence. Mission leader Peter smith has reported some of these findings in a scientific paper (Smith, Peter. ’H2O at the Phoenix Landing Site.’ Science. 3 July 2009: Vol. 325, no. 5936, pp. 58-61).


Kessler also outlines many problems the team had to confront. Electrical shorts on the Lander deck interfering with operation of some of the instruments. Jamming of the doors on the TEGA — the Thermal Evolved Gas Analysers (apparently because of inaccurate machining of parts replaced just before launch). Early inability of sample transfer from the scoop into the ovens. A bureaucratic demand from NASA to get a sample of ice rather than rely on observations which effectively lost 23 sols of sampling time. Automatic ’safing’ of instruments — defaulting into ’safe’ mode when actions went outside preset parameters or unforeseen obstacles were met. And so on.

Each problem meant long hours of rewriting code, replanning work and testing on the sister Lander in the sand pit at Tucson, and transmission of new work plans.

I guess all this is the reality of today’s planetary exploration. Hands-on exploration – but hands-on from a distance in time as well as space.

Don’t treat soil like dirt!

One bitch I have as someone who has researched soil chemistry — why call it ’dirt?’ The NZ Soil Science society had an important motto – ’Never treat soil like dirt.’ So it surprised me to hear scientists on the Phoenix team at the time talking about ’dirt’ samples. The book used ’soil’ fewer times than ’dirt.’ Sure, technically the term for Mars is ’regolith.’ But why use ’dirt?’

And the bloody acronyms the US Space programme loves. Kessler refers to an ’acronym dictionary.’  He says ’Yes it exists. And I love it.’ Seemingly he found it necessary in getting to grips with some of the regular talks given by team members (he described one as a ’nonsensical list of acronyms’). I just wish he had provided this dictionary in the book. Acronyms may be OK for people working together everyday on the same problems and instruments — but not for most readers. At times I was unsure which instrument he was referring to, or which team was presenting information. Perhaps he could have used the full terms more often.

Here are just a few examples of the over 30 acronyms I found. Instruments on the Lander included the TEGA (Thermal Evolved Gas Analyser), AFM (atomic force microscope), WCL (Wet Chemistry Lab), MET (Meteorological station), RA (robotic arm), ISAD (Icy Soil Acquisition Device), SSI (Surface Stereo Analyser), LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging Instrument) and MECA (Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyser).

Testing was done at the PIT (Payload Interoperability Testbed). Non-US Team members had restricted access to some information because of ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulation). And EOS was the End of Sol!

Mind you, I thought naming samples and sample sites was endearing. Refreshing to see reference to the “Rosey Red” and “Baby Bear” samples!


I enjoy realistic stories about science and much prefer them to the common fantasy sciFi. So I welcomed the chance to review this book.

I found the writing a little over-enthusiastic in parts — especially at the beginning. But once Kessler got into the details of the science, the problems and the discoveries, the account was absorbing.

Just as you would expect in a good soap opera.

If you like science stories and realistic science fiction you will enjoy this book. Especially if interplanetary exploration appeals.

See also: Key publications

H2O at the Phoenix Landing Site
Abstract  |  Full Text
Smith, Peter et al

Detection of Perchlorate and the Soluble Chemistry of Martian Soil at the Phoenix Lander Site
Abstract  |  Full Text
Hecht, Michael et al

Evidence for Calcium Carbonate at the Mars Phoenix Landing Site
Abstract  |  Full Text
Boynton, William et al

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A non-theist feast down under! Ken Perrott May 15

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This just in from the organisers of the 2012 Global Atheist Convention —‘A Celebration of Reason’

Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens have been announced as speakers. (And have a look at the last sentence – a breakthrough!).

The Atheist Foundation of Australia is excited to announce that the next Global Atheist Convention — ‘A Celebration of Reason’ will feature headline speakers Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens (health permitting).

The Global Atheist Convention will be held once again at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre from13 – 15 April 2012.

’This is the first time that the Four Horsemen have spoken together publicly in five years,’ said Atheist Foundation President David Nicholls. ’Their best-selling books on atheism earned the group the moniker ‘The Four Horseman of the Anti-Apocalypse’, and fittingly so as they have been instrumental in bringing forth a new enlightenment in the face of growing irrationality, fundamentalism and superstitious thinking around the world.’

The 2010 Global Atheist Convention gave local, interstate and international attendees the opportunity to hear first-rate speakers from a range of fields including science, philosophy, politics, education, stand-up comedy and more.

’Atheism has provided the perfect foundation in which people can come together to celebrate science, reason and secular values in today’s society. With the planet in a state of organised chaos and the menace of religious extremism threatening everyone’s quality of life, this 2012 world-class event will once again provide rational discussion and debate about what can be done to address the issues facing the globe,’ said Nicholls.

’The 2012 Global Atheist Convention — ‘A Celebration of Reason’ will also send an important message to Australia’s political institutions that freethinking Australians are a growing force to be reckoned with.’

The entire line-up for the convention will be released gradually via official social media streams in the lead-up to   tickets going on sale later in the year. The last convention sold out well in advance, leaving many people disappointed to have missed out. The Atheist Foundation of Australia expects this event will also sell out very quickly and encourages prospective attendees to purchase their tickets as soon as they go on sale.

The Atheist Foundation has succeeded in obtaining financial support from the Victorian Government for the convention.

See also: Government comes to atheist party

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