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The first photos from NASA’s latest moon mission have just arrived and show some of the Apollo landing sites in just enough detail.

This one from the Apollo 14 site shows a bit more detail than the rest but they were all taken with the sun low on the horizon which means that the landers stand out because of the long shadows they cast:

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The spacecraft is still in an elliptical orbit which means the photos from different sites show different detail, averaging about four feet per pixel. When it achieves its final orbit height of 31 miles it will be able to achieve a resolution of around twice what it is getting at the moment.

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It was a little while ago that we saw it but I thought I would put down a few words about my impression of the latest installment in this venerable enterprise.

In general terms, FANTASTIC, in particular the casting which was largely excellent. Spock, Kirk and McCoy were brilliant but I was less convinced by Chekhov and very underwhelmed by Scotty, which is a shame because I’m a fan of Simon Pegg but unfortunately he just didn’t come across as a convincing engineer, more of a slightly inept engineering student.

I did like what they did visually and its nice to see a slow move away from the old trek look of ‘ships on a sea’ to a more realistic vision of three dimensional space where there is no ‘up’ or ‘down’, something the new Battlestar Galactica captured superbly.  The general realism of the effects and the sense of scale were impressive as well.

There is a scene near the start where young Kirk is driving across the desert and we can see the hint of massive architecture looming in the hazy background, I did like this but its a shame the architecture was so … well … dull!

The inside of the Enterprise was interesting and not entirely satisfying.  I like the bridge, all modern and, as a reviewer pit it ‘ipod-esq’ but then in another part of the ship I swear I saw large steel girders with rivets … Victorian ship building technology just didn’t quite seem to fit with the high-tech setting and I would have expected to see something like a carbon fiber or bonded aluminum superstructure on a high tech starship.  The engine room was a bit unconvincing as well.  The seemed to have just filled it with futuristic looking pipework that wormed around the floor for no apparent reason, apart from as a prop for a weak comedy moment, again they seemed to be going for a Victorian style cavernous ships boiler room when I would have expected, at the very least, for the engineers to be working in a very advanced control room, something like what you would see in a nuclear power plant.

There were a few problems with the plot details, in particular when Scotty beams himself and Kirk onto the enterprise what ought to have been hours after it warped away but this and the niggles about the nerdy aspects of star ship design are minor and I generally thought it was an excellent film and a very interesting way to ‘re-boot’ the franchise with what is quite a daring piece of time travel storylining.

I’m looking forward to the next one.

Could the controversy over NASA’s allegedly faked Apollo moon missions soon be over? NASA’s latest moon mission is the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) which includes as part of its instrument package a special camera. It is actually a collection of cameras, two of which provide a very narrow field of view and, if I understand their website correctly, can work at a resolution of 0.5 meters per pixel – which basically means that each of the pixels in the images it takes of the moons surface equate to a 50cm square. This should be easily enough to resolve objects the size of the Apollo landers on the surface of the moon and NASA plan to do several flyovers of the Apollo landing sites.

The interesting question will be whether this puts the conspiracy theories about faked moon landings to rest? Unlikely in my view, firstly people can simply claim that these photographs are just another set of fakes, but it also doesn’t resolve one version of the conspiracy theory, which is that NASA really did go to the moon but they faked the first event to give themselves some breathing room and to avoid a potential public disaster if it all went wrong.

Of course it is also the 40th anniversary of the moon landings so NASA is making a noise about it. The Guardian are also doing an anniversary special which includes a short piece debunking some of the conspiracy evidence.

A previous Japanese spacecraft also took some photos and other measurements of the moons surface. The SELENE spacecraft didn’t have a powerful enough camera to spot the Apollo landers directly but in one photo you can kind of make out the blast pattern caused by the landers ascent vehicle when it lifted off from the surface. What was most interesting was the radar system they used to create a complete topographical map of the moon. With this data they were able to overlay photographs of the surface onto their three dimensional map and then take virtual photographs of the surface from precisely where the Apollo astronauts (allegedly) took their photos.

The results can be seen here and they are a pretty good match. If NASA really did fake the landing then they needed detailed knowledge of the moons surface back in the 60’s that we are apparently only just getting now – or of course the Japanese are part of the conspiracy!

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The BBC news website has a story about how:

Doctors are demanding that NHS staff be given a right to discuss spiritual issues with patients as well as being allowed to offer to pray for them.

Personally if someone charged with my care and qualified to work in health care offered me prayer as a form of treatment I would be rather worried about their competence. On the other hand if they didn’t offer and prayed for me out of my sight anyway then I would have no reason to question it, and it would (hopefully) do me no harm.

You might think, well if they are just offering it then whats the harm, and that seems fairly reasonable but it still puts you at the mercy of their beliefs. Can you imagine if an atheist nurse came and said, ‘I don’t think its worth praying because no one is listening and, by the way, when you die I’m afraid thats it!’. Now an offer of an afterlife may seem more attractive but if you are on your death bed and someone comes up and says – ‘I believe you need to pray because otherwise you won’t get to heaven’ – well I’d be a little annoyed by this.

