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Monday, June 28, 2010

Comparative Planetology and Serendipity

Chapter 4A

Comparative Planetology and Serendipity

Science fiction gave us forests on the back side of the Moon, Martian canals constructed by advanced civilizations, and, in Venus, a throwback to happy early times: paradise. Unfortunately the Moon is lifeless, Mars is a desert, and Venus is hell. As our knowledge of the solar system has advanced, we have moved our imagination beyond its confines. The worlds of strange intelligent creatures and monstrous beasts, of great wisdom or unparalleled horror might well exist – but around some distant star, safe from the rocket probes that might render empty what fiction has filled with the riches of dreams.

A social critic may wish to know why we should then want to explore the inhospitable worlds within our rockets’ reach. Can there be, for example, any link between the exploration of Venus' poisonous atmosphere and the well being of those who breathe our own atmosphere?

There is. There are many in fact. Let me begin with one striking and important example of the serendipity of comparative planetology: the discovery of the threat to the ozone layer.

Ozone forms when oxygen molecules (O2) capture oxygen atoms (O) to combine into larger molecules, ozone (O3). Ozone acts as a nasty pollutant on the surface, particularly in the air of our large cities, but at high altitudes it absorbs ultraviolet radiation and reduces considerably the amount that penetrates the atmosphere. Thus the ozone layer protects plants and animals on the surface from excessive ultraviolet radiation that would damage their DNA and cause widespread cancer. Indeed, life was confined to the oceans for much of the history of our planet, until the level of atmospheric oxygen grew enough to form a substantial ozone layer.

Now to Venus. When NASA scientists found fluorine and chlorine compounds in the atmosphere of Venus, they investigated the chemistry of those molecules and determined the rate constants of their chemical reactions. Those rate constants were later used by Sherwood Roland and Mario Molina to discover that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) destroy ozone in the presence of high ultraviolet radiation. That is, they discovered that the Earth’s ozone layer might be in trouble. This discovery came as a shock to many researchers and industrialists, for CFCs had been developed precisely because they were supposed to be inert and thus, since they could not react with anything, they could not harm anything. They seemed just perfect for use in air conditioners, refrigerators, and aerosol deodorant cans.

Unfortunately, high in the atmosphere, ultraviolet radiation breaks up the CFC molecules, and the freed chlorine atoms interact with the ozone, destroying it. This discovery was confirmed by Michael McElroy, whose group had the required tools because, as Carl Sagan pointed out, they were working on the chlorine and fluorine chemistry of the atmosphere of Venus.[1]

The presence of a large hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica was further confirmed by satellite data and later tracked and made vivid and dramatic by satellite pictures. This prompted scientists, industrialists, and governments, acting in concert, to ban CFCs, so as to significantly reduce the threat by the year 2010 (although it will take some forty or fifty years longer for the CFCs already in the atmosphere to dissipate and the ozone layer over Antarctica to recover).

This example is a beautiful illustration of the serendipity of comparative planetology. By investigating the atmosphere of Venus we transform our knowledge of planetary atmospheres; this knowledge makes us aware of a serious problem; and space technology helps us monitor the problem and provides the information needed to achieve a solution. And eventually we put the solution to the problem into effect.

Such is the link we seek between planetary science and the well being of humankind: we need to explore the solar system in order to improve our views about the Earth. And we need to improve those views so that we may deal more wisely with certain social and environmental problems that could become acute in a few decades or outright disasters in the long run.

My aim is to show that the serendipity of exploring the solar system will pay off here on Earth. In support of that conclusion I will advance the following argument. To have a good grasp of global problems and their possibly serious consequences, we need to understand our global environment. But to understand the global environment of the Earth it is important to understand the Earth as a planet. To understand the Earth as a planet, however, it is necessary to study the other members of the solar system. And, of course, to study the solar system well we need to go into space.

[1]. Sagan, C., Pale Blue Dot, Random House, 1994, p. 222. I have adapted this section so far from Sagans book.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Challenges to the Argument

Chapter 3F

Challenges to the Argument

In a survey the journal Science did in 1964 by, only 16% of the science Ph.D.s who responded agreed with President Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon, while an overwhelming 64% disagreed. It was generally felt then that the Apollo Program was undertaken mainly for political reasons.[1] Ever since, many scientific and other critics have questioned the scientific value of space exploration.

