No End to “Tantalizing” Mysteries of Science

(p. A13) NASA’s Opportunity rover began its 15th year on Mars this week, although the intrepid robotic explorer may already be dead.
“I haven’t given up yet,” said Steven W. Squyres, the principal investigator for the mission. But he added, “This could be the end. Under the assumption that this is the end, it feels good. I mean that.”
The rover — which outlasted all expectations since its landing on Mars in 2004 and helped find convincing geological signs that water once flowed there — fell silent last June when it was enveloped by a global Martian dust storm. In darkness, the solar panels could not generate enough power to keep Opportunity awake.
. . .
Years ago, Dr. Squyres said no matter when the mission ended, he was sure that there would be some tantalizing mystery they would see just beyond reach.
On Thursday [January 24, 2019], he said that indeed seems to be the case. Opportunity was in the middle of exploring what looks like a gully that was formed by the flowing of water on ancient Mars. As expected, the gully looks eroded near the top, but the rover had not reached the bottom to look at where the sediments would have flowed.
The scientists had rejected some alternative hypotheses, but other ideas could also explain the landscape. “So far, the story is uncertain,” Dr. Squyres said. “The answer probably lies just down the hill.”

For the full story, see:

Kenneth Chang. “NASA’s Opportunity Rover May Have Reached Its End.” The New York Times (Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019): A13.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 25, 2019, and has the title “‘This Could Be the End’ for NASA’s Mars Opportunity Rover.”)

Ridiculed Nathan Myhrvold Perseveres on Asteroids and Is Vindicated

Nathan Myhrvold has also been ridiculed on his entrepreneurial patent clearinghouse (called Intellectual Ventures), and on his geoengineering solution to global warming.

(p. D1) Thousands of asteroids are passing through Earth’s neighborhood all the time. Although the odds of a direct hit on the planet any time soon are slim, even a small asteroid the size of a house could explode with as much energy as an atomic bomb.

So scientists at NASA are charged with scanning the skies for such dangerous space rocks. If one were on a collision course with our planet, information about how big it is and what it’s made of would be essential for deflecting it, or calculating the destruction if it hits.
For the last couple of years, Nathan P. Myhrvold, a former chief technologist at Microsoft with a physics doctorate from Princeton, has roiled the small, congenial community of asteroid scientists by saying they know less than they think about these near-Earth objects. He argues that a trove of data from NASA they rely on is flawed and unreliable.
. . .
(p. D4) Dr. Myhrvold’s findings pose a challenge to a proposed NASA asteroid-finding mission called Neocam, short for Near-Earth Object Camera, which would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars. A congressional committee that controls NASA’s purse strings just included $10 million more in a budget bill for the development of Neocam.
. . .
When Dr. Myhrvold made his initial claims, the Neowise scientists made fun of a few errors like an equation that mixed up radius and diameter.
“It is too bad Myhrvold doesn’t have Google’s bug-finding bounty policy,” Dr. Wright told Scientific American. “If he did, I’d be rich.”
Dr. Mainzer also said at the time, “We believe at this point it’s best to allow the process of peer review — the foundation of the scientific process — to move forward.”
. . .
Earlier this year, Icarus published Dr. Myhrvold’s first paper on how reflected sunlight affects measurements of asteroids at the shorter infrared wavelengths measured by WISE. It has now accepted and posted a second paper last month containing Dr. Myhrvold’s criticisms of the NASA asteroid data.
. . .
When the scientists reported their findings, they did not include the estimates produced by their models, which would have given a sense of how good the model is. Instead they included the earlier measurements.
Other astronomers agreed that the Neowise scientists were not clear about what numbers they were reporting.
“They did some kind of dumb things,” said Alan W. Harris, a retired NASA asteroid expert who was one of the reviewers of Dr. Myhrvold’s second paper.
Dr. Myhrvold has accused the Neowise scientists of going into a NASA archive of planetary results, changing some of the copied numbers and deleting others without giving notice.
“They went back and rewrote history,” he said. “What it shows is even this far in, they’re still lying. They haven’t come clean.”
Dr. Harris said he did not see nefarious behavior by the Neowise scientists, but agreed, “That’s still weird.”
. . .
Dr. Myhrvold said NASA and Congress should put planning for the proposed Neocam spacecraft on hold, because it could suffer from the same shortfalls as Neowise. “Why does it get to avoid further scrutiny and just get money directly from Congress?” he asked.

