It's not an arsenic-based life form … Oh, great. I get to be the wet blanket. There's a lot of news going around right now about this NASA press release and paper in Science — before anyone had read the paper, there was some real crazy-eyed speculation out there … Then the stories calmed down, and instead it was that they had discovered an earthly life form that used a radically different chemistry. I was dubious, even at that. And then I finally got the paper from Science, and I'm sorry to let you all down, but it's none of the above. It's an extremophile bacterium that can be coaxed into subsisting arsenic for phosphorus in some of its basic biochemistry. It's perfectly reasonable and interesting work in its own right, but it's not radical, it's not particularly surprising, and it's especially not extraterrestrial. It's the kind of thing that will get a sentence or three in biochemistry textbooks in the future. – ScienceBlogs
Dominant Social Theme: NASA is simply miraculous …
Free-Market Analysis: Big Science is beyond promotions, correct? We don't believe so. We think in this era of economic difficulty that those running Big Science projects are increasingly desperate. Recent announcements tell the tale. First there was the announcement that scientists at CERN had trapped antimatter – something that sounded like an outtake from Star Trek. Hard on the heels of this startling news was NASA's announcement that an alien life form had been discovered right here on earth.
Of course we can see from the article excerpted above that NASA's announcement, anyway, was perhaps a bit "over the top." But we are not surprised. NASA is a military enterprise and the generals in the Pentagon itself must be scheming night and day about how to keep the funding flowing. Discovering an alien life form certainly garners headlines and may change a mind or two on Capitol Hill. Here's how the story was reported in USA Today:
Arsenic and deep space? NASA scientists Thursday served up a poison-munching microbe as a model for life on alien worlds. Researchers report in the journal Science the discovery of a bacteria in a mud sample from California's salty Mono Lake that is the first-known organism to use arsenic in its basic metabolism and genes. The finding would add deadly arsenic to the six basic elements believed needed for life — carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur and phosphorus. The six elements are such a fundamental tenet of biochemistry that finding a critter living on arsenic was a big surprise. "It's doing something extraordinary," says team leader Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute in Menlo Park, Calif.
Being suspicious sorts, we see in this announcement a kind of pattern. NASA, especially, it seems, tends to exaggerate to make a point. Absent the Pentagon's need for money, we wonder just how much coverage this "discovery" would have gotten. In fact, if budget cuts were not looming, we wonder if this scientific episode would have been mentioned at all. The more we examine it, the more it seems like some sort of PR gambit – an academic analysis that has been spun into something much larger than it is.
We have the same feelings about the recent CERN announcement, though admittedly we cannot find any "debunking" articles on the Internet. We do have questions about the way the release was reported. The discovery was positioned as coming out of CERN, yet from what we can tell the mighty forces of CERN were not brought to bear on this anti-atom. In other words, the capture could have taken place anywhere. But no doubt for funding purposes, CERN was mentioned prominently in the release. Here another USA Today excerpt:
Sci-fi a reality: In a first, antimatter captured GENEVA: Scientists claimed a breakthrough on Thursday in solving one of the biggest riddles of physics, successfully trapping the first "anti-atom" that they hope will help them understand what happened to all of the antimatter created by the Big Bang. It's a real-life version of the immortal 'Star Trek' fantasy, where antimatter is crucial to speed the Starship Enterprise through the galaxy at warp drive, faster than the speed of light. The international team of physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, managed to create an atom of antihydrogen and then hold onto it for long enough to demonstrate that it can be studied in the lab.
It does seem to us that the real reason so much money has been invested in CERN has more to do with military applications than "pure research." We wonder if the various layers of CERN funding were to be stripped away, there would not remain a weapons' justification – a rationale having to do with building, say, another bomb.
We cannot however imagine why another bomb is necessary. Nuclear devices, increasingly miniaturized, already allow the potential for massive, almost unimaginable, destruction. Were this destruction made more efficient by anti-matter bombs, we are not sure it would make much difference. We do note, however, that this is a military-bureaucratic mindset. The bigger the weapon – and the more complex – the better. We note this in two recent releases pertaining to the war in Afghanistan.
The first release had to do with the Pentagon's decision to import tanks into Afghanistan to allow for more efficient targeting and destruction of hostile (Taliban) forces. We cannot, ourselves, imagine that the advent of tanks in Afghanistan will do anymore than use up additional fuel. Tanks are useful when an army is on the move – heading toward a certain destination. They allow an army to move quickly and overcome obstacles. But in this case there is no place for tanks to go – no destination – and no real obstacles to overcome either.
Then there is a new gun the army has rolled out, and which has received a good deal of press attention. It's called the XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement System. It's basically a programmable grenade launcher with microchipped ammunition. The gun can be programmed so the ammunition explodes behind the enemy target. However, when we researched the gun, we found out that it had been in development for a very long time because the bullets have a habit of exploding on launch.
There are other problems with this new weapon that army brass has termed a "game changer." The gun itself costs US$35,000 and the ammunition is costly as well. What stops enemy troops from setting off a decoy gun and then targeting the one or two individuals with these guns from another direction? In other words, do those who use these guns become targets themselves – as not very many will be deployed because of cost. And finally, can these guns be used everywhere? It sounds as if there are certain conditions, especially urban environments, where they will not be especially useful.
We have reviewed in this short article, four different (military) promotional efforts. One marvels at the expense of it all. We know how expensive CERN is (we've written about it in the past) and NASA lurches from one boondoggle to the next. When it comes to the war in Afghanistan, we hardly think either tanks or new super guns will turn the tide. Increasingly, the violence is angering 40 million Pashtuns and swelling the ranks of the Afghan Taliban.
Over time the kind of profligacy that has marked the Anglosphere's military projections may eventually prove too costly in an era of economic belt-tightening. The Pentagon in particular is not known for budgetary discipline and, in fact, still has not located about US$2 trillion that went missing at the beginning of this decade. Meanwhile, today's military programs – the ones like CERN and NASA – that are masquerading as civilian "science" efforts may soon prove unsupportable as well.
The war in Afghanistan itself is probably going to come to a conclusion not because of battlefield defeats but because the West is simply running out of money to project power so massively without tangible results. There are at least 700 American military bases around the world to support, and we wonder how long the Anglosphere will be able to project such power. Promotions cannot necessarily conjure up money in an era of "austerity." All the tanks and superguns won't change that reality.