The point is that my serendipity argument depends on a close connection between space exploration and science. If this connection is brought into question, my argument is also brought into question.

According to a second objection, it is not enough to show that the scientific exploration of space is serendipitous. We are still required to show that such exploration is likely to produce greater serendipity than competing activities, including other types of scientific exploration.

Let me describe these objections in greater detail.

1. Space exploration does not involve fundamental science in a significant way.

The first objection goes something like this: what my argument shows, strictly speaking, is that changes in fundamental science lead to a different panorama of problems, solutions and opportunities, hence the serendipity of science. Such changes have the desired effect because fundamental science gives us a way of viewing the universe and of interacting with it.

It is not clear, however, that applied or peripheral science would have similar effects. And to these critics it seems that the science done in the pursuit of space exploration is for the most part applied or peripheral.[2] This is not to say that space exploration is not likely to produce serendipity of some sort, for obviously it already has. The point is rather that the significance of what space exploration will accomplish is much less than I have made it out to be. Yes, we will have some interesting though marginal science and lots of gadgets, but no radical transformations of our main points of view.

Two considerations may tempt us to dismiss this objection summarily. The first is that it assumes too regal a status for fundamental or pure science as compared to applied science and technology. A moment’s thought makes us realize that “gadgets” have often driven revolutionary developments in fundamental or pure science: lasers are pivotal instruments in the study of fusion; personal computers have enabled the launching of hitherto undreamed-of theoretical work in many scientific disciplines, from mathematical physics to neuropsychology; and let us not forget the most famous influential gadget in the history of science, Galileo’s telescope, which was invented as a toy in Holland. It is clear, then, that transformations in technology and “applied science” can create a new panorama of problems and opportunities for the practice of fundamental science.

Nevertheless, I will not take the easy way out offered by this consideration. The science done in space exploration runs the gamut from the most applied to the most fundamental, as I hope to show in the rest of the book, and thus it brings out the deep practicality of science in its fullest sense.

The second consideration is that the critic who belittles the scientific value of space exploration is perhaps a bit of a straw man: space science is far more respectable now than in the days of President Kennedy. Three reasons, however, should keep us from deriving much reassurance from this consideration.

The first reason is that not all space science is now respectable, as we will see shortly. In any event, it is important to understand why that shift of perception took place in the fields of space science where it did.[3] The second reason is the need to address the nagging suspicion that some space research has gained prominence purely because the Government has thrown big money to support it. If this suspicion is correct, society's quest for space exploration has distorted the practice of science. The third reason is that even if, contrary to fact, most scientists did have a high opinion of most space science today, it would still be useful to state as bluntly as possible why someone might not agree. For in replying we stand to explain better why we ought to go into space.

Space science covers many fields, but for the purpose of this essay they can be subsumed under three main categories: planetary science, space physics and astronomy, and space biology. Let us see why their serendipity might seem questionable.

Take planetary science (under this rubric I am including comparative planetology and the scientific exploration of the solar system in general)[4]. Granted that by going into Earth orbit and looking down we can learn much about our own planet; but what can we learn about the Earth from looking at another planet? It would seem, as an early Greek might say, that if the other planet is different we are not learning about the Earth, and if it is like the Earth we should not waste effort going there when we might as well look at the Earth itself.[5]

As for space physics and space astronomy, how can they change our lives down here? It may be fascinating to find out what makes quasars burn; but, fascination aside, will that knowledge feed hungry children or at least make automobiles run more efficiently? We need to see how space physics and astronomy can come to be in a position similar to that of the revolution in physics that led to the laser and its use in medicine.

A critic might argue that lasers are built on fundamental principles of matter; on principles, furthermore, that apply right here on Earth. So there is no mystery why a revolution that gave us those principles had terrestrial applications. By going into deep space, by placing telescopes in orbit and all that, we might challenge our points of view and force them to change. But they are points of view about what is up there, not about what is down here. Or are they?