I certainly don’t think we should stop people practicing medicine because they happen to have a religion but I’m really not sure if they should be allowed to actively promote it to patients as a part of their work. Sure, patients ought to be able to talk about matters of faith, particularly at times of illness when they feel most vulnerable, but the NHS ought to facilitate that by arranging for them to talk to someone qualified – a priest, imam, rabbi or whatever, not by letting staff interject with their own particular (or possibly perculiar) beliefs.

More personally perplexing to me is why people think that god will make you better if you beg, and why that is a good thing. Bad god! if you are all knowing and really love me then why do I have to ask.

Maybe its really true that ‘God made man in his own image’ – egotistical vindictiveness and desire for adoration included – which is why we have to get down on our knees and massage the omnipresent ego before it will make us better, if at all.

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“… while all around me prayed, I put on a life jacket and made my way to the exit in an orderly fashion”

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Ok, thinking about it a bit more, if we do let practitioners offer prayer as a supplement to treatment then we really ought to make sure it is actually effective. Evidence based health care is what the NHS should deliver so lets test the efficacy of prayer before we apply it.

Carrying out proper clinical trials into prayer might be quite hard though. You need control groups, and placebo prayers. You need to find out if knowing that you are being prayed for makes a difference (another placebo effect) and if just pretending to pray is less effective that really praying, or if praying for the patient to get worse has any effect. And of course the big question – does it make any difference if the people doing the praying actually believe in it?

I did hear tell of a study looking at the effect of prayer in a hospital in America, they looked at a group who visit people and prey over them (I’m not sure if they would ask beforehand). It appeared that it actually increased mortality rates but a psychological explanation was put forward and that was that if you are lying in hospital and a group of strangers come along and start praying over you then you tend to regard your prognosis as more serious (the nocebo effect as it is sometimes called).

The solution, if this is true, is simple. Groups should randomly visit patients and tell them “We were going to offer to pray for you but … to be honest, you don’t really need it, I think you’ll be fine without us”.

One final observation. I kept mis-typing prayer as preyer and realized: Pray and Prey are very similar.

Sploink!, there goes my Irony Meter.

Sense about science is running a campaign to help science writer Simon Singh overthrow a libel ruling against him for questioning the efficacy of chiropractic treatment for certain ailments. They have a statement on the issue which people are encouraged to sign via their website (I have already) and as of Friday 26th they had 10,000 people have added their names to it. They have sent the statement to the government and will re-send it for every 1,000 additional names.

Their statement reads as follows:

The law has no place in scientific disputes
We the undersigned believe that it is inappropriate to use the English libel laws to silence critical discussion of medical practice and scientific evidence.

The British Chiropractic Association has sued Simon Singh for libel. The scientific community would have preferred that it had defended its position about chiropractic for various children’s ailments through an open discussion of the peer reviewed medical literature or through debate in the mainstream media.

Singh holds that chiropractic treatments for asthma, ear infections and other infant conditions are not evidence-based. Where medical claims to cure or treat do not appear to be supported by evidence, we should be able to criticise assertions robustly and the public should have access to these views.

English libel law, though, can serve to punish this kind of scrutiny and can severely curtail the right to free speech on a matter of public interest. It is already widely recognised that the law is weighted heavily against writers: among other things, the costs are so high that few defendants can afford to make their case. The ease and success of bringing cases under the English law, including against overseas writers, has led to London being viewed as the “libel capital” of the world.

Freedom to criticise and question in strong terms and without malice is the cornerstone of scientific argument and debate, whether in peer-reviewed journals, on websites or in newspapers, which have a right of reply for complainants. However, the libel laws and cases such as BCA v Singh have a chilling effect, which deters scientists, journalists and science writers from engaging in important disputes about the evidential base supporting products and practices. The libel laws discourage argument and debate and merely encourage the use of the courts to silence critics.

The English law of libel has no place in scientific disputes about evidence; the BCA should discuss the evidence outside of a courtroom. Moreover, the BCA v Singh case shows a wider problem: we urgently need a full review of the way that English libel law affects discussions about scientific and medical evidence.

Interestingly the British Chiropractic Association has told their members to take lots of material off their websites or risk prosecution – presumably because they are making exaggerated claims. Sounds like a well aimed shot in the foot to me.

Slightly disappointing, I wasn’t interviewed in the end but I did have some of my robot progeny filmed with me in the background.  A colleague, Andy, did the interview instead.

What it came down to was that they only needed one person and Andy is more senior (he has his PhD) so he is more appropriate to represent the university on TV.  Better to have ‘Dr P…’ than ‘Student Bill’.

Shame, I was looking forward to that, but it was the right decision.

On the plus side, I now have some smart new trousers!