Slippery Slope

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February 13, 2017

By Kate Woods, Galactic Sandbox Writer-At-Large
and Agnett Bonwit, Managing Editor

“Have You No Sense of Decency, Sir?”

(Joseph Welch, Chief Counsel for the U.S. Army to Senator Joseph McCarthy, June 9, 1954, the House Senate Hearings on UnAmerican Activities)

It’s official.  That HIGHlarious party animal we’ve all come to know and love, Texas Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Mad Max Apocalyptic Wasteland), has clinically lost his mind.  Medics have made a diagnosis: it seems Smith’s brain got pickled in fossil fuel power.  Cursory medical forecasts of the maroon’s mind are not good.  The larded muscle between his ears is atrophied stiff with oleaginous lobbyist money. (Since 1989, Smith has received $697,747 in “donations” from the oil and gas industry.)  Utterly putrid.

Smith – DC’s unofficial science-slayer – and, yes, head of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, held a hearing on the hill Feb. 7 called – hold onto yer hat – “Make the EPA Great Again.”  And if that doesn’t make your skin crawl, we suggest you get to the nearest emergency room ASAP.

Lamar Smith and Former NOAA Administrator (ex-astronaut and oceanographer) Kathryn Sullivan during a NOAA budget hearing. In case the scientific qualifications between the two isn’t obvious enough, here is what the late, great John Glenn had to say about Ms. Sullivan when she was selected to head NOAA: “Kathy is not just an ivory-tower scientist. She was part of NASA’s first class of female astronauts, selected in 1978, and went on to fly three shuttle missions. She is the first American woman to walk in space and served aboard the mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope That role in helping humanity look outward has not prevented her from looking homeward. The planet is suffering increasingly severe upheavals, at least partly a result of climate change — droughts, floods, typhoons, tornadoes. I believe my good friend Kathy is the right person for the right job at the right time.”

We know all too well about Smith’s unconstitutional crusade against federal scientists, especially those who study climate change.  During the Obama years, Smith pushed the envelope hard in his persecution of climatologists in federal agencies, particularly those at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  Enraged by NOAA’s 2015 Karl Report (which details how the oceans’ temperatures have risen at an alarming rate) oil companies – er, I mean Lamar – unsuccessfully subpoenaed the agency’s emails in a pathetically vicious attempt to “catch them” at faking global warming numbers.  NOAA’s Administrator Kathryn Sullivan (first American woman to walk in space, and one of the astronauts to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope)  told Lamar to stuff it when she handed him emails from the agency’s office support workers, but none from the agency’s scientists themselves.  (See Galactic Sandbox November 11, 2015, “Hot Under the Collar”).   He also unsuccessfully tried to introduce a bill to essentially “neutralize” the EPA’s Science Advisory Board when he found out that panel was doing research on fracking.

While Smith’s McCarthy-like fury against NOAA has been widely publicized, it seems NO scientist is immune from Smith’s hysterical witch-hunting.  The subpoena-happy harpy has issued many more on many other scientific groups – some that are simply non-profit researchers – like 350.org and the much esteemed Union of Concerned Scientists. And of course he rushed to the defense of Exxon Mobile when it had been revealed the company knew for years that fossil fuels contribute greatly to global warming, and that they absurdly tried to cover it up.  Lamar even slapped subpoenas on both the New York and Massachusetts Attorney Generals for attempting to investigate Exxon’s activities. (See Galactic Sandbox October 15, 2015, “Frankly, Lamar, We Do Give a Damn”) Ever the tireless crusader, Lamar is also still trying to slash the coffers of the National Science Foundation.

Lamar’s insane windmill-waving – which we always knew could not get too far as long as Obama was holding a veto pen – is now no longer amusing.  In fact, he is exactly the kind of shill der TrumpenFuhrer could normally only dream of.  

House Republicans partying like its 1876.

“You dare challenge global warming with scientific debate?”

Significantly, lost in the kerfuffle during the early days of 2017 when DC Republicans tried to pull a fast one in their failed attempt to eliminate the Congressional independent ethics watchdog, was the reinstatement of a little-noticed provision originally created in 1876 that dramatically beefed-up the powers of House committee staff to haul private citizens and government officials to Capitol Hill to be questioned under oath — in many cases without any lawmakers present. In other words, Smith’s staff can now play judge and jury, and depose witnesses during congressional recesses without supervision from a committee member. The GOP also introduced the “Holman Rule” which can reduce an individual  federal employee’s salary to $1.  I wouldn’t take any bets they will use it on themselves (as we would all PAY to see), but federal scientists?  It’s a full-blown modern Inquisition now.  Said Tom Burke, a scientist and former Obama EPA official who once served on the agency’s Science Advisory Board:  “What we have seen, unfortunately, is the emergence of a very elaborate assault on science to the detriment of public health decision making.” And last month, famed climate scientist and author Michael Mann (also the Director of Earth System Science Center at Penn State) accused Smith – rightly so – of leading a “McCarthy-like assault on science.”