For the full story, see:
Kenneth Chang. “A Collision Over Asteroids.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 19, 2018): D1 & D4.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 14, 2018, and has the title “Asteroids and Adversaries: Challenging What NASA Knows About Space Rocks.”)

Hundreds of Years of CO2 Emissions Could Be Stored Forever in Oman’s Rocks

(p. A10) IBRA, Oman — In the arid vastness of this corner of the Arabian Peninsula, out where goats and the occasional camel roam, rocks form the backdrop practically every way you look.
But the stark outcrops and craggy ridges are more than just scenery. Some of these rocks are hard at work, naturally reacting with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into stone.
Veins of white carbonate minerals run through slabs of dark rock like fat marbling a steak. Carbonate surrounds pebbles and cobbles, turning ordinary gravel into natural mosaics.
Even pooled spring water that has bubbled up through the rocks reacts with CO2 to produce an ice-like crust of carbonate that, if broken, re-forms within days.
Scientists say that if this natural process, called carbon mineralization, could be harnessed, accelerated and applied inexpensively on a huge scale — admittedly some very big “ifs” — it could help fight climate change. Rocks could remove some of the billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that humans have pumped into the air since the beginning of the Industrial Age.
And by turning that CO2 into stone, the rocks in Oman — or in a number of other places around the world that have similar geological formations — would ensure that the gas stayed out of the atmosphere forever.
“Solid carbonate minerals aren’t going anyplace,” said Peter B. Kelemen, a geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who has been studying the rocks here for more than two decades.
Capturing and storing carbon dioxide is drawing increased interest. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that deploying such technology is essential to efforts to rein in global warming.
. . .
The rocks are so extensive, Dr. Kelemen said, that if it was somehow possible to fully use them they could store hundreds of years of CO2 emissions. More realistically, he said, Oman could store at least a billion tons of CO2 annually. (Current yearly worldwide emissions are close to 40 billion tons.)

For the full story, see:

Henry Fountain. “How Oman’s Rocks Could Help Save the Planet.” The New York Times (Saturday, APRIL 28, 2018: A10-A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date APRIL 26, 2018.)

Grünberg Found Useful Effect That Went Against Then-Dominant Theory

(p. A25) Peter Grünberg, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist who discovered how to store vast amounts of data by manipulating the magnetic and electrical fields of thin layers of atoms, making possible devices like the iPad and the smartphone, has died at 78.
. . .
Since the British physicist Lord Kelvin first wrote about the subject in 1857, it had long been known that magnetic fields could affect the electrical resistance of magnetic materials like iron. Current flowed more easily along the field lines than across them.
While this effect on electrical resistance was useful for sensing magnetic fields and, in electronic heads, reading magnetic disks, it amounted to only a small change in the resistance, and physicists did not think there were many prospects for improvement.
So it was a surprise in 1988 when groups led by Dr. Fert at the Laboratoire de Physique des Solides in Paris and by Dr. Grünberg found that super-slim sandwiches of iron and chromium that they had assembled showed large sensitivity to magnetic fields — or “giant magnetoresistance,” as Dr. Fert called it. The name stuck.
The reason for the effect has to do with what physicists call the spin of electrons — their somewhat mysterious ability to have an orientation in space. When the magnetic layers of the sandwich have both their fields pointing in the same direction, electrons whose spin points along that direction can migrate freely through the sandwich. Electrons that point in another direction, however, are scattered.
If, however, one of the magnetic layers is perturbed by, say, reading a small signal, it can flip its direction so that its field runs opposite to the other one; this dramatically increases the electrical resistance of the sandwich.
As Philip Schewe, of the American Institute of Physics, explained, “You’ve leveraged a weak bit of magnetism into a robust bit of electricity.”
Experts said the discovery was one of the first triumphs of the new field of nanotechnology, the ability to build and manipulate assemblies of atoms only a nanometer (a billionth of a meter) in size.

For the full obituary, see:
DENNIS OVERBYE. “Peter Grünberg, 78, Dies; Heart of Modern Gadgets Is Based on His Research.” The New York Times (Friday, April 13, 2018): A25.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date APRIL 12, 2018, and has the title “Peter Grünberg, 78, Winner of an ‘iPod Nobel,’ Is Dead.”)

