The coming release of The Hobbit in cinemas brings to mind a common mistake amongst astronomers (and the general public) when they come to the plural of “dwarf”.
Science is a global practice. It just so happens that most scientists have adopted English as lingua franca, requiring non-native speakers to be able to use it to communicate with the admittedly lazy native speakers.
On the face of it, English is not exactly a good choice for a universal language (of course, it wasn’t exactly chosen, but rather foisted upon much of the world during the colonial period, and the British Empire cemented its familiarity and use). Its history is the history of a perpetually invaded and embattled island kingdom.
The language is a heady mix of Germanic, Latin, Norse, French, and other invasive languages, evolving from a creole in the medieval period to the modern English we know today. As a result, it’s unmercifully bloated and obscure, with countless words, a partially collapsed declension system, no gender, a dizzying list of irregular verbs, and a baffling range of dialects and accents to confuse and terrify. The situation is made even worse thanks to neologisms, new words that enter the language at a rate of several thousand per year. Literature and other media makes their presence felt constantly (case in point, this year’s most famous neologism, omnishambles).
There are few pieces of literature with impact as great as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. While he was not responsible for the coining of the term, Tolkien adopted the plural “dwarves” for his fictional race of diminutive stonemasons, calling it
a piece of private bad grammar
The fact that this piece of bad grammar would be part of the third best-selling book of all time has understandably led some to accidentally use it (here’s an example from the Royal Astronomical Society’s own pages).
Am I pedantic? Absolutely. It doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence, only the length of the last syllable in one word. But I’ve accepted my fate as someone who’ll be frequently irritated by what I consider to be bad usage. There’s not much you can do about an evolving language, especially one as beaten up and malleable as English. Amongst native speakers, we can guess how quickly an irregular verb will regularise, and non-native speakers are developing an English variant that may soon be inaccessible to the native.
I’ll just need to focus my pedantry somewhere else…
I’ve been criminally remiss on this blog. I made my big screen debut in arenas all around Scotland, and I haven’t mentioned it at all!
Wish You Were Here? Searching for Exoplanets is a collaboration between scientists and artists led by Tania Johnston of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh’s Visitor Centre, funded by a Scottish Government Engagement Grant, with contributions from the Royal Society and the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance. Documentary film-making students at the Edinburgh College of Art were given a brief: to make a film about exoplanet research in Scotland.
After pitching their ideas to a judging panel (of which I was a member), two teams of two students were given the green light. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the University of St Andrews starred in the two films, which were recorded in late 2011 and early 2012.
The two films, “Into Deep Space” (in which I featured) and “Close Distance“, got their premiere at the Edinburgh Science Festival, and have been touring the country ever since. They’re certainly not the usual science documentary – the students have come at it from a very different angle, and it’s a refreshing take on the passion that scientists (and amateurs) have for their chosen field. And the judges have enjoyed it, also. “Into Deep Space” won an Honourable Mention at the Imagine Science Festival, and is nominated for several other prizes!
Most of the screenings have been attended by at least one member of the cast, to answer any questions the audience might have. The films have been shown all over Scotland – I’ve just come back from a screening on Orkney, as part of their Science Festival.
It’s been a real treat to see these films, and to see them go on tour and hear such favourable feedback. If you want to see them on the big screen, then there are plenty of opportunities: if you can’t wait, whet your whistle on the trailers at the links above, and come to the Peebles Science Festival tomorrow (Wednesday 19th). I’ll be there – feel free to come say hi! And if you see the films, let us know what you think: leave a comment, or tweet us with the hashtag #WYWHexoplanets.
It’s shaping up to be an important week for NASA. Their Mars Curiosity Rover should be touching dirt in Gale Crater by 0631 BST Monday. It’s a powerful beast, carrying about 10 times as much mass as its ancestors, powered by a plutonium-238 thermoelectric power generator. It will combine the camera mounts, six-wheel drive and suspension technology inherited from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers with the ability to conduct onboard sample analysis, scooping up Martian soil and carrying out a series of tests for organic compounds. It will even be able to use a laser to vapourise rocks and study the remains, continually improving our understanding of Mars as a potential ancient habitat.
This is no mean feat – just getting a monster the size of Curiosity to the surface requires a finessed landing process. Previous landers have used airbags to soften the impact of landings, but Curiosity is too massive for that. This problem is exacerbated by Mars’ thin atmosphere, providing little air resistance to the capsule hurtling toward the surface. An innovative “sky crane” landing system will require the capsule to slow to a hover above the surface, and then slowly deploy Curiosity to the surface by means of an umbilical tether.
Despite such an ambitious plan to reach the Martian surface, NASA have set their mission objectives a little lower than perhaps expected. With such a formidable rover roaming around Gale Crater, it would not have been surprising to hear NASA claim they were searching for living organisms. Instead, they modestly hope to find “the ingredients for life”, a much more likely outcome given the lack of subsurface aquifers originally thought to be there. Previous missions tried and failed to find the aquifers, now consigned to the same dustbin as Schiaparelli’s canals.
This throttled-back candour seems to be reflected in all of NASA’s recent decisions. With budgets in seemingly interminable flux, and each administration dreaming of unrealistic resurrection of the manned space program, the agency has been forced to box clever as of late. It is still licking its wounds from the JWST budget scandal, as well as the less public academic backlash from the media circus surrounding missions such as Kepler (see e.g. here).
They have the misfortune of two quite disparate audiences to manage expectations for – the nonspecialists, who fund it, and the scientific community, who drive its scientific aims and clarify its most important tasks. Each has their own aims and agenda, and each are disappointed when things “go wrong” according to their beliefs as to what “going right” is.
In this thorny environment, NASA’s recent decision to open up manned spaceflight to the private sector is an attempt to walk a difficult tightrope. Outsourcing the cost of the post-Shuttle crew vehicle design and construction is a tick in the box for an impoverished electorate who wish to rein in expenditure in tough times.
Scientists will be mollified by the choices of outsourcing. SpaceX’s Dragon (above) has already demonstrated its crew vehicle in an unmanned mission to the International Space Station earlier this year; Boeing’s track record in spaceflight goes all the way back to Apollo; and Sierra Nevada is the inheritor of a previous NASA mini-shuttle design. These three choices are the end of a shortlisting process, with many losers having to go it alone with “commercial” intentions, including Blue Origins, a startup from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
This cautious, softly-softly approach is to be welcomed in these difficult times. Funding is evanescent in these times, and developing missions with achievable, yet still laudable goals is important. Better still, use the resources in the private sector rather than compete with them.
It’s hardly the “to boldly go” statements that get scientists into the field, but some necessary realpolitik. Goose chases (however fun) are frowned upon by people with bags of money. And no, the irony of that last statement is not lost on me