And what of the “Make the EPA Great Again” hearing?  Of course, it was beyond putridity, and Smith used it as a one-man band to excoriate the EPA and the “idea” of climate change in general.  But he also used this “hearing” (which he stacked with oil/gas industry lobbyists the way Trump stacks every public appearance with clapping howling  “fans”) to go high-octane bonkers over a “story” (and we mean “fairy tale”) published last week in the British tabloid called The Daily Mail, which supposedly revealed a “whistle-blower” disputing the numbers in NOAA’s 2015 Karl Report. 

Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA) pushes back on Lamar Smith’s farcical hearing last week by donning “Keep the EPA Great” cap.

But poor power-mad Lamar made the mistake of inviting the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), former Congressman Rush Holt (D-New Jersey), to the hearing, and after a windy indictment of NOAA, demanded that the AAAS denounce and redact the NOAA study. But Holt, to dumb-screwed Lamar’s amazement, gave him a big fat NO for an answer.  Holt instead argued the merits of NOAA’s numbers right there at the “Make the EPA Great Again” hearing.  One can imagine the coal-black smoke coming out of Smith’s ears when that happened. 

Lamar was burning with rage:  “I encourage you to talk to Dr. Bates, because everything I have read that he’s said about the Karl report suggest to me that NOAA cheated and got caught.”

In the end Lamar’s self-righteous indignation did nothing but bring into sharper focus how delusionally disingenuous he is. Within days the story was discredited over and over again – even by the so-called retired NOAA “whistle-blower”! – and by independent researchers from the University of California Berkeley and other unimpeachable science sources.  All confirmed the NOAA rising climate numbers.

Meanwhile, outside the hearing, Holt told reporters, “This is an internal dispute about a detail of how you might measure land temperatures or water temperatures. It is not a departure from the general understanding of what’s happening to temperatures in our globe.”  Holt added, “If you want to be on the right side of any issue, you would do well to go with the evidence ― the best understanding at the time of what it’s going to be. Not some fringe idea.”  Touché, Mr. Holt!

And there’s more hope in the push-back. “To be honest, Lamar Smith’s approach subpoenaing us only brought more attention to what Exxon knew [about climate change],” 350’s Lindsay Meiman said. “It brought much more attention to this issue that we focus on. In some respect, I’d like to thank him for that.”  

We got your back, 350!  Join the March for Science, to be held in cities worldwide April 22. – Kate Woods, Writer-At-Large

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Galactic Overreact

JPL scientist Sidd Bikkannavar racing his solar-powered car. Note suspicious fire extinguisher on his right.

Here’s a late-breaking item from Gizmodo that provides another reason why Trump’s cowboys and indians immigration ban is an astronomically bad idea. Apparently JPL scientist Sidd Bikkannavar, who is a natural- born citizen and has a valid US passport, was detained by border agents during the weekend the birdbrain ban was put into effect, and was ordered to unlock his NASA-issued phone, potentially revealing classified information. Bikkannavar, who was returning from Patagonia where he was racing solar-powered cars, was able to describe his ordeal on social media after a few security issues were ironed out:

Sorry for the absence. On my way home to the US last weekend, I was detained by Homeland Security and held with others who were stranded under the Muslim ban. CBP officers seized my phone and wouldn’t release me until I gave my access PIN for them to copy the data. I initially refused, since it’s a JPL-issued phone (Jet Propulsion Lab property) and I must protect access. Just to be clear – I’m a US-born citizen and NASA engineer, traveling with a valid US passport. Once they took both my phone and the access PIN, they returned me to the holding area with the cots and other sleeping detainees until they finished copying my data.

I’m back home, and JPL has been running forensics on the phone to determine what CBP/Homeland Security might have taken, or whether they installed anything on the device. I’ve also been working with JPL legal counsel. I removed my Facebook page until I was sure this account wasn’t also compromised by the intrusion into my phone and connected apps. I hope no one was worried. JPL issued me a new phone and new phone number, which I’ll give out soon.

It’s a Small World
Attorneys for the plaintiffs in a landmark federal climate change lawsuit last week named Donald Trump as a defendant as plans ramp up to begin the trial this fall. Originally filed in 2015 against the Obama administration by a group of children, young adults, and environmentalists, the lawsuit claims US government officials failed to protect the plaintiffs from the perils of climate change, despite detailed scientific warnings and research to its dangers. According to Scientific American, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers said other Trumpian Cabinet members will be listed as defendants, replacing Obama-era leaders in the Energy, Transportation, Commerce, Defense, State, Agriculture and Interior departments who were tagged as offenders in the case.  “The policies of the U.S. government that ignore the threat of climate change are only going to get worse under the new presidency, based on Trump’s apparent lack of understanding of climate science and his plans to invest further in the fossil fuel industry,” Kiran Oommen, 20, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement last week. The government is expected to appeal the case to get it thrown out, however our litigious leader will have his tiny hands full putting out constitutional as well as personal fires if the first three weeks of his term is any barometer of things to come.

