This image from video provided by SpaceX shows the company's spacesuit in Elon Musk's red Tesla sports car which was launched into space during the first test flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018.

Credit: SpaceX via AP

Living Lab Radio: Roadster in Space; How Fishermen Might Save Whales; Much of Forensics Isn't Science

February 14, 2018
  • Starman in Roadster Isn’t Going to Mars, But We May Be … Soon

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch has ignited hopes of sending humans back to the moon, and on to Mars. But what about that cherry-red Tesla left floating through space?

On Tuesday, Feb. 6, SpaceX did a test launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, now the most powerful rocket in active use. The head of SpaceX, Elon Musk, also runs the electric car maker Tesla, and he sent his own Tesla Roadster into space on the rocket with a mannequin at the wheel.

“I love rockets, and I love cars,” said Jason Davis, digital editor for The Planetary Society. “When I first saw the Roadster in space with Earth behind it, my jaw just kind of dropped.”

Not everyone finds “Starman in Roadster” beautiful, and many are less than enthusiastic about the cosmic message the car sends about humanity. Davis himself says he’s uncomfortable with the fact that the choice was made unilaterally, by a private citizen — a wealthy, white male — and that the only discussion has come after the fact. 

“It’s possible to hold conflicting views in your brain,” Davis said, “to think it’s great on one hand, and to see problems with it on the other hand.”

But Davis is not at all conflicted about the Falcon Heavy rocket that carried Starman into space. It is the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V that propelled the Apollo missions. Its successful launch puts the moon, and many say Mars, within reach.

Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, says we could be sending humans to Mars in a mere eight years, if the federal government made it a goal. That’s a lot sooner than NASA’s goal of “the 2030s.” But Zubrin, who revolutionized the way the space community thought about Mars settlement with his 1996 book The Case for Mars,  says SpaceX is proving it can make major space flight advances in half the time and for a fraction of the cost of NASA.

“I think the country should seize this opportunity with both hands to finally get a space program that’s going somewhere,” Zubrin said.

  • The 'Time is Now’ to Change How We Catch Lobsters

A workshop on Feb. 1 in Woods Hole brought together an unusual combination of scientists, engineers, fishermen, and government regulators to talk about catching lobsters with no rope connecting the traps, in an attempt to ease the crisis in right whale entanglements over the last year. Seventeen North Atlantic right whales were found dead in 2017, most showing signs of entanglement or ship strikes. The entire species has fewer than 450 animals left.

The problem has gotten worse over the last 20 years because fishing ropes have gotten stronger, meaning that whales can’t break free as often, and because more people are fishing for lobsters after other fisheries have collapsed.

Mark Baumgartner of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution says there was a surprising amount of agreement among lobstermen at the February conference that whale entanglement in lobster gear is a problem. That’s a change from just one year ago.

There a few ideas for how to get lobster trap “end-lines” out of the water column. The basic idea is that the lines could be stored at the bottom of the ocean rather than stretching from the sea floor to a surface bouy. There’s a prototype of such a system, but it would take more funding to get it into the hands of fishermen.

And there’s not much time to get this effort started, Baumgartner warns. In 20 years, the extinction of the North Atlantic right whale will be inevitable if nothing changes, he says, adding that weaker ropes and rope-less lobster fishing equipment is needed to avoid a closure of the entire lobster industry.

"We have to do something about this problem now, before we get to a place where we just can't have a dialogue about it anymore," says Baumgartner. "That time is now.”

  • New Investigation Finds Little to No Scientific Basis for Much Forensics

Forensics laboratories have been featured in hit TV shows and have attained a level of mainstream familiarity that few other sciences can claim. But a new investigation, which appears as the cover story of the Feb. 26 edition of "The Nation," finds that much of forensics may not be scientific at all.

“A lot of forensic science is completely valid,” says co-author Meehan Crist. "Things like forensic chemistry, things like DNA analysis.”

But Crist says many of the pattern-matching disciplines — like fingerprints, bullets and tool marks — are highly subjective and not supported by scientific evidence.

Still, this kind of evidence continues to show up in trials, with the potential to determine the courses of people’s lives. The National Registry of Exonerations estimates that faulty forensics is involved in 24 to 34 percent of wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project puts that number closer to half.

At the heart of the problem, says Crist, is a mismatch between two systems of knowledge — one legal, and one scientific. 

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