Space biology fares even worse, for many space scientists themselves see little value in it beyond the need to keep astronauts healthy. And since many of those scientists would prefer unmanned exploration, even this conditional value of space biology is in question. Such is a common verdict regarding the branch of space biology that investigates the behavior of terrestrial life in outer space. Another branch of space biology named exobiology (or “astrobiology”) presumably investigates extraterrestrial life. Under this rather cryptic description, exobiology became a target for critics who derided it, until the recent Mars meteorite controversy, on the grounds that, since we have never found extraterrestrial life, exobiology investigates nothing at all.[6]

I will provide replies in the next three chapters, one per field. It will become evident, however, that this division of space science is largely a matter of convenience, for there exist strong connections between the three fields. Indeed, the seeds for the answers to some of the questions pertaining to astronomy and biology will be planted in the discussion of planetary science.

2. The serendipity of space exploration need not be greater than that of other scientific enterprises.

If we are to support scientific exploration because its serendipity will reward us with the tools to improve life on Earth, are there no better candidates than space exploration? Consider oceanography, for example.[7] It is clear that the oceans play a crucial role in our climate and in the planets ability to sustain life. The benefits of understanding the oceans better thus seem quite direct. Shouldnt oceanography then have greater priority than space exploration?

I offer two replies. The first is that I have never argued that space is the only stage for scientific exploration. In a well-run world, space exploration would be one of the important tasks human beings undertake, and perhaps some other scientific tasks should have even greater priority.

The second reply is that the priority of space is likely to be very high anyway. Consider the example of oceanography again. Clearly, obtaining knowledge of the oceans is very important to us. But as we will see in the following chapter, success in securing that sort of knowledge will require, at least in part, a global approach to the study of the oceans and the other systems with which they interact – a global approach for which space technology is exceptionally well suited. My suggestion is, then, that the majority of serious “competitors” to space exploration will actually be more successful if done in conjunction with space exploration.

Of course, I do not wish to claim that all space exploration is scientific. As space activities become routine, more and more of them turn into industrial enterprises or financial investments (e.g., satellite communications). The aim of this chapter was to provide a philosophical case, via serendipity, to justify the heart of space exploration.

In overcoming the objections, supporters of space exploration will be able to appropriate Descartes' words when claiming, for example, that space biology will contribute to medicine and thus bring about "the preservation of health, which is without doubt the chief blessing and the foundation of all other blessings in this life."[8] And in addition they may proudly look forward to the new mastery of nature with which space science will reward their efforts. For that mastery will lead to "the invention of an infinity of arts and crafts which [will] enable us to enjoy without any trouble the fruits of the earth and all the good things which are to be found there."[9] To the fruits of the earth, the supporters will say, space exploration promises to add the bounty of the universe.


[1] Even some supporters of exploration agree. Ben Bova from the National Space Society writes in a letter to Science (Vol. 233, August 8, 1986, p. 610) that “The U.S. space program’s primary motivations are, and always have been, political and economic.” He also thinks that it is a myth “that the space program exists mainly for the purpose of scientific research.” I will have more to say on these views in Chapter 7.

[2] For an account of this attitude against space science, see my “Pecking Orders and the Rhetoric of Science,” Explorations in Knowledge, Vol. III, No. 2, 1986, reprinted in my Evolution and the Naked Truth, op. cit.

[3]. This attitude within science, as well as negative attitudes about science in the larger society, plays an important role in our evaluation of space policy and of specific proposals for funding space undertakings. This role is, however, seldom made explicit. We often have little more than a gut feeling about how priorities should be allocated. But would not a different idea of the nature of science – and of the nature of space science – influence our gut feeling?

[4] For an account of the low status the planetary sciences suffered until rather recently, see Stephen G. Brush, “Planetary Science: From Underground to Underdog,” Scientia, 1978, Vol. 113, p. 771. Brush demonstrates how the prejudice against planetary science was blind to the history of physics.

[5]. This might be the approach taken by a student of Xenophanes.

[6]. This popular opinion of the field has changed considerably since David McKay’s team’s analysis of a now famous Martian meteorite (ALH84001) suggested that there were traces of fossil life inside of it. NASA has capitalized on the public enthusiasm, even though most meteorite experts have been hostile to the hypothesis. This issue will be discussed in Chapter 6.

[7]. This point was suggested to me by Terry Parsons.