Labor-Intensive Tinkering Can Advance Science

(p. A24) When John E. Sulston was 5 years old and growing up in Britain, the son of an Anglican priest, his parents sent him to a private school. There, he discovered, sports were his nemesis.
“I absolutely loathed games,” he said. “I was hopeless.”
When it came to schoolwork, he said, he was “not a books person.”
He had only one consuming interest: science. He liked to tinker, to figure out how things were put together.
. . .
The Nobel he received, shared with two other scientists, recognized the good data he amassed in his work on the tiny transparent roundworm C. elegans in an effort to better understand how organisms develop.
. . .
At the time, it was widely believed that the 558 cells the worm had when it hatched were all it would ever have. But Dr. Sulston noticed that, in fact, the worm kept gaining cells as it developed. And by tracing the patterns of divisions that gave rise to those new cells, he found, surprisingly, that the worm also lost cells in a predictable way. Certain cells were destined to die at a specific time, digesting their own DNA.
Dr. Sulston’s next major project was to trace the fate of every single cell in a worm. It was a task so demanding and labor-intensive that other scientists still shake their heads in amazement that he got it done.
Each day, bending over his microscope for eight or more hours, he would start with a worm embryo and choose one of its cells. He would then watch the cell as it divided and follow each of its progeny cells as, together, they grew and formed the organism. This went on for a total of 18 months.
In the end, he had a complete map of every one of the worm’s 959 cells (not counting sperm and egg cells).

For the full obituary, see:
GINA KOLATA. “John Sulston, 75; Tiny Worm Guided Him to Nobel.” The New York Times (Friday, March 16, 2018): A24.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date MARCH 15, 2018, and has the title “John E. Sulston, 75, Dies; Found Clues to Genes in a Worm.”)

“Science Didn’t Lie”

(p. 22) In the words of The Saturday Evening Post: “If America doesn’t keep out the queer, alien, mongrelized people of Southern and Eastern Europe, her crop of citizens will eventually be dwarfed and mongrelized in turn.”
According to Thomas C. Leonard, who teaches at Princeton, the driving force behind this and other such laws came from progressives in the halls of academia — people who combined “extravagant faith in science and the state with an outsized confidence in their own expertise.” “Illiberal Reformers” is the perfect title for this slim but vital account of the perils of intellectual arrogance in dealing with explosive social issues. Put simply, Leonard says, elite progressives gave respectable cover to the worst prejudices of the era — not to rabble-rouse, but because they believed them to be true. Science didn’t lie.
But barring undesirables was only half the battle; the herd also had to be culled from within. In 1907, Indiana became the first state to legalize forced sterilization, starting a landslide endorsed by progressive icons like Theodore Roosevelt and the birth control champion Margaret Sanger.

For the full review, see:
DAVID OSHINSKY. “No Justice for the Weak.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, March 20, 2018): 1 & 22-23.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 14, 2018, and has the title “‘Imbeciles’ and ‘Illiberal Reformers’.”)

The book under review, is:
Leonard, Thomas C. Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016.

The Role of Progressives in the Forced Sterilization of Thousands

(p. 22) Progressivism was always more than a single cause, however. Attracting reformers of all stripes, it aimed to fix the ills of society through increased government action — the “administrative state.” Progressives pushed measures ranging from immigration restriction to eugenics in a grotesque attempt to protect the nation’s gene pool by keeping the “lesser classes” from reproducing. If one part of progressivism emphasized fairness and compassion, the other reeked of bigotry and coercion.
“Imbeciles,” by Adam Cohen, the author of “Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America,” examines one of the darkest chapters of progressive reform: the case of Buck v. Bell. It’s the story of an assault upon thousands of defenseless people seen through the lens of a young woman, Carrie Buck, locked away in a Virginia state asylum. In meticulously tracing her ordeal, Cohen provides a superb history of eugenics in America, from its beginnings as an offshoot of social Darwinism — ­human survival of the fittest — to its rise as a popular movement, advocating the state-sponsored sterilization of “feeble­minded, insane, epileptic, inebriate, criminalistic and other degenerate persons.”

For the full review, see:
DAVID OSHINSKY. “No Justice for the Weak.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, March 20, 2018): 1 & 22-23.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 14, 2018, and has the title “‘Imbeciles’ and ‘Illiberal Reformers’.”)

The book under review, is:
Cohen, Adam. Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. New York: Penguin Press, 2016.