The Pioneer Detectives: Did a distant spacecraft prove Einstein and Newton wrong? (Kindle Single) Kindle Edition
|Length: 65 pages||Word Wise: Enabled||Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled|
|Page Flip: Enabled||
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Top customer reviews
"Detectives" was a great word to choose for the title. This short book reads like an unfolding mystery, and Kakaes holds the answer until the end. In doing so, you learn to appreciate the incredible amount of honest work done by the team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (also known as the coolest place on earth) in the face of bureaucratic intransigence along with lost and fading data.
The pacing of the book is excellent, and while Kakaes expects a lot from the reader (he doesn't skip over the science, since it's the integral to understanding the issue), he's a more than capable guide and you need not have a previously strong understanding of general relativity before diving in. Still, I admire for Kakaes for trusting his audience's intelligence, which allows him to tell a story without reverting to gimmicky metaphors. For those dismayed by the current canon of science writing for general readers as too dumbed down and extrapolative, this is the book for you.
Kakaes ends with some big thoughts, ones that leave the reader thinking long after finishing.
One of the biggest is the how fine the line is between being right versus drastically wrong when the data you need to disprove a theory only need be slightly different than the proposed model. Kakaes rightly strives to point out that, in history, we value the experiments that prove theories wrong, as we consider that "progress". But in science, the thousandth proof of a theory can be just as important as a proof against that theory. This is what makes Turyshev, the lead scientist by the end of the Pioneer saga, a true hero; he just followed the data, and it's lucky we had someone like him leading the charge.
But it's worth spending a lot of time on Chapter 9 of Kakaes' book, which start out with the sentence, "There are different ways of being wrong. One can be wrong the way Ptolemy was wrong, which is to say very wrong. The sun doesn't sort of go around the earth. Or one can be wrong the way Copernicus was wrong when he theorized that Earth went around the sun in a circle, which is only a little bit wrong. Kepler, for reasons later made clear by Newton, postulated that Earth in fact moves in an ellipse. This, too, is only a little bit wrong, as Einstein showed... The difference between Newton's picture of the world and Einstein's is enormous. Yet the empirical basis for distinguishing between them, for judging one false and the other true, emerges from tiny, tiny differences in measurement."
From this Kakaes goes on to question the usefulness of "big data" without rigorous scientists to parse it, and whether that data is as permanent as we would like to think. Kakaes' world view might be able to summed up in the phrases of "don't believe the hype" coupled with "it's far more complicated than Malcolm Gladwell makes it sound". This is a welcome departure from current science writing for a general audience, and I think anyone truly interested in real science, the kind that takes decades to prove or disprove based off of meticulous work and careful observation, will really appreciate this book.
Kakaes end with a "Coda", which is, in my opinion, a funny way to say "Epilogue", but nevertheless it is very moving. The author reflects on Pioneer 10's journey, and how it is likely to exist far longer than Earth will, out among the stars. This impossible amount of time, these impossible distances, is what astronomy has always, and will always be about. We look to the stars and try to imagine, try to comprehend, the impossible expanse of the universe. It's a fitting ending to the book, and eloquently written by a capable author. Like Pioneer 10, they are words that last, long after I stop reading books on an Amazon Kindle.
Kakaes' book is a short history of the discovery of the Pioneer Anomaly and its resolution (I want spoil the ending!). But he is really after something much bigger: what happens when recalcitrant data does not fit our best theories, and (more broadly) how scientific knowledge is produced. Kakaes points out that in earlier cases (e.g. various experimental tests of relativity), when the data did not fit the theory it was the data that were questioned: scientists were so convinced the theory was correct (in particular, Einstein himself), that they "rejected" that data rather than the theory. The concluded that something must be wrong with the data, and, years later, they were proven right. But, most interestingly, whether you reject the data or the theory is not determined by the data or the theory. It depends upon all kinds of contingent features: the psychology of the scientists involved, how good the scientists think the data is, how much they want the theory to be false, how they balance the desire for well-confirmed theories (on which much other theories are based) to turn out to be true versus their desire for 'new physics' (after all, if the old theory is false, then there is more theory to be constructed). What Kakaes is really interested in is what happens at these "choice points" in science. And it makes for a fascinating read.
I should also add that Kakaes really knows what he is talking about. Sometimes when I read popular science, I think "does this author really understand the science?" (sometimes the answer is an obvious 'no'). But Kakaes understands his subject from 'nuts to soup,' so to speak, and manages to convey this understanding to the reader with great precicion and detail without ever being boring, confusing, or jargon-y. No mean feat indeed. I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who likes to read about the history of science.
It's a fascinating story, one that space junkies like myself will find riveting. The story involves some advanced concepts of physics and mathematics, but it's written in language that laypersons can understand. Also, don't miss the Notes at the end of the story - there were a couple of cool trivia bits about the plaque that Pioneer 10 carries.
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