Stella Britannia

Space tourist contender Virgin Galactic could be one of several commercial space entities operating from Great Britain in the not-so-distant future.

The British government is looking toward the heavens for a renewed spark to England’s  sloth-like services-based economy, and has leaped forward in a push to build spaceports on its own soil with the announcement of a series of grants totaling 10 million pounds for a commercial consortia formed to launch satellites – and eventually humans – from the United Kingdom. UK ministers also are expected to introduce a Spaceflight Bill later this month to establish the needed regulatory and licensing framework for British-based launch activities that potentially will include traditional vertical rockets and tourist-toting spaceplanes, reports BBC News. “Spaceflight offers the UK the opportunity to build on our strengths in science, research and innovation,” said Science Minister Jo Johnson in announcing the new grants. Johnson added that the commercial spaceflight activities could be worth an estimated 25 billion pounds over the next 20 years.

Ice Breaker

Jovian satellite Europa has a subsurface ocean twice the size of all Earth seas.

A 21-member planetary science team delivered a report to NASA last week on the potential value of sending a lander to Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. The plain-vanilla-named Science Definition Team (SDT) has identified three exciting goals for the proposed Europa mission, including a primary objective of scouring for evidence of life (the first such mandate since the Mars Viking era four decades ago), assessing the satellite’s habitability, and examining the feasibility of future robotic exploration of the satellite’s global saltwater ocean. According to NASA, the SDT brainiacs agree that while recent discoveries have shown that many bodies in the solar system now or in the past have subsurface oceans, the large Galilean moon is the only place (other than Saturn’s satellite Enceladus) where its briny deep has contact with a rocky seafloor, making it a prime candidate for possible life beyond Earth. The SDT team also coordinated with engineers to design a surface landing system to study the world’s mysterious icy crust. Since Europa has no atmosphere, delivering any payload to the hard surface will be a challenge without the benefit of proved technologies like a heat shield or parachutes

Raiders of the Lost Landmarks

The first out-of-this-world GlobalXplorer outback conducted from 435 miles above Earth will be an expedition in the remote deserts of Peru.

Many of you have seen the fascinating TV show called “What on Earth,” and now you too, can become the next Indiana Jones of space-based archaeology.  Sarah Parcak – who pioneered the use of satellite imagery to discover lost cities and buried ruins – is launching a new online tool called GlobalXplorer so that every Tom and Jane can find new wonders on our planet using Earth-spying satellites.  

“Archaeologists can’t do this on their own,” says Parcak, who estimates that only one percent of the world’s archaeological sites have been identified, let alone explored and studied. “If we don’t go and find these sites, looters will.” If you’ve seen the show (or have had a mining claim) you know that this pearl of advice is heinously true. 

 Parcak hopes GlobalXplorer will help catalyze a modern age of discovery and preservation – one that could give hope and perspective in “these challenging times.” Hmmm.  Do ya think this bold scientist is referring to the war on science fobbed on our souls daily by the Great Orange Cheeto could have something to do with her sentiments?

Pedal to the Metal

After nearly a century of failed attempts, a couple of scientists from Harvard have finally created “metallic hydrogen,” something that could revolutionize space travel.  The advent of metallic hydrogen was predicted 80 years ago by physicists Eugene Wigner and Hillard Bell Huntington, but trying to create the stuff in the lab proved harder than Donald Trump’s super-dense and insulated skull.  Harder, even, than diamonds. So Alex Silvera and his cohort Ranga Dias created “tiny anvils” made of lab-created ultra-pure diamond dust that could withstand atmospheric pressure 246,000 times what we know as normal.  Phew!  Pressures like that are only found in the cores of dense planets (like Jupiter -see left).  Not even Earth has a core as dense as that.  This new material can be used to make better magnetic-levitated trains and MRI machines in hospitals, but its most hopeful use could be used to propel us into the cosmos.

Meet George Jetson!

San Francisco-based Uber Technologies, a leader of the shared car ride service, just hired NASA scientist Mark Moore of NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia to help them develop a flying car.  It doesn’t mean we’ll see Jetson-like pods buzzing around the sky anytime soon – the concept from draft-board to helipad is decades off – but it’s a start being applauded by techies, especially those in the road car-clogged Silicon Valley.  Just last week, Space X boss and Tesla electric car king Elon Musk announced he’s ready to tunnel underground to get away from the maddening crowd.  Flying-car ports could be installed on high-rise rooftops, as they are now for helicopters, and the idea of landing in the middle of freeway cloverleafs is being spit-balled as well.  Right now, it takes some two hours to get from the San Francisco Marina to downtown San Jose.  Uber says their future flying car could do it in 15 minutes.  If it ever does happen we will indeed have Uber uber alles!

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