Monday, March 23, 2009

Monday Rants

It's Monday, and I didn't get enough sleep, so it's time to blow off a little steam. One of these rants is important at its roots, the other is just an annoyance. I'll let you decide which is which.

Volcano Monitoring: A few weeks ago, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal questioned why the federal government is spending money monitoring volcanoes when we "should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington." Early this morning we got our answer, as Alaska's Redoubt volcano erupted, sending plumes of ash as high as 50,000 feet and causing many airplane flights to be re-routed or cancelled (volcanic ash causes airplane engines to stop, which tends not to be a good thing for most airplanes). Of course, never mind historical eruptions like the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens. Or the fact that Mount Rainier, visible from Seattle, has 150,000 people living in the potential path of volcanic mudslides known as lahars (a lahar in Colombia in 1985 killed over 23,000 people, a tragedy that a little volcano monitoring and education could have prevented).

As researchers at the US Geological Survey said, that money is not being thrown into the volcano to watch it burn. Most of it pays salaries for American citizens, and much of the rest is used to buy equipment (usually from domestic suppliers). And the research is used to better understand the hazards that volcanoes pose to the people living with them. If you'd like to see where volcano research money is going, check out the USGS Volcano Observatories in Hawaii, Alaska, and the Cascades (among others).

NASA Mission Madness: To coincide with the NCAA college basketball playoffs ("March Madness"), NASA has released an interactive website called "Mission Madness," where members of the public can vote on who should win head-to-head matchups between NASA missions. It's cute, it's geeky, and it's a great way to learn about NASA missions you've probably never heard of.

Unfortunately, someone (or some group of people) have apparently figured out how to game the system. In the first round, one of the matches pitted the venerable Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit against the "Superpressure Balloon" experiment, which I'd never heard of. The balloon won. Not only that, but the balloon got ten times as many votes as Apollo 11, the mission where we walked on the freakin' moon. (The Mars Rovers put up a spirited defense through Twitter appeals, but came up short.) Now, in the second round, the balloon is beating yet another Mars mission, and has four times as many votes as any other mission.

Call me cynical, but I don't believe that the public finds superpressure balloons ten times more interesting than Apollo 11, or more interesting than the Mars rovers. I suspect that the balloon team is stuffing the ballot box. Is this cheating? Not really, because NASA set essentially no rules, anyone can vote as many times as they want), but I do think the balloon team is inflating the results (ha!). And that defeats the purpose of this activity, of letting the public choose their favorite space missions.

All I can say is, if I am sitting on a NASA funding review panel and the superpressure balloon people try to use this as justification of public interest in their project, I'm going to re-open this rant in the panel discussion.

Yes, balloons do excellent science. I like to think I do so, too. But I know that if you put my white dwarf work up against Apollo 11, I will lose every time. So should the balloon, IMHO.


  1. Frankly, if the balloon people even hint at this as an excuse for funding, they should be brought up on ethics charges and fired.

    I'm sorry, but if someone's willing to cheat at trivial stuff, then how am I supposed to believe that they'll be any better behaved when something real is on the line? My experience has shown that people who cheat at silly games will cheat, lie and steal whenever it suits them. Excellent science, but terrible ethics.

  2. Well, in fairness, they aren't cheating, so I think firing those involved is too extreme. (A blog search on Google shows they just have a contingent of dedicated volunteers who, yes, are submitting multiple votes, but that is allowed). They've just learned how to game the system, just like Stephen Colbert gamed the system for naming a space station nodule, or like numerous groups that routinely influence shows like American Idol.

    I guess my grumpiness originates from my opinion that these things should played with one vote per person, not with multiple votes per person. Maybe it's my inherent fondness for democracy, or maybe it's scarring memories of elementary school on Valentine's Day, when everybody HAD to giver everyone else one Valentine, but you could give someone more than one if you wanted. I always got the bare minimum.

    The NASA thing makes me annoyed, but I don't think it's worth getting angry about.