Tuesday, September 26, 2006

One small step: NASA’s first date with China

Here’s my latest latest article for muse@nature.com, pondering on the implications of the visit by NASA’s Mike Griffin to China. (There’ll be a few differences due to editing, and this version also has handy links in the text.)

NASA’s visit to China is overdue – the rest of the world got there long ago.

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship. That, at least, is how the Chinese press seems keen to portray the visit this week by NASA’s head Mike Griffin, who is touring Beijing and Shanghai, at the invitation of Chinese president Hu Jintao, to “become acquainted with my counterparts in China and to understand their goals for space exploration.” China Central Television proudly proclaims “China, US to boost space cooperation”, while China Daily reports “China-US space co-op set for lift-off.”

But Griffin himself is more circumspect. “It’s our get-acquainted visit, it’s our exploratory visit and it’s our first date”, he told a press conference, adding “There are differences between our nations on certain key points” – unsurprisingly, for example, the control of missiles. He stressed shortly before the visit that he did not want to “create expectations that would be possibly embarrassing to us or embarrassing to China.”

Griffin’s caution is understandable, since this is after all the first visit by a NASA administrator, and he confessed before the trip that he did not know much about China’s capabilities in space. But why did it take them so long? After all, China has well established joint space projects with Europe, Russia and Brazil, and is one of only three nations to have put people into space.

Rising star

NASA’s Chinese jaunt is not entirely out of the blue. The administrator of the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA), Sun Laiyan, visited Griffin’s predecessor Sean O’Keeffe at the end of 2004 on a similar introductory mission, a year after the first Chinese manned spaceflight. US space scientists were given a wake-up call last April when CNSA’s vice administrator Luo Ge revealed the extent of China’s space plans at the National Space Symposium in Colorado. These included the possibility of a manned moon shot.

And the full reality of Chinese capabilities became evident to US congressman Tom Feeney on a visit to China in January as part of Congress’s China Working Group. He and his colleagues saw the Jiuquan satellite launch centre in Gansu province at first hand. “In the United States, we’re training aerospace engineers how to maintain 20 to 40-year old technology”, said Feeley. “The Chinese are literally developing new technology on their own.”

There can be no remaining doubt that China is a serious player in space technology, however much it is a latecomer to the party. Griffin admits that “China has clearly made enormous strides in a very short period”. The ‘can-do’ philosophy apparent in China’s domestic industrial and engineering schemes, pursued with a determination that can appear little short of ruthless, will surely be sounding alarms within the US space industry.

All of which makes it strange that a NASA trip to China has been so long in coming.

Enemy at the gate

The reticence must be due in large measure to the fact that China has long been regarded as a rival rather than a collaborator. China’s desires to become involved in the International Space Station (ISS) have previously been stymied by the USA, for example. In 2001 Dana Rohrabacher, chair the space and aeronautics subcommittee of the House of Representatives, told journalists that he was not interested in Chinese offers to pay for ISS hardware, because of the country’s human-rights record. “The space station’s supposed to stand for something better,” he said, after seeking help from countries including the United Arab Emirates.

The real reasons for a US reluctance to engage with China over space technology must include a considerable dose of Cold War paranoia, especially now that China is emerging as such a strong player. Griffin himself says that Russian involvement with the ISS also initially met with some resistance, although now it’s clear that the space station would have been doomed without it.

The current talks of cooperation do not necessarily signal a lessening of that scepticism, but are possibly boosted by a mixture of realpolitik and economics. Since China is going ahead at full steam with its links to the space programs of Russia and Europe, the US could risk creating a powerful competitor if it doesn’t join in. And preventing US companies from exporting technologies to the most rapidly growing space program in the world threatens to undercut their own competitiveness. In fact, one of the obstacles to such trade is the question of China’s readiness to observe patents and copyrights.

But why has the US position on collaboration with China differed so much from that in Europe? Vincent Sabathier, previously Space Attaché at the French Embassy in the US, says that it comes down to a fundamental difference in attitudes to international relations: the US adopts a ‘realist’ stance based on opposed national interests, while European states have a more liberal approach that favours international dialogue and partnership. “While the US places an emphasis on space power and control, Europe maintains that its focus is on the peaceful use of outer space”, Sabathier says.

Power of partnerships

This has been reflected in Europe-China collaborations on satellite technology, such as the Galileo global-positioning system, intended for civilian use. Some Americans were unhappy that this threatened the hegemony of the US-controlled Global Positioning System, which has a large military component. The close links between the US space and military programs have hindered trade of its space technologies with China because of military export controls, whereas in Europe the issues are largely decoupled (Europe maintains a rather precarious arms embargo on trade with China). “The US’s isolationist policy forces other space-faring nations, such as Europe, Japan, Russia, India and China, to cooperate among themselves”, Sabathier asserts.