[8]. Descartes, Discourse on Method, Haldane and Ross, trans., op. cit., p. 120.

[9]. Ibid., p. 119.

Friday, June 11, 2010

From Serendipity to Justification

Chapter 3E

From Serendipity to Justification

Clearly, then, a dynamic science makes certain things possible that otherwise would be not only beyond our reach but also beyond our imagination. That is one of the main reasons why we cannot afford not to do science: many problems of which we are already aware cannot be solved unless a different point of view comes into play. Therefore to reject or slow down the process by which science grows, by which we refine and replace our communal spectacles, amounts to a decision to deprive ourselves of much that is good and to continue to expose ourselves unnecessarily to who knows what dangers[1].

Supporters of space exploration can now justify their expectation of a bounty from space precisely because exploration presents many challenges to our science and technology. Since space exploration is thus so likely to contribute to the transformation of our views, investing in it has a clear advantage over investing in fields not so ripe with challenge.

Knowing that serendipity is a natural consequence of science, the supporter of exploration may now say with Descartes that a failure to explore is a failure to carry out our obligation to "procure the general good of mankind." The justification the supporter can now offer for exploration in general, and for the heart of space exploration[2] in particular, sounds like a practical case, albeit more subtle and indirect than the one made in Chapter 2. But it is a practical case born out of the nature of space science itself, and thus the guarantees that it offers go well beyond those of historical anecdotes.

This deeper and fundamental practicality forms the basis of the supporter's response to the strongest social objections. The supporter of exploration can now explain to the social critic why the previous benefits of exploration were not a fortunate accident: they were the result of the inevitable expansion of opportunity that is part and parcel of scientific exploration. Once we understand the dynamic nature of science we are in a position to vouch for its future serendipity. As we saw in the previous chapter, to a casual observer the heart of space exploration may not appear to have obvious practical benefits. But this deeper investigation reveals a long-term, fundamental practicality: the practicality that comes when a transformation of our views of the universe expands our range of opportunity.

As the benefits from exploration become routine, the frontier of the unknown is pushed further out into the cosmos and our challenges shift accordingly. In indulging our enthusiasm, we are thus bound to force a change in our panorama of problems and opportunities.

The argument works against the ideological objection as well. Unless we commit species suicide, we will continue to interact with the Earth and transform it in small and large ways. By doing so we act in the manner of all other living beings: a tree grows tall and gives shade to violets and mushrooms that could not have lived without it; a beaver builds a dam, harming rose bushes and fish, but helping water lilies and frogs; and once upon a time, bacteria gave the Earth its oxygen and nitrogen atmosphere.

The question for us is not whether we will interfere, but rather how much and how wisely. Now, to act wisely we need knowledge of ourselves, of the Earth, and of our interactions with the Earth. Otherwise we are likely to impose too big a burden on the planet or on its human inhabitants.

Such knowledge is not complete as of this writing not even environmental activists can reasonably claim that they know everything about our planet – and it may never be complete. That is, our perspective is limited, and therefore we need a dynamic science that can change our panorama of problems and opportunities. To eschew dynamic science is to deprive humankind of the chance to act wisely. We are already a big presence on the Earth and need to move carefully in the dark of our ignorance. It would thus be irresponsible to forgo the lanterns that may illuminate our way (lanterns such as NASA’s Mission to Earth, to be discussed in the next chapter). Space exploration is thus not a false panacea but an important means to a cleaner and better future.[3]

[1] We may also expose ourselves to new risks. I will discuss this matter in the last two chapters.

[2] Cf. the remarks made at the end of Ch. 2 about those aspects of exploration that fire the imagination and motivate the conquest of the cosmos.

[3]. Historians may point out that the argument sketched in the two previous sections of this chapter is largely based on history and so they may wonder about my remarks in Chapter 2 against a historical case for serendipity. The answer is that here I place the history of science in a philosophical context. Several of my premises do require the history of science for their support, but my conclusions are not the results of inductive inferences from history. They depend instead on conceptual inferences about the nature of science and exploration. This is what makes my argument philosophical.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Scientific Exploration and Serendipity 2

Chapter 3D

Scientific Exploration and Serendipity 2

Second Part of the Argument: Scientific exploration leads to scientific change.

