Monday, November 24, 2014

Is the Abell Foundation's president deceiving his board and potential investors?

Sure looks like it to me... all in the pursuit of the fusion dream.

A few days ago, I got an e-mail from Bob Embry, the long-time president of the Abell Foundation. He wanted me to come down to New Jersey to evaluate the prospects of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics.

(I would ordinarily keep correspondence like this confidential. However, as will become clear, Mr. Embry breached any implied promise of confidentiality.)

On 11/17/2014 9:08 AM, Robert Embry wrote:
Professor Seife,

I just completed Sun in a Bottle.  Thank you.  Our foundation has invested in a company founded by an Eric Lerner call LPP (Lawrenceville Plasma Physics) located in Middlesex, New Jersey.  Their aim is to produce electricity through fusion.  I wondered whether it would be worth your while to visit the company and give us your opinion on its prospects.  We would of course compensate you for your time, or if you did not have the time, interest or up to date expertise since you probably moved on to other topics after writing your book, whether you might suggest whom we might ask.

Bob Embry

I wasn't interested. I knew about LPP, and didn't have a high opinion of them, as I told him:

On 11/17/2014 9:55 AM, Charles Seife wrote:
Dear Mr. Embry,

I'm familiar with Eric Lerner and LPP. I have a low opinion of him and
them.

Lerner holds some very unconventional views about physics -- such as his
big-bang denialism -- and he has shacked up with some very cranky
characters over the years. (My recollection is that he was deeply
involved with the LaRouche movement, and has gotten a lot of support
from Tom Valone's Integrity Research Institute.) Ad hominem, yes, but
his is a very standard profile for a pseudoscientific huckster and a
very rare profile for a true scientific innovator.

Lawrenceville Plasma has been around for decades -- certainly since the
early 90s, though probably with an official formation date earlier than
that. They've managed to spend quite a bit of money since then, and I
don't think they've got much to show for it. They've been pumping up
anemic results as big breakthroughs... and the bottom line is that
they're still very far away, even though they seem to make it look like
they're always a few years and a few hundred thousand dollars from
making production models. Whenever anyone bothers to criticize them,
Lerner shouts "suppression" -- big physics is trying to stomp on the
little guy. Again, standard modus operandi for a certain class of huckster.

Technically, I have doubts about their geometry and their choice of
fuel, but it's probably better to have a plasma physicist discuss that.
Maybe someone at PPPL would be willing to drop by and evaluate them, or
perhaps a knowledgable generalist like Stephen O. Dean of Fusion Power
Associates could give you a more detailed assessment. From my POV,
though, until the cycle of fundraising and inflated claims ends and they
start producing results that make outside physicists take notice, I
doubt there's much reason to spend time evaluating them.

Again -- that's just my opinion, as an outsider who's not done a very
deep analysis, so take it with a big grain of salt. But I hope it's
somewhat helpful.

Cheers,
Charles

He thanked me, and then, late that afternoon, he forwarded a recent LPP press release-cum-report about a new paper. My response:

On 11/17/2014 5:15 PM, Charles Seife wrote:
Thanks! I'll read the paper when I get a chance. But I'll note that (a)
Physics of Plasmas isn't the leading journal in the field (PRL would be
a first-choice publication; Physical Review E is top in plasma physics;
Nuclear Fusion is better regarded, too, and that's just off the top of
my head), (b) a one-month submission-to-publication schedule is an odd
thing to brag about; in fact, it is usually the sign of a sub-par
peer-review process. (Except in the case of clearly revolutionary and
important papers, which this is certainly not, (c) an article explaining
why your experiment isn't working is much less exciting than an article
describing progress toward your ultimate goal.

Just the cynic's take. *grin*

Cheers,
Charles

I thought that this was the end of it. It wasn't.


On 11/21/2014 10:06 AM, Robert Embry wrote:
Mr. Seife,

Sorry to burden you with another document but I thought you might find this independent analysis of LPP of interest.

http://lawrencevilleplasmaphysics.com/images/lpp_review_committee_evaluation-nov_28_2013.pdf


Bob


My response:
On 11/23/2014 7:27 AM, Charles Seife wrote:
Dear Bob,

Thanks... I do find it interesting. (And, as it turns out, Stephen O.
Dean wasn't a bad suggestion. *grin*)

The report is interesting; I suspect that my read is different than the
typical investor's read.

