Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Military intelligence: how martial sci-tech does science few favours

I recently read an article about the USA's latest aircraft carrier the USS Gerald R. Ford that contained two bewildering facts: that at a combined research and construction cost of around US$18 billion it is the most expensive warship ever built; and that although only the first of three ships to be built in the class - and with an intended lifespan of half a century - it may already be obsolete.

So if potential aggressor nations now have the anti-ship missile technology to sink the carrier, is it little more than an enormous waste of taxpayer funds? There are reports of war games and simulations over the past three decades which fundamentally undermine the Victorian notion of technological progress - that bigger, stronger, faster equals better. This is particularly apt if your opponent uses 'unfair' and/or 'underhand' tactics such as stealth systems and guerrilla strategies. Then why are these colossal projects still being funded?

The USS Gerald R. Ford is merely the (admittedly very large) tip of an enormous iceberg concerning military expenditure of recent decades. Just to drive the point home, here's a few other recent examples:
  1. The US Navy's aircraft carrier-version of the Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter is the F-35C, with some estimates suggesting each combat-ready aircraft costs up to $337 million.
  2. The US Air Force's F-22 Raptor programme was shut down after only 187 operational aircraft were built, as the price per airframe was even higher, around $350 million.
  3. The apotheosis of combat aircraft has to be the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. Only 21 were ever built, at a whopping $737 million each, excluding the research and development costs, which may double or even triple this number.
  4. So as to not seem unfairly biased against the USA, other nations also have their share of military expenditure. For example, South Korea's K2 Black Panther is the most expensive main battle tank ever built, with per-unit costs of US$8.5 million each.
So who's to blame for all this? The USS Gerald R. Ford for example was approved during George W. Bush's administration but is only nearing completion eight years after he has left office. At least in democracies, politicians usually come and go in less than a decade whilst defence contractors last much longer. Could the armaments sector be duping administrations into giving them a lifeline? A large proportion of manufacturing has migrated to developing nations but due to the sensitive nature of the sector, advanced military technology is one of the few areas still concentrated within the developed West.

It's difficult to collate anything like exact figures, but the proportion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) professionals worldwide who work on military projects is frequently given as 20% to 25%. Is it feasible that this high level of involvement in an area that is both secretive and horrendously expensive may be counter-productive to the public's attitude to science in general?

After all, no other sector has access to such enormous amounts of tax payer's funds without being responsible to some form of public scrutiny. Then again, since the early 1980s we have been sold a vision of military technology that is a mostly one-sided glorification of armaments and the requirements for ever-increasing expenditure in the name of freedom.

How many mainstream Hollywood movies since 1986's Top Gun - including plenty of sci-fi epics - can be seen as glossy advertisements for advanced weaponry? It may seem odd considering the conventional portrayal of movie scientists but homages to the military-industrial complex show little sign of abating. Praise be to the sophistication of the technology, whilst damning those who develop it as untrustworthy schemers outside of mainstream society. It's a curious phenomenon!

However, developing advanced technology for military purposes is hardly new. The ancient Greek Archimedes developed anti-ship devices whilst Leonardo da Vinci wrote effusive letters to prospective patrons about his land, sea and even aerial weapons, albeit some were of dubious practicality.

Today's society is supposedly more refined than those earlier times, yet whilst a concerted effort is being made to attract more women to STEM subjects, the macho nature of armaments presumably ensures the sector remains male-dominated. If proof would were needed of the interest in all things explosive, the global success of the TV show Mythbusters should be a good indicator. If an example of the crazy nature of unrestrained masculinity needs delineating, then how about atomic bomb pioneer Edward Teller's promotion of nuclear devices for civil engineering projects? For every J. Robert Oppenheimer there were far more Tellers.

It isn't just the sheer cost of contemporary military projects that can lead to the ire of taxpayers. There have been some almost farcical instances of under-performance, such as the degradation of the B-2's anti-radar coating by high levels of humidity (never mind rain). It's easy to blame the scientists and engineers in such circumstances; after all, the politicians and generals leave the cutting-edge technology to the experts! But talk about over-promise and under-deliver...

One area that presumably didn't exist before the Twentieth Century's development of weapons of mass destruction cannot be blamed on STEM professionals and that is the deliberate use of civilians as guinea pigs. From the US and British atomic bomb tests that affected local populations as well as military personal to the cloud-seeding experiments over heavily-populated areas that may have led to fatal downpours, it seems no-one is safe from their own armed forces.

Of course, a large proportion of the degradation of the image of scientists as authority figures may have occurred during the Cold War, when it became apparent that military technocrats of the period earned their reputation as 'architects of the apocalypse'. There's obviously a lot of complexity around this issue. Arguments range back and forth, on such topics as once the Apollo moon landings proved America's technological superiority to the Soviet Union, the project was rapidly wound up; or how did the more right-wing elements of society feel when that same know-how was stalemated by markedly inferior forces in Vietnam?

The space shuttle was another victim of military requirements, the orbiter's unprecedented size being needed for the then large spy satellites - and the intention to fly two of them from Vandenburg Air Force base for 'shadow' missions. In a sense, the military could be seen to have had their fingers in many leading but nominally civilian pies.

This isn't to say that there haven't been productive examples of military technology modified for civilian usage, from early manned spacecraft launched on adapted ICBMs to the ARPANET providing a foundation for the Internet.

