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NASA and the Ghosts of Explorers Past

Shadow Figure, image credit: Sworddancer Krusnik @ DeviantArt.com

By Michael Robinson and Dan Lester

NASA has always stood at the fulcrum of the past and future. It is the inheritor of America’s expeditionary legacy, and it is the leading architect of its expeditionary path forward. Yet the agency has found it hard to keep its balance at this fulcrum. Too often, it has linked future projects to a simplistic notion of past events. It has reveled in, rather than learned from, earlier expeditionary milestones. As NASA considers its future without the Constellation program, it is time to reassess the lessons it has drawn from history.

Statue of the 1804 Discovery Corps party, Kansas City, MO.

For example, when U.S. President George W. Bush unveiled the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) in 2004, the administration and NASA were quick to link it to the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, stating in the vision: “Just as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark could not have predicted the settlement of the American West within a hundred years of the start of their famous 19th century expedition, the total benefits of a single exploratory undertaking or discovery cannot be predicted in advance.” In Lewis and Clark, NASA saw a precedent for the Vision for Space Exploration: a bold mission that would offer incalculable benefits to the nation.

Yet this was a misreading of the expedition. The Lewis and Clark expedition did not leave a lasting imprint on Western exploration. The expedition succeeded in its goals, to be sure, but it failed to communicate its work to the nation. The explorers’ botanical collections were destroyed en route to the East Coast, their journals remained long unpublished, and the expedition was ignored by the press and public for almost a century. In 1809, 200 years ago last September, a despondent Lewis took his own life. NASA might do well to reflect on this somber anniversary in addition to the more positive one used to announce the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004. Doing exploration, Lewis reminds us, often proves easier than communicating its value or realizing its riches.

Robert Peary in Battle Harbor. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

NASA should also remember the anniversary of Robert Peary’s expedition to reach the North Pole, completed a century ago last September. Peary’s expedition, like the ones envisioned by the Vision for Space Exploration, was a vast and complicated enterprise involving cutting-edge technology (the reinforced steamer Roosevelt) and hundreds of personnel. Peary saw it as “the cap & climax of three hundred 300 years of effort, loss of life, and expenditure of millions, by some of the best men of the civilized nations of the world; & it has been accomplished with a clean cut dash and spirit . . . characteristically American.”

Yet Peary’s race to the polar axis had little to offer besides “dash and spirit.” Focused on the attainment of the North Pole, his expedition spent little time on science. When the American Geographical Society (AGS) published its definitive work on polar research in 1928, Peary’s work received only the briefest mention. Indeed, the Augustine committee’s statement that human exploration “begin should begin with a choice of about its goals – rather than a choice of possible destinations” would have applied itself equally well to the race to the North Pole as it does the new did recent plans to race to the Moon.

Galileo's illustrations of the Moon, taken from telescopic observations, Siderius Nuncius, 1610.

But the most important anniversary for NASA to be considering is the recent 400th anniversary of Galileo’s publication of “Sidereus Nuncius” (“Starry Messenger”), a treatise in which he lays out his arguments for a Sun-centered solar system. Was Galileo an explorer in the traditional sense? Hardly. He based his findings upon observations rather than expeditions, specifically his study of the Moon, the stars, and the moons of Jupiter. Yet his telescopic work was a form of exploration, one that contributed more to geographical discovery than Henry Hudson’s ill-fated voyage to find the Northwest Passage made during the same year. Galileo did not plant any flags in the soil of unknown lands, but he did something more important: helping to topple Aristotle’s Earth-centered model of the universe.

As NASA lays the Constellation program to rest, the distinction between “expedition” and “exploration” remains relevant today.While new plans for human space flight will lead to any number of expeditions, it doesn’t follow that these will constitute the most promising forms of exploration. Given our technological expertise for virtual presence – an expertise that is advancing rapidly – exploration does not need to be the prime justification for human space flight anymore.

The Augustine committee has shown the courage to challenge the traditional view of astronauts as explorers in its “Flexible Path” proposal, a plan to send humans at first into deep space, perhaps doing surveillance work on deep gravity wells, while rovers conduct work on the ground. Critics have derisively called it the “Look But Don’t Touch” option, one that will extend scientific exploration even if it does not include any “Neil Armstrong moments.”

Yet perhaps 2010 is the year when we challenge the meaning of “exploration.” For too long, NASA has been cavalier about this word. Agency budget documents and strategic plans continue to use it indiscriminately as a catch-all term for any project that involves human space flight. Yet this was not always the case. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, the formal constitution of the agency, doesn’t mention the word in any of the eight objectives that define NASA’s policy and purpose. Rather, NASA’s first directive is “the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.”