Changes in worldviews are inevitable given the nature of science. The reason is that worldviews (e.g., comprehensive scientific theories) are our creations and thus imperfect.[1] Therefore, they are always in need of refinement, modification, or replacement.

The pressure for such changes comes from the exposure both to unusual circumstances (which force us to stretch our views) and to competing ideas (which are often developed to account for a few of those unusual circumstances, and then extended to explain the entire field). And – here is a key point – scientific exploration, by its very nature, places science in new circumstances and presents it with new ideas. Thus scientific exploration leads not merely to the addition of a few, or even many, interesting facts but to the transformation, perhaps the radical transformation, of our views of the world.

Let me rephrase this second part of the argument in schematic form:

6. Science is dynamic. Science is always changing because

(a) It is never complete (being a human creation).

(b) When challenged by new circumstances it must adapt (i.e., change). For example, cancer and AIDS have challenged scientists to alter profoundly our ideas about cell functioning and development. And astronomy has undergone many radical changes motivated, in great part, by new instruments that have allowed us to look at hitherto unimagined aspects of the universe (e.g., Galileos telescope and the discovery of the phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter, as well as the recent upheaval created by the discoveries made with the new generations of telescopes).

(c) When challenged by new ideas, it is, once again, spurred to change. Think of the radical transformation of biology as the result of Darwins idea of natural selection.

7. Scientific exploration places science in new circumstances and presents it with new ideas.

This is true almost by definition. When we explore scientifically, we either move science into new areas or else think about it in a new way (i.e., in the light of new ideas). I say almost for two reasons. First, even though I am presenting a conceptual argument, I do not wish to engage in a semantic dispute. Perhaps someone might give an example in which a scientist explores without placing science in new circumstances or thinking about science anew. Nevertheless, these two activities cover the range of what scientific exploration characteristically does (in a strong sense of characteristic). This is why I aim for the conclusion that serendipity is a natural consequence of scientific exploration, where by natural consequence I mean a (strongly) characteristic or practically inevitable consequence. A practically inevitable consequence of having a human genome is to be born with one head, one heart, two eyes, and two legs. But some humans are born with only one leg, say, and some human embryos do not even get to be born.

The second reason is that some very scholarly critics may feel that exploration is too romantic a name for what scientists do. Scientists presumably ponder, observe, investigate, and carry out experiments, but they are explorers only in a metaphorical sense. I do not wish to engage in a semantic dispute over this issue either, although it would be peculiar that so many people from so many walks of life should understand perfectly what I mean when I talk about the scientific exploration of space, and that they should themselves talk this way, if exploration is indeed the wrong term. In any event, scientists attempts to satisfy their curiosity about the universe do lead them into new areas and do motivate them to look at their collective understanding in new ways. This is all my argument needs.

Moreover, these two activities provide the natural conditions for change in science. Given that science is not complete, when it is placed in new circumstances (e.g., in dealing with significantly new phenomena, or being applied well beyond its domain), it is characteristically forced to adapt (change). The challenge of new scientific ideas is an additional factor in bringing about scientific change.[2]

From Points 6 and 7 we may conclude, therefore, that

8. Scientific exploration leads to change in our scientific views.

As I argued above, the crucial feature of science is not merely the addition of a few, or even many, interesting facts but the transformation, perhaps radical, of our views of the world[3] (cf. my remarks on Feyerabend, Galileo and the Tower Argument). This essential feature turns serendipity into a natural consequence of a dynamic science. If science is to be dynamic, it must be challenged, and it must change. But the change that matters is the transformation of our views of the universe. For once we think about the universe differently — once we have a different "communal" perception of it – we come to perceive also hitherto unknown dangers, new solutions, and new opportunities. Such is the cradle of serendipity.

Putting the conclusions of Parts 1 and 2 together, we arrive at the conclusion of the whole argument:

9. Since scientific exploration leads to change and scientific change leads to serendipity, exploration leads to serendipity.

[1] Scientists like to draw a distinction between their use of the word “theory” in science and the ordinary use of the word. In science the word is almost an honorific title given to a comprehensive set of ideas that at least begins to explain a range of phenomena; ordinary parlance betrays an empiricist bias (theory as less important than fact) and the word is almost derogatory, as in “evolution is just a theory,” meaning, “little more than a guess.” This equivocation irritates scientists, for then quantum physics and general relativity would also be “just theories.” To reduce the confusion, I keep pointing out that I am talking about comprehensive theories all along.

