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Thursday, August 09, 2012

"Curiosity" Driven Science

The engineers and technicians have done their job, and what a fantastic job they did! "Curiosity" is now on the surface of Mars and it's time for the science to begin.

Have you been wondering about the scientific mission? The search for life is getting all the publicity but, let's face it, the chances of success are slim.

What about the other missions? Rebecca Ghent of the Dept. of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto explains why she's interested in the data that "Curiosity" will collect [Curiosity: planetary science and the latest Mars mission].
One of the things I'm interested in is the physical characteristics of planetary regoliths - the surface layer of broken rock, dust, etc., that covers planetary surfaces. It's important to understand how this layer formed and has evolved, because it holds a record of the geological processes that have occurred on each planet. Mars has a very complex surface geological record involving the actions of wind, volcanism, impact cratering, and possibly, water; so this new information about the composition and physical characteristics of the rocks at the Curiosity landing site will provide valuable new insights into the roles of these various processes in forming Mars' surface rocks.
For scientists, the best is yet to come. I hope the science journalists can keep the public focused on the real mission and the importance of the data.


  1. What? You can't learn about the surface of Mars by reading the Bible? I'm shocked.

  2. I don't think the chances of finding life on Mars are "slim."

    I think they're basically incalculable. We don't know enough about the origin of life, or the chemistry and tectonics in Mars' ancient oceans (if they existed) to compute this probability.

    When it comes to talk about probabilities, odds, etc. we should admit when we can't compute the probability.

    Instead, people make different guesses by drawing different analogies. That's induction. When scientists talk to the public, they should clearly describe what analogies they're invoking and what induction they're using.

    It's become common for some (not Larry) to say: well, life emerged on earth. Therefore, any environment with our geochemistry, temperature, vulcanism etc. will produce life.

    That's not clear at all. Even if you reproduced identical geochemistry, temperature, vulcanism etc., you still don't know for sure that the odds of life emerging are 100%.

    You can't compute odds from one data point, which is us. (Well, you can put brackets on the probability, but that's mathematically complicated.)

  3. I thought the engineers and techinicians were also resposible from collecting the samples and maintaining the the data link to Curiosity.

    How do the the "real" scientists "take over" from then?

    1. Where did Larry say that 'the (sic) the "real" scientists "take over" from then (sic)' ?

      He did say that it was time for the science to begin, now that the primarily engineering phase of getting the Curiosity to the surface of Mars is over.

    2. And when did you become so pedantic?

      He wants the science journalists to focus on the "real mission" and, combined by with his opening sentence, implies that the technical acheivenment inherent in putting delicate scientific insturments on Mars wasn't part of the "real", scientific mission.

  4. At a guess, the scientists (who do not normally describe themselves as engineers) tell the engineers and technicians which samples, from where, and handled in what special way(s). They also take the raw data - which might look rather far from raw, what with the sophisticated analytical instruments on board the rover, and the transformations of things like emissions spectra that need to be done to come up with a number that makes some kind of sense - and analyze it.

    Data analysis involves much, much more than simply stating "the iron oxides here are different from the iron oxides over there", it's one of the main things a scientist does, and includes everything from quality control (are those numbers reliable? how precise is that measurement?) all the way to informed speculation about what those big-picture trends might mean in terms of where we want to go next.

    Short answer: the scientists "take over" when the data - a big ol' spreadsheet, probably - shows up on a computer screen on Earth.

    1. I know that data collection and data analysis are two different thing, but I was questioning Larry's assertion that the engineers and tenchicians need to step aside to let the "real" science be done. I still don't understand Larry's demarcation between "real" science and "applied" science, especially since he has such trouble with the standard demarcation between science and philosophy of science.

    2. I agree with TheBrummell: we have to wait for the data to be collected before the real science can begin.

  5. And how is the engineering that got the instruments there not "real" science?

    1. Because it's engineering. Which is not science.

      I'm not denying the importance of engineering (I trained as an engineer and switched to science later - I have great respect for people on both sides), but designing a system and understanding nature are different types of activities.

    2. Because it's engineering. Which is not science.


      It seems to me that several commenters don't have very coherent idea of how difficult the demarcation problem is.

  6. Like all of the very best high-impact science, this science is nearly entirely descriptive and free of hypothesis testing.