Geysers in the southern hemisphere of Enceladus, photographed by Cassini spacecraft, 27 November 2005

Perhaps the best way forward, then, starts with a more careful look back. The world has changed since Lewis and Clark, with technology that would have stunned the young explorers. In the year of “Avatar,” we need to think differently about the teams who direct rovers across the martian landscape, pilot spacecraft past the geysers of Enceladus and slew telescopes across the sky. These technologies are not static in their capabilities, nor as are the humans who control them. Their capabilities advance dramatically every year, and the public increasingly accepts them as extensions of our intellect, reach, and power. As Robert Peary’s quest for the North Pole illustrates, toes in the dirt (or in his case, ice) don’t necessarily yield new discoveries.

Of course robots and telescopes can’t do everything. A decision that representatives of the human species must, for reasons of species survival, leave this Earth and move to other places would make an irrefutable case for human space flight. But that need has never been an established mandate. It isn’t part of our national space policy. As we celebrate NASA’s 50th anniversary, NASA begins its sixth decade, do we have the courage to look beyond our simplistic notions of exploration’s past to find lasting value in the voyages of the future?

Michael Robinson is an assistant history professor at the University of Hartford’s Hillyer College in Connecticut. Dan Lester is an astronomer at the University of Texas, Austin.

This essay appears here courtesy of Space News where it was published on 8 February 2010.

The Death of the Constellation Program

Orion Crew Capsule Parachute Test, 31 July 2008. The chute failed to open properly.

Obama’s 2010 budget proposal is a radical document. Not because it runs the biggest federal deficit in American history ($1.53 trillion). Posting record deficits has become commonplace since Reagan started doing it in the 1980s. No, it is radical because it tries something new: killing off a multi-billion dollar NASA program that has strong support in Congress.

Constellation grew out of President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, which he announced shortly after the Columbia Shuttle disaster of 2003. Bush’s plan was visionary: a plan to design and build boosters and spacecraft capable of returning astronauts to the Moon and, ultimately, Mars.

But visionary does not equal smart. The Constellation Program failed because it fell into the same trap that Apollo did in the 1970s: it was a massively expensive public program that, while symbolically impressive, lacked practical, real-world benefits that could match its $97 billion price tag (GAO-estimated cost through 2020).

Launch of Apollo 11. 16 July 1969

Indeed, the Constellation Program was so colossal that it stood poised to suck the life out of every other NASA initiative, particularly space science projects that did not require humans, crew modules, or moon buggies to conduct research.

The technology of the Constellation Program may have been new but the arguments were old, a list of reasons for pursuing human space flight that have been used to justify missions for the past forty years:

1. Human space flight is an extension of humanity’s quest to explore and therefore cannot, and should not, be stopped. To do so would be to blunt human curiosity and deny human nature. In truth, exploration has been pursued for many reasons, of which curiosity has usually ranked low on the list. Even if we accepted, for the sake of argument, that an exploration impulse that is part of human nature, it still does not mean that we should obey this impulse. This is a classic “naturalistic fallacy” which says something is good because it is natural. Social Darwinists used this line of reasoning to justify poor treatment of workers and colonial subjects on the idea that survival of the fittest was natural and therefore should be allowed to run its course.

2. Human space flight will offer unforeseen benefits to science and technology. This may be true. Or maybe not. It’s hard to say really because proponents admit that any benefits are unforeseen. Still it seems an odd toss-of-the-dice way to spend public money. Would we trust a general who defended his plan of attack on the unforeseen possibilities of victory? Would shareholders trust a company selling products with unforeseen potentials of profit?

3. If we abandon human space flight, we will soon be outpaced by the China, Russia, India, [insert developing industrial nation] in the space race. The United States did gain prestige from landing astronauts on the moon in 1969, showing up our Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. But how much did that prestige, or “soft power” actually benefit the United States? Prestige did not stop the Vietnam War, or the Arab Oil Embargo, or the onset of stagflation. How much, then, is this type of prestige worth in the post-Cold War Age, a time when the United States is, arguably, supposed to reap the benefits of belonging to a multilateral world? What does the United States gain in winning the space race against China when they are losing the economic race to China back on Earth?