Fears about how China plans to use its space capabilities cannot be wholly dismissed as paranoia, however. China’s defence spending has increased in recent years, although it is notoriously cagey about the figures. Some worry that strengthening its military force is partly a move to intimidate Taiwan – an objective that could be bolstered by satellite technology. The fact remains, however, that China’s young space program doesn’t have the military legacy of NASA, fueled by an entire industry of defence-based aerospace. At this moment, it looks as though China’s space ambitions are driven more by national pride – by the wish to be seen as a technological world leader. That claim is becoming increasingly justified. Rather than worrying about losing technical secrets, China’s space collaborators seem now more likely to gain some handy tips.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Latest Lab Report

Here is my Lab Report column for the October issue of Prospect. And while I’m about it, I’d like to mention the excellent comment on Prospect’s web site about the shameful issue of Britain’s stance on the Trident nuclear submarines. Sadly, this kind of clear-headedness doesn’t find a voice in Westminster.


In-flight chemistry

It is not easy to make TNT, as I discovered by boiling toluene and nitric acid to no great effect during a school lunchtime. Admittedly it is not terribly hard either, if you have the right recipe, equipment and ingredients – the details can be found on the web, and the raw materials at DIY stores – but a little practical experience with chemistry provides some perspective on the notion of concocting an aircraft-busting explosive in the cabin toilet.

So it’s not surprising that some chemists have expressed doubts about the alleged terrorist plot to blow up transatlantic flights. Could two liquids really be combined to make an instant, deadly explosive?

Speculation has it that the plotters were going to mix up triacetone triperoxide (TATP), an explosive allegedly used in the London tube bombings last year. In principle this can be made from hydrogen peroxide (bleach), acetone (paint thinner) and sulphuric acid (drain cleaner). But like so much of chemistry, it’s not that straightforward. The ingredients have to be highly concentrated, so can’t easily be passed off as mineral water or shampoo. The reaction needs to be carried out at low temperature. And even if you succeed in making TATP, it isn’t dangerous until purified and crystallized. In other words, you’d be smuggling into the loo not just highly potent liquids but also a refrigerant and distilling apparatus – and the job might take several hours. Gerry Murray of the Forensic Science Agency of Northern Ireland told Chemistry World magazine that making TATP in-flight would be “extremely difficult.”

Why not just smuggle a ready-made liquid explosive on board? Some media reports suggested that the plotters intended instead to use bottled nitroglycerine. But you’d need a lot of it to do serious damage, and it is so delicate that it could well go off during check-in. The same is true for pure TATP itself (a solid resembling sugar), which is why the unconfirmed suggestion that it was used for the tube bombings has met with some scepticism.

What does this mean for the security measures currently in place? It is hard to understand the obsession with liquids and gels. It’s not clear, for example, that there is any vital component of any ‘mixable’ explosive that would be odourless and pass a ‘swig test’, let alone be feasibly used in flight to brew up a lethal charge. Why are solids not subject to the same scrutiny? Most explosives (including TATP) in any case emit volatile fumes that can be detected at very low concentrations.

When airports instigated the ‘no liquids’ policy in August, they were making an understandable quick response to a poorly known threat. But they now seem to be at risk of perpetuating a myth about how easy it is to do complex chemistry.

Moon crash

Smashing spacecraft into celestial bodies has become something of a craze among space scientists. In 1999 they disposed of the Lunar Prospector craft, at the end of its mission to survey the moon for water ice and magnetic fields, by crashing it into a lunar crater in the hope that the impact would throw up evidence of water visible from telescopes. (It didn’t.) The Deep Impact mission ploughed into the comet Tempel 1 last February, revealing a puff of ice hidden below the surface. A rocket stage used to send a new satellite to the moon in 2008 has been proposed for a more massive re-run of the Prospector experiment. And the THOR mission pencilled in for 2011 would send a 100-kg copper projectile crashing into Mars, creating a 50-m wide crater and possibly ejecting ice, organic compounds and other materials.

The most recent of these kamikaze missions is SMART-1, the European Space Agency’s moon-observing satellite, which ended its career on 3 September by smashing into the lunar Lake of Excellence. Again, the aim was to analyse images of the impact to identify the chemical composition of the debris, using the technique of spectroscopy. SMART-1 had already stayed active for longer than originally expected, and its experimental ion-thrust propulsion system was exhausted, making a lunar crash landing inevitable anyway. This was another case of wringing a last bit of value from a moribund mission. The disposal of a washing-machine-sized probe on the moon is hardly the most heinous act of fly-tipping – but it can’t be long before this trend starts to raise mutters of environmental disapproval.