Even so, it is easy to look at the immense worldwide expenditure on weapon development and wonder what could be achieved if even a few percent of that funding was redirected elsewhere. There's no doubt about it: the sheer quantity, sophistication and expensive of modern military hardware provides some legitimate public concerns as to the role of science and technology in the name of 'defence'. Especially if $18 billion worth of aircraft carrier is little more than a showy piece of machismo that belongs to the last half century, not the next.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

From Dr Strangelove to Dr Evil: Hollywood's anti-science stance

Despite the decades of hard work by the likes of Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould etal, there is still an enormous amount of public suspicion surrounding scientists and their work. From wavering opinion concerning climate change to the negative publicity revolving around genetically-modified crops (A.K.A. 'Frankenfoods') it seems that popular opinion of scientists isn't far above that meted out in recent years to politicians and merchant bankers.

Tabloid media cannot be solely to blame for this, although the ridiculous scaremongering stories given front page attention, frequently involving medical science, are certainly no help. Instead, I would argue that some of the blame for the public attitude to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) comes from that ubiquitous global communicator, mainstream Hollywood. So where did the world's movie capital get its ideas from?

It seems that the denigration of science and its technological applications has probably existed as long as modern science itself. Before there were films to spread the negativity, literature had a mixed opinion of the discipline. Could some of the most famous apparently anti-scientific publications from Europe have inspired Hollywood's pioneers, many of whom were European emigrés?

Jonathan Swift's third book of Gulliver's Travels concerns the scientific elite of a floating island called Laputa. First published in 1726 during the so-called Age of Enlightenment, the book is typical of Swift's no holds barred approach to satire, making much use of the learning of the day. Despite being far more concerned with social and political issues rather than an anti-scientific stance, the material is still echoed today in the popular media.

Granted, many would agree that some of the more expensive STEM research projects such as the Large Hadron Collider could wait until global issues concerning hunger, medicine, environmental degradation - and poverty in general - are solved, but then wealth is rarely evenly distributed. After all, the USA apparently spends twice as much on pet grooming as it does on nuclear fusion research. Incidentally, isn't this bizarre in itself: it's not just that we consider ourselves so much more rational than all other animals, but that the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. That's a pretty scary thought!

As for Mary Shelley's classic novel whose title is evoked during criticism of GM foods, she may have been inspired by the general feeling of doom then in the air; almost literally in fact, due to the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, with volcanic dust creating 1816's 'Year without a Summer'. As an aside, the astonishingly lurid colours of J.M.W. Turner's sunsets of the period were another artistic response associated with the high-altitude volcanic aerosols.

In addition to the extremely cold, wet conditions of that year, Shelley is thought to have stopped near to the original Frankenstein Castle in Germany, where alchemy and other dubious dark arts were reputed to have been practiced. Combined with Luigi Galvani's experiments on frogs' legs - originally performed several decades earlier but much imitated still in Shelley's time, including on human cadavers - the novel is clearly a reflection of widespread anxieties of the time.

With the expansion of industrial cities and their associated squalor, the mid-Nineteenth Century saw the origin of philosophies that associated technological advances (and their scientific underpinnings) with a debasement of humanity. William Blake's description of 'satanic mills' epitomises this mode of thought, seen in as diverse a range of expression as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists, the Arts and Crafts movement, even the political writings of Marx and Engels. To blame the greed of the new captains of industry on science is obviously unfair, but then the latter were a far easier target. After all, the English chemist and political radical Joseph Priestley fled to the United States after an authority-sponsored mob burnt down his house in 1791.

Blake's over-wraught emoting ("Science is the Tree of Death") is amongst the strongest negativity of the period, but can we blame him, considering science was, as it is today, often wrongly blamed as the root cause of the widespread destruction of nature to make way for a soulless, artificial environment? But it wasn't just a response to the changes to society and landscape that Blake took exception to: he detested the mechanistic vision of the universe built upon the work of Galileo and Newton, believing that too much knowledge destroyed wonder and awe.

This is clearly as subjective a viewpoint as any discussion of a work of art; it can be easily rebuffed, although the attitude behind it should be treated seriously. Happily, today's plethora of glossy coffee table books on such scientifically-gleaned wonders as Hubble Space Telescope imagery show there is still plenty to be in awe of.

Mainstream cinema frequently paints a very A versus B picture of the world (think classic westerns or war films). But science can rarely fit into such neat parcels: consider how the more accurate general theory of relativity can live alongside its predecessor from Newton. In addition, it's very tricky to make interesting drama within a traditional narrative structure that utilises scientist protagonists unless it's a disaster movie (even the likes of Jurassic Park falls within this category.)

It isn't difficult to recall many negative examples of scientists in Hollywood movies, from at best those too wrapped up in their own work to notice its wider effects, to at worst insane megalomaniacs intent on either world domination or destruction. In contrast, how many sympathetic movie scientists are there?

It seems such a shame that such a ubiquitous form of entertainment consistently portrays such a lack of sympathy towards science. Even the film version of Carl Sagan's novel Contact lacked the cosmic spiritual elements of the source material, as if afraid that a combination of astrophysics and the mystical wouldn't be comprehensible to audiences (2001 syndrome, perhaps?) Science fiction films these days often seem keen to boast of their technical consultants, so what about a more sympathetic attitude to the practitioners of science itself? After all, most scientists don't live with their private armies in secret headquarters bases, planning to takeover the world...