4. Human space flight is the first step in the human settlement of space, a process vital to continuation of the species. The idea that astronauts are really 21st century pioneers is a romantic one, but unrealistic. Going to the moon (or Mars) is a lot easier than settling there. Perhaps the real question here is why proponents of space settlement are so willing to give up on planet Earth? Global warming? Nuclear war? Overpopulation? This begs the question: if we cannot take care of a 197 million square mile habitat that’s free, self-regulating, and self-sustaining, what makes us think that we’re going to do any better on multi-billion dollar artificial habitats on other planets?

Settlements on Mars

It’s time for NASA to think differently about space exploration. The Obama budget requests $18 billion for the agency over the next five years, an increase from the current budget. Now NASA has the time and the money to think about new ways of moving forward. Bravo to the Obama Administration for forcing the issue.

Why We Need a New History of Exploration

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806.

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806.

Today, just some announcements:

Common-Place, the online history journal,  just published my article, “Why We Need a New History of Exploration.” You can read it here.

SciCafe, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is presenting “Darwin on Facebook: How Culture Transforms Human Evolution” a presentation by anthropologist Peter Richerson.  “SciCafe features cutting-edge science, cocktails, and conversation and takes place on the first Wednesday of every month. For more information, please visit amnh.org/scicafe

The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) opens its new exhibition Hidden Histories of Exploration today in London. The exhibition website is worth checking out. I hope to be doing a more extensive write-up of the exhibition (and curator Felix Driver) soon.

The Explorer Gene

explorer gene

In 1987, Dr. C. Robert Cloninger created the Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire (TPQ). Despite its unique, Star-Trekian name, Cloninger’s TPQ entered a crowded field of personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the Enneagram, and the Oxford Capacity Analysis (OCA).

Spock administers the Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire

Spock administers the TPQ to Captain Kirk

The TPQ distinguished itself  in two respects.

First, it came from a trusted source within the medical establishment. Cloninger, a medical doctor and professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, developed the TPQ from clinical research.

Second, Cloninger’s test made claims about the genetic origin of behavioral differences. Specifically, it argued that important aspects of personality are heritable, that our temperament grows out of genetic factors as much environmental ones.

As Cloninger sees it, the route from gene to expressed behavior follows a path laid down by neurotransmitters, particularly seritonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.  The three dimensions of the TPQ (which measure harm avoidance, reward dependency, and novelty seeking) correspond to different sensitivities in these three neurotransmitters.

Cloninger’s TPQ, now somewhat modified, remains controversial within the field of psychology. Some studies confirm a link between personality assessment and neurotransmitter sensitivity while others do not.  In 1996, two studies in the United States and Israel found a correlation between a high proclivity for novelty seeking and a longer sequence in the D4 dopamine receptor gene.

Scientists hypothesized that the added length of the D4Dr sequence made certain individuals particularly sensitive to changes in dopamine. High levels of dopamine — secreted in moments of pain, pleasure, or excitement — would lead to an intense high. By contrast, moderate levels of dopamine would leave the long D4Dr individual feeling depressed.

Novelty seeking, then, was not simply an acting out against one’s parents or the product of a mid-life crisis. It was long-D4Dr individuals’ attempts to self-medicate: to BASE jump, drag race, and free climb their way to their next rush of dopamine.

The discovery of the long D4Dr gene in 1996 captured popular attention. Was exploratory behavior more a matter of genes than life experience?  Did Lord Byron chase maids and attack Turks because of a mutation on his 11th chromosome? Was Columbus’s discovery of America an elaborate attempt to get high?

Such genetic arguments are simplistic. Recent studies have brought the TPQ test and the D4Dr-novelty seeking link into question. Moreover, as Maria Coffey points out in her book, Explorers of the Infinite, many of the riskiest activities — such as high altitude mountain climbing – come with long periods of drudgery. If high-risk activity is the key to unlocking an individual’s neuro-chemical Valhalla, the long D4Dr adventurer would do better working as a day-trader on Wall Street or playing the $500 tables in Atlantic City.

casino_table

What’s more interesting to me is idea that “exploratory behavior” is an impulse beyond our control. This is a distinctly modern idea, though one that expressed itself somewhat differently in the 19th century. At that time, polar explorers called it “Arctic fever” a metaphor that was appropriate for an era afflicted by contagious disease. I find it interesting that late 20th century audiences have placed this impulsive, cannot-be-reasoned-with desire for danger within the human genome.

One might argue that the idea of the D4Dr is rooted in modern scientific research, that it represents something real rather than the 19th century’s metaphor of “fevers.” Still this doesn’t explain why talk of the explorer gene continues today even after the scientific evidence has left it behind.

