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Review - Space on Earth - Charles Cockell

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One sad aspect of modern science is the intense focus that's required to be an expert in a particular subject. Really new thinking often requires a cross-disciplinary view, and that's very difficult when any one individual never looks outside their own small world. So it's refreshing to see Professor of microbiology Charles Cockell pulling together two disparate disciplines - environmentalism and space exploration. And he has some cogent points to make about the overlap between these two areas of interest - after all, space is just the environment writ large, and he argues we shouldn't divide the two.

However, good though it is to see such cross-disciplinary enthusiasm, there is always a danger when you have an interest in two subjects of forcing a link that isn't really there. I have interests in both popular science writing and business creativity. I tell business people who want to be more creative that one good way to do this is to read popular science - I genuinely believe it's one of the best topics to open your eyes to more creative thought. But people have often questioned the link I make, and occasionally I do wonder whether I only make the link because I'm interested in both. Similarly Cockell has long had an enthusiasm for both the environment and space exploration, and there is a very strong feeling here of attempting to weld together two things that simply don't deserve to be under the same roof.

Very few of the arguments in the book carry much weight. There's a lot of stuff along the lines of "if we made something to be environmentally friendly on the Earth it could also be environmentally friendly on the Moon..." which encourages a response along the lines of "Wow," with a strong ironic tone. Similarly he points out we need to take a more environmental view to our exploration. We should be clearing up all that mess we've left on the Moon. Hmm.

When Cockell tries to show us how important space exploration is to the Earth and the environment, all he really does is show that having satellites around the Earth is useful (that's a surprise) - which isn't space exploration in the true sense. As soon as he looks beyond near orbit satellites, it all gets very speculative, with a tendency to make statements ("we will do this") that have very little factual evidence to support them. Cockell talks of the potential for (for instance) extracting Helium 3 from the Moon (very useful if we ever get fusion reactors to work), or minerals from the asteroids - but gives no idea how this could ever be made economically viable. It's almost literally pie in the sky.

In fact the reference to asteroid mining seems to me to bring out the true background to this book. I used to love science fiction stories of the "golden age" which not infrequently involved asteroid miners and plenty of space exploration. This is a dream of the fantasies of childhood becoming true, not a real science book. Just how much this is the case is obvious in the ludicrous awards that have been set up for the first person (for instance) to climb Mount Olympus on Mars, to cross the Martian poles "without airborne support (what air would that be?) or resupply" and to descend the vast Valles Marineris on Mars "using no technological support other than that required for life support and basic mountaineering." This is Boy's Own stuff that now seems hugely dated - it is celebrating vast effort for no benefit whatsoever. You might as well have an award for the first person to hop all the way round the Moon, or the first person to eat a whole asteroid (it's possible in very small pieces) - these are challenges that should inspire a huge "so what?"

Cockell could have got away with this better if his book had been a fascinating read, but all too often it's made up of lists of ways to use space science in environmentalism or whatever. It's not only dubious, it's a bit dull too. Worst of all, the environmentalism side is wide eyed and unquestioning, with no attempt at balance. For instance, it cites Rachel Carson's Silent Spring as a great environmental triumph without pointing out the more recent research that has suggest many thousands of people have died as a result of the influence of this book on banning DDT.

The book is short, so it might be worth taking a look if either of the topics interest you - but don't surprised if you come away from it confused, irritated or both.

Only in hardback.

Reviewed by Brian Clegg


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Last update 05 June 2007