[2]. To put the point in a language closer to that of professional philosophers: by the “natural conditions” of change in science I mean that (disjointly) they are practically necessary and sufficient. That is, first, one or the other is normally required for scientific change to occur (overcoming the natural inertia against intellectual and experimental retooling). And second, the challenge of new circumstances characteristically forces science to change (this is a practical, not a logical certainty, for the scientific field may instead fall apart, or society may stop funding research, or a supernova may destroy the world, etc). This is not to say that science is bound to find solutions to its problems. There may be no cure for AIDS, for example, but in looking for it, researchers have profoundly transformed scientific medicine. The challenge of new ideas is often sufficient to bring about change as well (when those ideas offer significant alternative ways of looking at difficult problems, etc.).

[3]. This theory of science is developed in detail in my Radical Knowledge: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Nature and Limits of Science, Hackett, 1981 (Avebury in the U.K.).

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Scientific Exploration and Serendipity

Chapter 3C

Scientific Exploration and Serendipity

2. Scientific views determine what problems, dangers, and opportunities we can be aware of.

Since our worldviews tell us what the world is like, they also determine ultimately what opportunities we can take advantage of, and what problems and dangers we can be warned about. And thus it follows that:

3. With changes of worldview come the realization of new problems, dangers and opportunities.

As we have seen above (Point 1), those changes can be profound, which means that as our science is radically transformed, so is our panorama of problems, dangers, and opportunities.

4. By becoming aware of new problems, dangers, and opportunities, we also become able to think of new solutions and new technologies.

Einstein began his career by asking "useless" theoretical questions such as "What would the universe look like if I were traveling on a ray of light?" In trying to satisfy his curiosity about this and other equally impractical issues he was led eventually to develop his theory of relativity and to take a decisive role in pushing physics toward quantum theory (although he later disagreed with the full-blown quantum physics of Bohr and Heisenberg). In these and other respects he changed several of our views of the world in profound ways, opening in the process the opportunity for a new understanding of light. This new understanding led to the theory of lasers. Lasers in turn opened up many technological opportunities. It was not long before some researcher decided to apply them in medicine.[1] Today lasers are used in extremely delicate surgical procedures that would not be possible with any other technology known to medical practitioners. And it all began with a change of worldview in a field far removed from medicine at the time.

In contrast imagine a crash program in Einstein's early days to have surgeons develop a surgical instrument that could do the sorts of things that a laser can do today. Is it reasonable to suppose that the point would have come when the well-funded surgeons would have realized that their aim required the overthrow of the physics of their day? And would they have then laid out the steps necessary to replace that physics with a view that would lead them to lasers, and so on? I think not. But without the new physics, could the surgeons have developed the equivalent of lasers, or of much other Western medical technology for that matter? Again I think not.

These considerations undermine the objection that all the good indirect results (e.g., the spin-offs) of the space program can be achieved by spending the money directly in the relevant areas: for benefits in one area may well require a prior radical transformation in another.

Such theoretical transformations make us aware of possible new solutions and opportunities, and that is precisely what we mean by serendipity.

Having established that:

1. Scientific views are instruments for interacting with the universe, and they tell us what the universe is like.

2. Scientific views determine what problems, dangers, and opportunities we can be aware of.

3. With changes of worldview come the realization of new problems, dangers and opportunities.

4. By becoming aware of new problems, dangers, and opportunities, we also become able to think of new solutions and new technologies.

We may then conclude that:

5. Serendipity is the natural (practically inevitable) result of scientific change.

[1] I do not mean to suggest that this process is automatic or easy. In the case of the laser, it took a maverick with a combined background in physics and engineering, Charles H. Townes, to see the possibilities. It also took a great amount of persistence on his part, in the face of profound skepticism by the profession. Charles H. Townes, “Resistance to Change and New Ideas in Physics: A Personal Perspective,” in E.B. Hook, ed., Prematurity in Scientific Discovery, California University Press, 2202, pp. 46-58.