For example, the dopamine-craving would-be adventurer can still join the D4Dr Club which bills itself as  “the ultimate social club for adventure seekers of all types.”

No genetic testing is necessary. If you have an elongated D4DR, you probably know it. Be proud of it! Flaunt it! Whatever your ‘thing’ is – Adventure Travel, Extreme Sports or if you just like an adrenaline rush.

Membership benefits include a newsletter, inclusion in studies about the D4Dr gene, and a discount on flak jackets.



the ultimate social club for adventure seekers of all typesthe ultimate social club for adventure seekers of all ty

Polar Hoaxes and Lost Worlds

cook and peary

A century ago this week Robert Peary and Frederick Cook locked horns in the  “The North Pole Controversy,” an epic media battle that dominated news on both sides of the Atlantic for months.  For readers it became a scandalous and impossibly compelling story, a post-Victorian Jon vs. Kate with furs and dogs.

John Tierney

John Tierney

John Tierney took up the story in the New York Times yesterday morning. To Tierney’s credit, he avoids the temptation to spend his entire column regaling the reader with evidence of Peary or Cook’s rightful attainment of the Pole. (He does take a position: neither man made it).

Instead he takes an interesting behavioral, rather than historical, approach to the question: why do the supporters of both explorers defend their man against all reasonable arguments? The answer, he argues, is that they become psychologically (perhaps neurochemically) committed to their candidate in a manner that is hard to alter. The use of the word “candidate” here is intentional since Tierney reports that this phenomenon is well measured in people supporting politicians and political parties.

Map of the "lost world" of Mount Bosavi

Map of the "lost world" of Mount Bosavi

Also reported yesterday was the discovery of a “lost world” in Papau New Guinea. A team of scientists (big discoveries always follow sentences that begin with ”A team of scientists…”) discovered a unique, pristine ecosystem in the crater of Mount Bosavi. The team found more than forty new species, including the world’s smallest parrot, the world’s largest rat, and a herd of grazing brontosauruses. (I’m making up the rat part).

The use of ‘Lost World’ is an interesting way to  describe this ecosystem  not simply because it conjures images of Jurassic Park, Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel of the same name, and a whole genre of early twentieth-century adventure books, but because it’s not an obvious (and therefore not an unconscious) description of Mount Bosavi.

Accounts of the volcano, its geographical and biogeographical riches, have been appearing for forty years in academic journal (see for example Records of the South Australian Museum 15 (1965): 695-6;  Mammals of New Guinea (1990): 236) and even further back in popular literature. Jack Hides and other Australians were writing about the Mount Bosavi in the 1930s.

Bosavi Woolly Rat, photo credit: Jonny Keeling

Bosavi Woolly Rat, photo credit: Jonny Keeling

But “Lost World” sounds better than “Relatively Unknown Ecosystem” especially if it’s timed to coincide with a 3-part BBC Special on the expedition (titled “Lost Land of the Volcano”). Perhaps these are the necessary evils of science reporting in the digital age, a realm in which writers have two or three seconds to convey meaning and produce interest. Maybe these are the white lies required to raise the profile of meaningful and interesting projects. “Lost Land of the Volcano” pulled in 4.1 million viewers last night, an 18% share. Maybe the title of this post should be “Cow-Sized Rat Kills Cannibal, Saves Scientist.”


Where No ENFP Has Gone Before, Part II

brain

(For Part I, go here)

I first took the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) when I was a junior in high school. This was a good time to take it since, like most sixteen-year-olds, I was self-absorbed enough to think I should spend more time trying to figure myself out.

The test labeled me as an ENTP: Extroversion, Intuition, Thinking, Perceiving.

I was a clear extrovert, someone who Jung describes as gaining energy from the world around them, or in my case, trying to set fire to the world around them. Introverts like Jung find energy through reflection. Thinking first, acting second. An interesting idea.

I also tested strongly intuitive, or as the MBTI would observe, I gathered information as concepts and abstract patterns rather than as concrete, immediate facts available to the senses.

One axiom of the MBTI is that personality types are stable, more or less. As this idea goes, the psyche sets up basic patterns of gathering, interpreting, and acting on information quite early, by age three or four.

Yet critics of the MBTI such as Paul Matthews point out that people who take the test often get different answers. My testing history confirms this as well. In high school, the MBTI tagged me as a thinker rather than feeler,  deciding issues on logical and consistent premises.

