The Europa Lander mission

In the space exploration world many are excited by the possibilities of a robotic mission to the distant moon of Europa for scientific investigation. The mission plan from NASA is titled ‘Europa Clipper’ and it’s promo page can be found here:

The scientific merits of such an expedition need not be repeated, and are well explained enough on the main site, so instead I’ll focus on offering a layman’s explanation of the intriguing technical aspects in the press release.

Of special note is the instrument payload:

“The spacecraft’s science instruments will measure the depth of the ice crust, measure the depth of the internal ocean and how thick and salty it is, capture color images of surface geology in detail, and analyze potential plumes.”

i.e. it will utilize novel techniques and technologies in order to accomplish something never before attempted on another body in the solar system.

“Scientists are especially interested in what makes up the moon’s surface. Evidence suggests that material exposed there has been mixed through the icy crust and perhaps comes from the ocean beneath.”

i.e. There is a likely probability of very astonishing discoveries akin to the unexpected images returned by the New Horizons probe.

“Europa Clipper will also investigate the moon’s gravity field, which will tell scientists more about both how the moon flexes as Jupiter pulls on it and how that action could potentially warm the internal ocean.”

i.e. Many alternative usages both forseen, and unforseen, are planned for the mission payload. This could very well be a very long lasting mission, akin to the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, far exceeding it’s nominal projected lifespan.

““We’re doing work that a decade from now will change how we think about the diversity of worlds in the outer solar system – and about where life might be able to exist right now, not in the distant past,” said Europa Clipper Project Scientist Robert Pappalardo of JPL.”

i.e. This is more than an academic and curiosity satisfication exercise, there will likely be practical consequences to the future evolution of scientific effort, space exploration effort, biological efforts, and long term planning of future missions.

“But the more instruments a spacecraft carries, the more they interact and potentially affect each other’s operation. To that end, noted Pappalardo, “We’re currently making sure the instruments can all operate at the same time without electromagnetic interference.””

i.e. The instruments will be the most shielded and hardened yet to electromagnetic interference, excluding the solar probes.

“Missions such as Europa Clipper help contribute to the field of astrobiology, the interdisciplinary research on the variables and conditions of distant worlds that could harbor life as we know it. While Europa Clipper is not a life-detection mission, it will conduct detailed reconnaissance of Europa and investigate whether the icy moon, with its subsurface ocean, has the capability to support life. Understanding Europa’s habitability will help scientists better understand how life developed on Earth and the potential for finding life beyond our planet.”

i.e. If the mission proves successful there will be many productive papers and stimulation for future researchers. In addition, a presently distant dream, of an alien life detection mission, will be that much closer to fruition depending on what is discovered.

On Economic Assessment

This post was originally written as a exposition for private circulation back in 2020, I’m sharing it as I believe it still has some value to contribute, and as the intervening passage of time has erroded any embarrassment I may have had in my potential naivety of perception on the patterns prevalent in the world. Also, it provides some neat insight to the conceptions, or lack thereof, I had when I just turned twenty five.

GDP is not designed nor originally intended to be used as a metric for comparing countries. It was designed for assessing year-to-year changes in a given currency region, usually coextensive with a county.

GDP (PPP) is an attempt to allow for inter-country comparisons, however it is based on a common basket of goods that are not representative of the entire economy. It is a flawed metric that probably underestimates the differences. The true value is likely somewhere in between GDP and GDP (PPP).

Neither measures are meant for assessing real wealth, the actual size of the productive economy, or tangible work, or anything that doesn’t show up on a balance sheet. These are economic metrics that can be “cheated” in a sense.

For example, paying someone to dig holes in the ground and then fill the holes back up would count as GDP. If the size of payments for hole digging and filling increase year-on-year then that would also count as GDP growth. Even the actual number of holes dug and filled could stay constant as long as payments increase.

Generally it is assumed that the vast majority of GDP, and GDP growth, is tied to actual productive efforts. I.e. many assume that the GDP economy ~ real economy, otherwise vastly more nuanced, and inconvenient, metrics would have to be used, many of which requires understanding outside the educational background of current decision makers.

However as recent events have shown, the animating forces of the GDP economy are not necessarily equal to the animating forces of the real economy. Just as the balance sheet for a company only captures a certain perspective, the balance sheet for a nation’s economy only captures a certain perspective.

In the future, farsighted government organizations might decide to focus on assessing the real economy and achieve results similar to private companies focused on assessing real economic factors.

An explanation of the historical development of English mathematics and higher education by Norbert Wiener, in an obituary for G. H. Hardy – with some parallels for today

Once you read enough books you begin to come across curious bits of knowledge that are rarely mentioned nowadays, often in the most obscure sources.

Although George Harold Hardy (1877-1947) was very well known in mathematics circles in the early to mid 20th century, he never attained the prominence even then of other intellectual peers of his generation, such as Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, etc., Nowadays he is a remote figure known only to passionate students of the mathematics and the history thereof.

However, thanks to a very illuminating obituary written in memorial by Norbert Wiener in 1947, a fascinating view of the historical development of mathematics, and more broadly that of the scientific and higher education system in England from the 17th to 20th century, comes to light.

