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Herschel & Planck [20090501|10:54]
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
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[the weather today is |srsly, WHAT.]

Last night I attended a lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS), not to be confused with the RAS (Royal Astronomical Society) about the forthcoming launch of two new European space telescopes, Herschel and Planck. The lecture was given by a programme director at the European Space Agency (ESA) and former Imperial professor.

Herschel's mirror outstrips Hubble's by almost a full meter in diameter and will be able to probe even further into deep space. Planck will map the entire sky for the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) at higher resolution than has been previously achieved. But that's not what I'm going to talk about. No, what I'm going to do here is have a bit of a rant about the manner in which the lecture was delivered. The speaker made a number of statements and jokes which, if I didn't have a well-developed sense of cynicism about the self-righteousness of senior scientists, would have caused me to walk out of the lecture. I present here a choice selection of them.

  1. Sir William Herschel, despite being born in Germany, should be considered British because of the unification of the crowns under George II.
    That's...an interesting perspective. Certainly he became a British citizen, but he was born German. Suppose that I become a British citizen during my lifetime. I may be an atypical American. I may even be an American with ambiguous feelings about nationalism. But I will still consider myself American. Besides, if we're going to use history in a selective manner to determine national identity, we could just as glibly claim that British people are actually all French or German.

  2. The French can't build plumbing that works, so they're getting the Poles in to do it.
    Please save the trite racist jokes for the BNP rally. They do not belong in science lectures, particularly science lectures that are aimed at a general audience.

  3. The slide which presented the joint missions ESA has with other space agencies omitted Cassini.
    Cassini is the highest profile outer planetary mission of the current decade. Given the speaker's failure to mention NASA, or indeed anything American, without being pejorative, however, I shouldn't be too surprised. see below.

  4. Americans believe they can run space missions that are Cheaper, Better and Faster, instead of understanding that they can only ever have two out of the three.
    Oh, how foolish to aspire to an ideal. Because everyone knows you only achieve things when you don't try.

[User Picture]From: helpful_mammal
2009-05-01 11:44 (UTC)

Agreement and disagreement

Technically Sir William Herschel was Hanoverian - Germany was a geographical region or an cultural-linguistic group but not a country at the time of his birth, although I suppose you could argue that as Hanover was part of the Holy Roman Empire, that made him 'German'. Still not British though, any more than the union of the crowns of England and Scotland made the English into Scots. So your speaker was being an idiot.

Better, Faster and Cheaper is a personal bugbear of mine. The company I work for is currently bleating that mantra. On this point I agree with your speaker that it's generally a nonsense. You can achieve something more efficient (better and faster and ultimately cheaper over the long term) but to try to achieve all three as a short term goal is usually only possible if your project starts off so poorly designed, unnecessarily slow, and overpriced to begin with that there are obvious improvements to be made across the board.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-05-05 18:50 (UTC)
I think the "short term goal" part is where industry differs from space agencies. All space missions are long term goals. The Herschel spacecraft, for instance, was first proposed in 1982. I bet twenty-seven years was long enough to achieve Better, Faster and Cheaper. In fact, I think all three are probably an inevitable consequence of the length of time it takes to develop a mission, given the number of technological advances that occur during the process to help them along.
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[User Picture]From: helpful_mammal
2009-05-06 08:04 (UTC)
Ah... fair point. By contrast, industry wouldn't recognise long term if it fell in a pit of venomous long term monsters and was sloely eaten to death.
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[User Picture]From: senusert
2009-05-01 13:42 (UTC)
He clearly hasn't left his office during the latter part of his career.

As to the last point...Kazuo Isiguru's latest novel is all about how much you can achiev without ever trying.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-05-04 11:35 (UTC)
Ha, too true. At least, not without his insulating bubble, which permits only transmission of auditory information.

To be fair, an awful lot of inspiration comes at oddly relaxed moments, when you aren't trying. However, I don't think those moments would arrive without a good deal of advance preparation for them, which involves trying rather hard.
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-05-01 20:34 (UTC)


I think I know who you're talking about, and I'm not surprised, I've seen some of his jokes already.

However, I believe it is not at all BNP-style intended. I just believe he thinks he has traveled a lot and understands well enough cultural differences in Europe to be able to joke about them, but he doesn't actually understand them well enough to be sure they're funny for everyone.

In particular his French/Polish plumbing joke is certainly a not-so-subtle reference to this story:
(de Villiers is nationalist, but that doesn't make him one)
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-05-05 18:52 (UTC)
Oh, I agree that it's unlikely that he's being deliberately racist. I do think, though, that he has a certain sense of British superiority that could use tempering with grace and tact!
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[User Picture]From: nimoloth
2009-05-03 11:22 (UTC)
He sounds like one of those old-style old scientists with outdated, offensive views. Fortunately, they're a dying breed.
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[User Picture]From: nanila
2009-05-04 11:32 (UTC)
That is comforting, yes. Most younger scientists seem to be fairly aware that, given the growing diversity of the community, making such cracks with an unfamiliar audience constitutes a risk of causing serious offense.
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