When I took the test again last week, I had swung over to the feeling side of the spectrum, making decisions based upon personal association or empathy more than general principles. That a person’s psychological type seems squishy, mutable over time, is one of many criticisms leveled at the MBTI, one that challenges its claim to measure meaningful psychological differences.

Still, my MBTI evaluation has been stable other than that, particularly in the final category of  perceiving/judging which evaluates how people process information. Strongly judging individuals tend to like settling matters and, as a result, gather information in order to make decisions and tie up loose ends.

Those with strong perceiving tendencies (of which I am one) gather information like rodents in November, amassing it without end. Perceivers are the hoarders of ideas, stowing and revising them even though it keeps things unsettled. They have messy desks.

Driving on Rt 6 in Wellfleet last week, my wife Michele (an INFJ)  wondered how her students might type characters in her lit courses. Ahab would have to be an INTJ. The Great Gatsby? ESFP I think.

The conversation brought me back to a post I wrote last year about The Explorer Type.  At the time, I was thinking about how certain explorers, such as Roy Chapman Andrews and Louis Leakey, took on similar cultural personae: popular outsiders who contributed to, but were not a part of, the academic establishment.

Was there something deeper here? A psychological type that lay behind the public persona?  The ENTP personality type (Extrovert, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving) is often labeled “The Inventor-Explorer.” Other analyses of Myers-Briggs tag INTP (Introvert, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceving) as the rightful home of this type. Yet what spotty data exists on this subject shows that real explorers, such Chuck Yeager and Alan Shepard, test as ISTPs (Introvert, Sensing, Thinking, Perceiving).

Alan Shepard

Alan Shepard

Then again, test pilots and astronauts offer a narrow field of explorers. Reading Goethe and ranging over the mountains of South America, would Alexander von Humboldt have been an ISTP? Never. An ENTP if ever there was one.

Nor should the military discipline and technical demands of modern spaceflight necessarily point to controlled, process-oriented types such as ISTPs. The world’s most famous astronaut is a confirmed ENFP.

James Kirk: A Confirmed ENFP

An ENFP seeks out new worlds.

See for yourself.

Take a quick MBTI assessment here.

Type profiles are available here.

Other posts on exploration and personality:

What Kind of Explorer Are You?

Call Me Starbuck

Maybe I Was Wrong

Where No ENFP Has Gone Before, Part I

blue-cosmos

Myers-Briggs personality assessments are sprouting up everywhere on Facebook this week. For those who don’t know what this is, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is the most widely used personality profile in the United States, a favorite tool of career planners, team-builders, and guidance counselors.

Isabel Briggs Myers

Isabel Briggs Myers

Brain child of Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers, the MBTI divides the human psyche in four separate areas, each one of which has two different tendencies or dichotomies:

Extraverion (E)/Introversion (I)
Intuition (N)/Sensation (S)
Thinking (T) /Feeling (F)
Judging (J) /Perceiving (P)

There is nothing obvious about these psychic divisions. In truth, the categories of the MBTI were long in the making. In the early 1920s, Briggs was experimenting with a number of different categories for explaining the diversity of human behavior. More specifically, she was interested in explaining the strange, unBriggs-like behavior of her new son-in-law.

Then Myers read Carl Jung’s Psychological Types in 1923 and psychometric light bulbs started to go off in her head.  Jung’s system seemed perfectly suited for creating a system of personality profiles.  This is probably because Jung had his own strange in-law to explain, former mentor and father-figure Sigmund Freud.

Carl Jung (lower right) and Sigmund Freud (lower left), 1908

Carl Jung (lower right) and Sigmund Freud (lower left), 1908

Freud, Jung observed, gained energy by focusing on the outside world, a process that Jung called extraversion. Jung, however, was different. He found succor looking inward. (As a boy Jung spent his days writing secret messages to a mannequin carved on the end of his ruler). These were not neuroses, he thought, as much as they were different expressions of personality (though Jung does make one wonder).

Indeed, Jung felt that the spectrum of introversion and extraversion expressed a key dichotomy in western thought, one that dated back to the different approaches of Plato, who usually sought truth inwardly through the world of ideas, and Aristotle, who looked for reality in the phenomena of the world around him.

All of this is to say that the roots of the MBTI go deep. By the 1940s, Myers had expanded on Jung’s types and established a test that could be used for commercial application. Since then the MBTI has rocketed into mainstream culture, used to profile everyone from religious seminarians to astronauts.

Next Post: MBTI and the Explorer Type

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