Saturday, November 19, 2011

Two frustrating things at the Washington Post

One trivial, one more important.

1. Somewhat trivial, but still frustrating: The first line of this article on the new Mars mission that is hunting for life is "NASA’s most high-stakes, ambitious planetary mission in decades is scheduled to launch next week with a goal right out of science fiction: to learn whether Mars was, or ever could be, home to extraterrestrial life." Do these people even think before they put words to paper? What is "fictional" about this? We know tons about the spontaneous evolution of life on Earth. We know early Mars was a lot like early Earth. We look for life in all kinds of inhospitable places on this planet, and we certainly look for evidence of new types of earlier life because we know that this planet was able to support different kinds of life at different periods. Might science fiction use the possibility of extraterrestrial life to advance its plots? Sure. But it also uses romance and goal-fulfilling quests and even trade disputes to advance its plots. You wouldn't refer to a real-life trade dispute and say "that's right out of science fiction!" Why do this for the search for new life? It trivializes a very important effort. Some day we're going to find evidence of life outside of Earth somewhere. Hopefully it will be Mars and it will happen in the next decade. Mars is our best bet, after all, and if we don't find it there it might take a while longer. If we do find it there, I think it's going to dramatically change the way people think and talk about the universe. It's going to dawn on people how incomprehensibly small everything that we know and interact with on a daily basis is, how much more there is out there, and all the possibilities that that entails.

2. More important: William and Mary is considering ending in-state tuition levels as a result of declining state support. Ultimately the blame for this lies in Richmond, not Williamsburg, but its frustrating nevertheless. Strong public universities are an important advantage for Virginia, and an investment that the state government should take more seriously. I'm a third-generation Virginia public university graduate (along with my two sisters), and I would like to have the option to send my children to be a fourth generation. And this is something Kate and I have talked about too - staying in Virginia because of the schools. We like our options in D.C. anyway, but that has been a factor in long-term plans about whether to live here or Maryland, or whether to go somewhere else entirely. Once you make big public investments, you can coast on decisions in the past for a while, but if the state doesn't continue to invest in these institutions, some day we're going to lose a lot of the benefits.


  1. While I seldom read The Washington Post, and haven't read the issue to which you refer to, I have some things to say.

    On the public funding issue - ouch. Out of curiosity Daniel, have you attended state schools all your life, or no? I've attended private institutions all my life.

    Speaking of moving out though, have you been overseas? Would you want to work somewhere like say, Hong Kong, or Cape Town, or Paris, or London, or Edinburgh, or Singapore, or any major world city outside of North America?

  2. "We know tons about the spontaneous evolution of life on Earth."

    What exact "tons" do we know about this? As far as I can see, what we have is a whole series of models and scenarios that have attempted to describe how this might occur, but have totally failed when the rubber hit the road. Can you point us to anywhere that documents where these "tons" are known?


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