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Editorial: Science can be a messy and dangerous business

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2003. Editorial: Science can be a messy and dangerous business. the Exchange 10(1):2, 7.

On February 1st, the space shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry. Although the inevitable newspaper photographs and television videos lacked the impact of the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, they were still a chilling sight, particularly for those of us who have followed the space program since its inception in the 1960s. One of the recurring threads in the public discussion of the shuttle crash was the sense of shock that such a thing could have happened. I attribute this at least in part to the space program’s success to date: given the challenges of putting someone in orbit and bringing them safely back to Earth with the primitive technology currently available, I endlessly marvel at the courage displayed by astronauts.

Challenges? Primitive technology? Surely the challenges have been overcome, and NASA’s advanced technologies are something to marvel at? Not so. The challenges remain real, and the technology remains barely adequate to the tasks it must perform.

Today’s space program more closely resembles the early days of aviation than the rosy Star Trek pictures we see on television and in movie theatres. Spectacular crashes were a fact of life to early aviators—and indeed, part of the thrill in attending an air show was watching the "death-defying feats of skill" exhibited by the pilots. Air shows are still held annually, and pilots still die (Death can be defied for a time, never cheated), but aviation is now an accepted part of our lives—and one that’s statistically safer than driving to work on a busy highway, an act that few of us think twice about. Much of our horror at news reports of an airplane crash comes from the shattering of this world view by the sudden recognition that the world isn’t as safe a place as we once thought.

The space program has never been as safe as we’ve thought. If you were to express the accident rate, you’d have to do it "per hundred flights". That’s a far cry from the "per many thousand flights" you’d use for modern air travel and the more comfortable still—though wrong—perception of "per zillion trips" of car travel. We’re good at fooling ourselves and choosing the everyday reality that conforms best with our expectations, or that most soothes our fears. What becomes routine loses the thrill of the dangerous, and that’s certainly been the case with space travel in recent years. Television science fiction exacerbates the problem by portraying spacecraft and space travel as no more dangerous or exciting than getting in the family car to pick up some groceries—ironic given that we so cheerfully ignore the dangers of driving.

As scientific communicators, we face interesting challenges in the wake of the Columbia crash. First, we owe it to the memories of those who died on Columbia and to their families to help the public understand how difficult the astronaut’s job is, and how dangerous. Second, we must help the public understand something of the complexity of this and other dangerous but important branches of science; accidents such as the loss of the Challenger are soon forgotten, as witnessed by the shock over Columbia’s loss. And last but not least, for those of us who love the space program, we owe it to ourselves to help keep that program going by communicating some of our excitement at future prospects for space travel and by remaining undaunted by recent events.

Not an easy task, but one well worth undertaking.

My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved