Wednesday, February 23, 2011

SpaceMath @ NASA

In this blog, I have repeatedly brought attention to the fact that the real language of science is mathematics (see Mathematics: The Language of Science), not the rhetorical word games that drive pseudo-science 'arguments'. 

Sten Odenwald, who also operates The Astronomy Cafe, also develops math-based lessons with a science & engineering focus for NASA education projects.  The lessons are freely available at SpaceMath @ NASA.

SpaceMath hosts, at the time of this writing, about 400 sample problems covering a range of topics from astronomy to space physics to spacecraft engineering, selected for a variety of educational levels.  Many use REAL astronomical data.  In many cases, the problems are the 'back-of-the-envelope' calculations that lay the ground-work for designing and developing real missions.

Many of these problems are at levels of high school mathematics and science, yet many are more sophisticated than anything I have seen from the pseudo-scientists I have dealt with in this blog.  I wonder how many of those pseudo-scientists could even do the problems at SpaceMath@NASA.

Mathematics enables us to plan, build, and launch missions to other planets.  It enables us to plot the course to a destination and determine the fuel requirements, years before a launch.  The theory of gravity and motion spent over two hundred years applied to the motions of distant planets and stars before the development of rocketry and space flight made them an engineering reality.  Mathematical models of space weather enable us to estimate the radiation environments around the solar system so we know how much radiation shielding is needed for instruments or even a crew.

A theory that can't make even close to reasonable numerical predictions  in these environments, such as the Electric Sun models or neo-geocentrism, is not only useless (see Crank Science: Worse than Wrong), it is, by definition, a pseudo-science.

But it's worse than that.

If we teach such nonsense as the Electric Universe or neo-gencentrism to our children, who will maintain the national infrastructure of space-based communication and weather satellites?  Supporters of these 'alternative sciences' can't provide info on how to do even fundamental computations of things such as the fuel requirements of a rocket to make it to a given orbit, or even estimate how much radiation the crew might receive.  If our children can't do that, then how can they maintain these critical national infrastructures, much less be leaders in the exploration of space?


Siggy_G said...

Interesting site by NASA with lots of info. Though, as probably expected, I’ll respond to this claim in your blog post:

“Supporters of these 'alternative sciences' [herby Electric Universe] can't provide info on how to do even fundamental computations of things such as the fuel requirements of a rocket to make it to a given orbit (…)”

One could surely provide info on it, and still hire a mathematician/engineer for the specific job position regardless of what cosmological model a future version of NASA used for data interpretation. Electric Universe supporters don’t refute that one needs people with relevant qualifications to specific job positions, don’t refute the effect of gravity within our solar system and surely wouldn’t refute the calculations needed for the amount of fuel required of a rocket for any given purpose (why the claim?). Does the Big Bang model itself have anything to do with rocket fuel calculations? Awaiting this kind of info from a cosmology, is like complaining that the political model utilized for a given society doesn’t provide detailed info on how to buy equipment at the office – or under which budget post to file it under. Also, the Electric Sun model doesn’t refute the amount of radiation emitted by the Sun (which could be used for calculation of radiation shielding) – but it has another take on the processes behind it, as you know. I understand you like to make a point, and underline the importance of mathematical calculation within engineering, but I don’t see how that is applicable as a general criticism towards the Electric Universe theory (supporters)?

W.T."Tom" Bridgman said...

Sorry. Blogspot classified this comment as spam and it didn't show up in the unmoderated comments count, so I only just today looked in that section.

The fallacy in this reasoning is that the science we use to build technologies is somehow different from the science we use to understand the universe. Creationists try to make a similar distinction ("Real" Science vs. "Cosmological" and "Origins" Science, The Cosmos In Your Pocket: Expanded & Revised)

The analyses of gravity that suggest there is undetected ("Dark") matter use the same equations we use to compute the trajectories sending spacecraft to other planets. We apply the same Newtonian force laws as well (in non-relativistic cases).

Where do you think these techniques and equations actually come from??? How did we know how to compute orbits before we ever launched a satellite?