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Books | Science

September 17, 2013

NASA and the Case of the Slowing Satellite

In his new Kindle Single, science writer Konstantin Kakaes tackles a confounding mystery of the cosmos.

David Goldenberg

In 1972, NASA launched the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, a nine-foot tall satellite, into space, headed for Jupiter and beyond. Though the probe lacked a sophisticated electronics array or even a real camera (remember, this was five years before the first personal computer was invented), it continued to transmit huge amounts of data back to NASA's Ames Laboratory for the next thirty years, giving scientists the first glimpses of the far reaches of our solar system.

Konstantin Kakaes
"The scientific method, in practice, diverges from the textbook workflow of hypothesis formulation, experiment, and hypothesis-checking."

Konstantin Kakaes

It also sent back a puzzling and titillating mystery; it was going far slower than researchers predicted. By 2003, it was more than 200,000 miles off course. What could have caused this anomaly? After all, there's not much to interact with in space. Had NASA's physicists stumbled onto some new force in the universe not covered by Einstein's theory?

In his new ebook The Pioneer Detectives, science writer Konstantin Kakaes (an occasional Gelf contributor) dives into the data and talks to the nerds on all sides of the debate about the spacecraft's confounding path. In the following interview, edited for clarity, Kakaes tells Gelf about man's search for meaning, the elusiveness of truth in science, and the degradation of data over the decades.

Gelf Magazine: You describe a science mystery that took decades to unfold and perhaps is still unfolding. Is the story one that is inspiring about the scientific method?

Konstantin Kakaes: Absolutely. However, one of the things I hope the book illustrates is how the scientific method, in practice, diverges from the textbook workflow of hypothesis formulation, experiment, and hypothesis-checking. The boundaries are not so well-defined in the life of a working scientist as they are in the classroom; some ideas, like, say, blinding of the data, apply in some contexts but not in others. The struggle for funding is an integral part of science as well, as are the long hours it takes to get things just right.

Gelf Magazine: What does your story have to tell us about the importance of publishing negative results?

Konstantin Kakaes: I hope it’s an illustration of that importance; it also shows the difficulty of figuring out just what constitutes a negative result. In a sense every time something uninteresting happens—which is to say hundreds of times a day—it is a negative result. Which of these meet the minimum standard of being of sufficient interest to be published? In a sense, what I want to get across is the fact that the knowledge contained in published scientific papers is a small fraction of the knowledge that scientists implicitly have in their heads, unpublished, which includes a lot of instinctive knowledge about negative results.

Gelf Magazine: Part of the detectives' challenge was the disparate forms data storage took over the years. Are you worried about data continuity in the future—including the readability of your electronic book in 50 years?

Konstantin Kakaes: I am. It’s amazing to me that, for instance, you can buy copies of 400 year old maps for not more than $100; the printed word, and printed image, are very durable. This is not the case for .epub, or .mobi files—I have very little confidence they will be readable in 50 years, let alone 500. Long-term storage of digital data is a difficult problem that doesn’t admit a single or simple solution; it’s one of the issues I hope to draw attention to in writing the book.

Gelf Magazine: How do you know when the time is right to tell a story of a scientific mystery? How do you know the story is done and the mystery has been resolved, when further study is always possible?

Konstantin Kakaes: I got lucky in this case. The Pioneer Anomaly had existed as a mystery in the public eye for over 15 years when I started working on this book in earnest. I initially planned on writing about it as a still-open question, which would have made for a less-satisfying narrative. Of course, there are people who believe the mystery of the Pioneer Anomaly is still unresolved; I’m not one of them. I suppose the world is full of unresolved stories, but for this sort of exposition it is useful to be able to give the reader some answers, and you have to use your own judgment and experience as a reporter and observer of science to gauge the weight of the evidence.

Gelf Magazine: What was your experience as a reporter dealing with NASA and its scientists? Were they as open to you, or more, as other scientists whom you have written about?

Konstantin Kakaes: As in anything else, there’s a fair amount of variation. No one is obligated to talk to you as a reporter, so I’m very grateful for the time all the scientists I mention in the book spent talking to me. Some were more open than others. At the same time, I’d say it’s important that scientists be able to make those decisions on an individual basis. If someone doesn’t want to speak with me (or any other reporter) it’s of course their prerogative. But I think it’s important that they be allowed to make those decisions on an individual basis. The bureaucratic barriers to scientific openness at NASA—requirements, for instance, that a minder from the public relations apparatus be present for all on-campus interviews—are onerous, and a barrier to accountability for an organization that, ultimately, is funded by the public, and accountable to it in part through the mediation of journalists.

Gelf Magazine: How esoteric are the papers you mention in your book? You have extensive training in physics but not a graduate degree—how much of them could you understand?

Konstantin Kakaes: I spent a lot of time—probably more than I should have, from a point of view of efficiency—really trying to get to the bottom of the scientific issues involved. This meant digging up some old textbooks, and buying some new ones. I had a hard time working problems in the textbooks on General Relativity—a reminder that skills grow rusty without use. There’s nothing I wrote about that I would say is over my head, but at the same time I wouldn’t claim anything approaching the fluency of a practitioner. I’d say I got a good enough understanding to write for the layman with confidence, though of course I’ll always wish I knew more, and knew better.

Gelf Magazine: NASA had to decide on a symbolic message to send to other civilizations. Did they make a good choice? What would you send?

Konstantin Kakaes: I think the choices on the Pioneer plaque—and on the records sent out on the Voyager probes—were reasonable ones. Ultimately this is more a question of self-image than of an actual, practical communication with aliens. The interesting question isn’t so much one of curation—what music is important, or what works of art—but of encoding—how can you encode such things in such a way as to make them as close to universally comprehensible as possible? I’d say, in this respect, that NASA made very little progress—and probably moved backwards—in deciding what to send on the New Horizons space probe now on its way to Pluto. It’s easy to send lots of bits and bytes, but to what end?

I once had a math professor who said that, if he wanted to convince aliens that human beings are intelligent, he would send the aliens Dynkin diagrams —simple-looking graphs that are used to illustrate the classification of something called semisimple Lie algebras. I’m not convinced that aliens would be able to discern anything about the semantics of Dynkin diagrams. To me this is one of those very good questions without any good answers.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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