To me, it says:
    1) The technology rests upon several theories that have no
experimental support
    2) The source of those theories is largely Eric Lerner
    3) On the plus side, those theories can be experimentally tested in
the next few years
 
The one point I disagree with:
    4) It's a dramatically underfunded effort.

I guess we'll see in the next few years what'll happen. My take is that
those theories will never really get tested; there will be a bunch of
technical problems that crop up at every stage that will keep the goal
right over the horizon. And that's no matter the funding level. Maybe
the next five years will have a different contour, but I'd bet quite a
bit of money against LPP doing anything that brings fusion energy closer.

Cheers,
Charles

Then, Mr. Embry e-mailed me Eric Lerner's response to my criticisms. I had not given him permission -- nor would I have given permission to share them.

On 11/24/2014 9:23 AM, Robert Embry wrote:
Charles,

Here is Eric's response.  I of course deleted your name.

Bob
 I won't detail Lerner's response, but there is one section of the e-mail chain -- clearly from Embry to Lerner -- which has a very interesting revelation:

I've been debating whether to share these emails with you but decided I would want to know if I were in your situation.  They are the product of my continuing effort to obtain a positive outside review to use with our board and potential investors.  I'll keep trying.  Negative responses I will just share with you.

Bob


Ouch.

Not only was Embry sharing my unvarnished criticisms with Eric Lerner, this implies that Embry has been spending his time trying to gin up a "positive outside review" of LPP's work, while systematically discarding "negative responses."

Can anyone tell me whether this behavior is consistent with Embry's fiduciary duty to the Abell foundation, to the Abell board, and to potential Abell investors?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Straight from the panda's mouth: What NASA thinks it's for

Update, 2/14/2014: this post is now also available on the Huffington Post website here.

A furious panda is a thing to behold.

Ordinarily, a panda seems to be superlatively peaceful, diffidently munching bamboo. But when it gets angry, it betrays its true nature -- it's fundamentally a carnivore trying to play itself off as a herbivore. And failing.

Last week, in Slate, I argued that NASA, like a panda, was maladapted and was flirting with extinction as a result. (Panda bashing happens to be a proud Slate tradition.) The argument triggered outrage. Within hours, fueled by social media, the defense of NASA echoed around the nation, even reaching the White House. It was the anger of a panda -- and contrary to what NASA aficionados believe, their response confirms just how screwed up the agency really is.

The fundamental problem isn't terribly hard to understand. The lion's share of NASA's budget -- and reputation -- is for launching people into space. This was sustainable when we were in a no-holds-barred race with the Soviets, but the moment Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, that race was over. Any human spaceflight beyond that (including the remaining Apollo missions, which started being scuttled one by one less than a year after the Eagle touched down) is anticlimax. So it will remain until a manned Mars mission becomes technologically and budgetarily feasible.

This left NASA with a dilemma. What NASA does really well -- remote missions -- at best attract some passing attention from the public (and from Congress) and quickly fade from public consciousness, even though they've resulted in fundamental advances in planetary science, astronomy, cosmology, physics, and earth science. NASA's glory and continued success, on the other hand, comes almost entirely from the hurling-people-in-tin-cans-into-the-void trick, which hasn't had any real purpose since the early 1970s.

In other words, there's a gap between perception and reality, between what NASA does that's really worthwhile and what NASA perceives it must do to maintain its reputation and its budget. The last four decades of NASA's history is an attempt to bridge that gap with sleight of hand, to draw our attention away from that internal contradiction.

It does so by pretending that its astronauts are doing crucial scientific experiments while puttering around in low-Earth orbit. Despite NASA's incessant cooing over its "world class" scientific work in space, the research on board the shuttle and the International Space Station has almost uniformly been of minimal importance. Science-wise, human spaceflight compares incredibly unfavorably on a dollar-for-dollar basis with even a fiscally bloated and physically crippled unmanned craft. Even a single lean, mean, successful project like Mars Pathfinder, which cost about $200 million (maybe $300-$350 million in today's dollars), arguably yielded more for science than the entire multi-hundred-billion-dollar post-Apollo human spaceflight program. (Making matters worse, astronaut-run research has not just come at extraordinary fiscal expense, but at grave human expense as well. As I point out in the Slate article, NASA has killed roughly four percent of the people it has sent into space -- yes, killed, through negligence and mismanagement.)