Perhaps we can clear up the mess when we return to the moon. Lockheed Martin has recently been awarded the NASA contract to build the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, the replacement for the beleaguered space shuttle and the basis of a new manned moon shot. Scheduled for 2014 at the latest, Orion will ditch the airplane chic of the shuttle, comprising a single-use tubular rocket with a lunar lander and re-entry capsule in its tip, the latter provided with heat shield and parachutes. Lockheed Martin has presumably been working hard on this design, but cynics might suspect they just stole the idea from that film with Tom Hanks in it.

The Macbeth effect

Shakespeare’s insight into the human psyche is vindicated once again. The impulse to wash after committing an unethical act, immortalized in Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot!”, has been confirmed as a genuine psychological phenomenon. Two social scientists say that ‘cleansing-related words’ were more readily produced in exercises by subjects who had first been asked to recall an unethical deed. These subjects were also more likely to take a proffered antiseptic wipe – and, rather alarmingly, such physical cleansing seemed to expunge their guilt and make them less likely to show philanthropic behaviour afterwards. There is nothing particularly godly about cleanliness, then, which is a sign of a guilty conscience cheaply assuaged.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Unbelievable fiction

In telling us “how to read a novel”, John Sutherland in the Guardian Review (2 September 2006) shows an admirable willingness to avoid the usual literary snobbery about science fiction, suggesting that among other things it can have a pedagogical value. That’s certainly true of the brand of sci-fi pioneered by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, which took pride in the accuracy of its science. Often, however, sci-fi writers might appropriate just enough real science to make that aspect of the plot vaguely plausible – which is entirely proper for a work of fiction, but not always the most reliable way to learn about science. Even that, however, can encourage the reader to find out more, as Sutherland says.

Sadly, however, he chooses to use the books of Michael Crichton to illustrate his point. Now, Crichton likes to let it be known that he does his homework, and certainly his use of genetic engineering in Jurassic Park is perfectly reasonable for a sci-fi thriller: that’s to say, he stretches the facts, but not unduly, and one has to be a bit of a pedant to object to his reconstituted T. rexes. But Crichton has now seemingly succumbed to the malaise that threatens many pretty smart and successful people, in that they forget the limitations of that smartness. In Prey, Crichton made entertaining use of the eccentric vision of nanotechnology presented by Eric Drexler (self-replicating rogue nanobots), supplemented with some ideas from swarm intelligence, but one’s heart sank when it became clear at the end of the book that in fact Crichton believed this was what nanotech was really all about. (I admit that I’m being generous about the definition of ‘entertaining’ here – I read the book for professional purposes, you understand, and was naively shocked by what passes for characterisation and dialogue in this airport genre. But that’s just a bit of literary snobbishness of my own.)

The situation is far worse, however, in Crichton’s climate-change thriller State of Fear, which portrays anthropogenic climate change as a massive scam. Crichton wants us to buy into this as a serious point of view – one, you understand, that he has come to himself after examining the scientific literature on the subject.

I’ve written about this elsewhere. But Sutherland’s comments present a new perspective. He seems to accept a worrying degree of ignorance on the part of the reader, such that we are assumed to be totally in the dark about whether Crichton or his ‘critics’ (the entire scientific community, aside from the predictable likes of Bjorn Lomborg, Patrick Michaels, Richard Lindzen and, er, about two or three others) are correct. “No one knows the accuracy of what Crichton knows, or thinks he knows”, says Sutherland. Well, we could do worse than consult the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, composed of the world’s top climate scientists, which flatly contradicts Crichton’s claims. Perhaps in the literary world one person’s opinion is as good as another’s, but thankfully science doesn’t work that way. Sutherland’s suggestion that readers of State of Fear will end up knowing more about the subject is wishful thinking: misinformation is the precise opposite of information.

It isn’t clear whether or not he thinks we should be impressed by the fact that Crichton testified in 2005 before a US senate committee on climate change, but in fact this showed in truly chilling fashion how hard some US politicians find it to distinguish fact from fiction. (That State of Fear was given an award for ‘journalism’ by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists earlier this year was more nakedly cynical.)

Yes, fiction can teach us facts, but not when it is written by authors who have forgotten they are telling a story and have started to believe this makes them experts on their subject. That’s the point at which fiction starts to become dangerous.