NASA also has had a few embarrassing episodes where it hyped bad terrestrial science as well, ham-handed attempts to fill the gap by inflating the importance of a new field: astrobiology. (The term "astrobiology" is telling. "Astro" and "biology" are, at the moment, mutually exclusive; where you have one, you simply don't have the other. Hopefully, that will someday change, and give the field a reason for its name.)

This sleight of hand is the core of the problem. Hype doesn't fill the gap between perception and reality, though, and the mismatch is growing bigger each year as remote technology improves, and as budgets tighten. Unless the agency can either find a human spaceflight mission that's worth the effort, expense, and danger -- or, better yet, realign its priorities so that it no longer has to dissemble about the value of more than half of the work that it does -- NASA is in danger. In short, NASA must figure out what it's really for.

This argument paints an unflattering picture of NASA, to be sure, and the reaction from NASA fans was as quick and fierce as a mother panda defending her cubs. Within a few hours, a NASA love-fest developed on twitter, using the hashtag #WhatisNASAfor, to try to answer the question -- or at least to prove that it's silly and presumptuous to ask it. Space fans, both civilian and insiders, joined in, and soon so did the government, including NASA itself.

So what does NASA think it's for? In 140 characters, how does America's space agency justify its existence? Here it is, straight from the panda's mouth:



Spinoffs. Yes, really.

Any time you give a group of smart people lots of money to work together on technological problems, you're going to get unexpected discoveries and side benefits. Whether you're working on military systems, high-energy physics, digital imaging, or any other big high-tech problems, there will be spinoffs. But in all the world, it seems that only NASA thinks that spinoffs are a raison d'etre rather than a natural consequence of doing something else well. Spinoffs (and new technology), especially medical spinoffs, figure prominently in the #WhatisNASAfor thread. Of course, if developing new medical technology is what NASA is for, that's a valid argument, but we should probably incorporate the agency into the Department of Health and Human Services.

Perhaps someone even higher up in government had a better idea. Luckily, the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy joined in, too.



It's a nice story, and the general theme of inspiring students and creating future STEM majors was also a salient theme in the #WhatisNASAfor thread. On the other hand, it's pretty clear that in no way do the educational benefits justify the $2.5 billion expense of the Curiosity mission. Don't misunderstand: Curiosity was well worth the money, not because it makes a great story for kids, but because it's producing interesting planetary science. The educational value is a side benefit. In other words, NASA's educational value is fundamentally another kind of spinoff that follows directly from doing interesting things in space. And the vast majority of interesting things in space are done by robots, not humans. The infinite variations of water floating in space are great fun, but it's a Mars panorama or a view of Saturn or even of the Sun that will trigger real awe -- and inspiration.

A few other NASA-related entities also chimed in; NASA's Launch Services Program at Cape Kennedy tweeted about "launching across our solar system," while NASA's Stennis Space Center used the opportunity to plug NASA's PR effort.

Largely missing was NASA's elephant in the room -- NASA's $100-$200 billion-plus flagship, the International Space Station. As far as I can tell, as of Sunday night, there were only two governmental or official contributions that even mentioned the ISS. The first, CASIS, the organization which manages the International Space Station's laboratory facilities. It came out swinging, perhaps the only official tweet which attempted directly to refute the argument made in Slate.



The other was ISS Research, NASA's mouthpiece for scientific research aboard the Station. How is it contributing to NASA's purpose?



Spinoffs. Sigh.

The civilian contributions to #WhatisNASAfor tended to hit on similar themes. (The word cloud below represents relative frequencies of certain words in the part of the thread I captured, after meaningless phrases had been removed.)

2014-02-10-WhatisNasaForOTsCloud.jpg

Inspiration, education, tech spinoffs, and the sheer coolness of some of NASA's missions: wonderful, but not ends in themselves. The need to escape the confines of the Earth, and the manifest destiny of colonizing space: after Apollo, this became unattainable in any meaningful way for quite a while to come.

What's left is science -- and science is where NASA's greatest achievements lie. NASA spacecraft are helping us answer some of the biggest questions in the universe. (Heck, I wrote an entire book describing a revolution in cosmology sparked, in part, by NASA programs like Hubble, WMAP, and COBE.) But that drive is fundamentally incompatible with the agency's perceived need to hype bad science and trying to convince the world that its astronautic boondoggles are producing world-class scientific achievements.

That's NASA's dilemma in a nutshell: despite all the agency has done, despite all it has to offer, so long as human spaceflight is at the core of NASA's existence, it will never evolve beyond a faint echo of its prior self.