Here are the key passages:


Hardy came from a family with artistic and intellectual traditions. He went to Winchester and then to Trinity College, Cambridge. The milieu in which he developed as a mathematician is one which it is particularly difficult for those outside of the English tradition to understand, and even rather difficult for those belonging to the newer English tradition which Hardy himself had so much hand in establishing.

It all goes back to the disputes between Newton and Leibniz concerning the invention of the calculus. At present we have not much doubt of the fact that Newton invented the differential and integral calculus, that Leibniz’ work was somewhat later but independent, and that Leibniz’ notation was far superior to Newton’s. At the beginning the relations between the Leibnizian and the Newtonian schools were not hostile, but it was not long before patriotic and misguidedly loyal colleagues of both discoverers instigated a quarrel, the effects of which have scarcely yet died out. the British mathematicians to use the less flexible Newtonian notation and to affect to look down on the new work done by the Leibnizian school on the Continent. For a while there was no scarcity of able English mathematicians of the strictly Newtonian school. For example, we must mention Taylor and Maclaurin. However, when the great continental school of the Bernoullis and Euler arose (not to mention Lagrange and Laplace who came later) there were no men of comparable calibre north of the Channel to compete with them on anything like a plane of equality.

Part of this must be attributed to the fallen status the British mathematicians to use the less flexible Newtonian notation and to affect to look down on the new work done by the Leibnizian school on the Continent. For a while there was no scarcity of able English mathematicians of the strictly Newtonian school. For example, we must mention Taylor and Maclaurin. However, when the great continental school of the Bernoullis and Euler arose (not to mention Lagrange and Laplace who came later) there were no men of comparable calibre north of the Channel to compete with them on anything like a plane of equality. Part of this must be attributed to the fallen status of the English Universities during the 18th century.

In the 17th century the English Universities were seats of learning comparable with the greatest schools of the Continent, but in the 18th century the grasping new Whig aristocracy that had risen out of the prosperous middle class (the nabobs) took over the older English institutions, the common land, public schools, universities, lock, stock and barrel, as their private property. The public schools were transformed from institutions of a semi-charitable nature to the place where the children of the new aristocracy were formed after its own pattern. The universities became nests of sinecures for dependent clergymen. In this atmosphere creative scholarship did not and could not flourish, and it is not until the 19th century is well under way that we find the signs of a new awareness of what the continental scholars, particularly Laplace and Lagrange, had done in mathematics. Among the English names belonging to this tentative reformation we may mention Boole, Peacock and DeMorgan. DeMorgan in particular is associated with the new University College at London which by its pressure did so much to bring the older universities back to a sense of intellectual responsibility.

This reform of English education was far from complete. The level of mathematics at Oxford was for many years scarcely more than contemptible, and even at Cambridge the training was devoted to the passing of severe examinations, the Triposes, rather than to the development of original mathematical workers. What mathematical talent there was in the British Isles went rather to the formation of a great school of mathematical physicists. Even here Cambridge entered the game rather late. Clerk Maxwell owes more to Faraday, the self-taught practical experimentor, than to any Cambridge man, and neither George Green nor Hamilton was in the Cambridge tradition. Sylvester, as a Jew, was not permitted to enter the older universities till towards the end of his life, and is another of those seminal figures who center around the University of London. Cayley is the first real great Cambridge pure mathematician of the 19th century. He certainly was in touch with those continental scholars whose interest was primarily in algebra, but algebra was at that time an important secondary mathematical subject rather than one in the main stream of development.

It is not remarkable that in such an environment, secluded from the central activity of world mathematics, mathematical study should be devoted rather to the formation of public school ushers or a trial intellectual run for promising barristers than to research activities. As a matter of fact, the Tripos was made such an ordeal, at least in difficulty though in general not in originality, that it marked the culminating point in the intellectual life of many of those who participated in it, and their subsequent activity became retrospective rather than creative. This was the state of English mathematics to about the turn of the century, when an awareness of the great work of the continental mathematicians smuggles itself into England by non-academic bypaths. The English generation of pure mathematicians of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century is curiously tentative. It has many important names, such as A. N. Whitehead, Andrew Forsyth, E. A. Hobson and W. H. Young. These all carry to some degree a mathematical style and ethos formed under the older English tradition into a period when the topics of interest were far more continental.

In addition to his accomplishments in research and teaching, Hardy contributed greatly to the reform of mathematical instruction. He was bitterly opposed to the rigid and unmathematical Tripos system and is unquestionably in a large part responsible for the fact that the order of rank of the Wranglers, those who obtain first class in the Tripos, has not been published since 1912. The present mathematical Tripos and indeed the whole system of training at Cambridge has been modified in the sense of conforming very closely to the actual work and career of the mathematicians of this day. Even this change, which has spread from Cambridge to all the British Universities, is a compromise between the old system and a system where research should even more completely take the place of examinations.


Curious indeed when contemplating alongside with the current trends!

From Volume IV of Norbert Wiener: Collected Works

Einstein’s 1925 predictions on the future, in an impromtu conversation with Norbert Wiener

Among the many fascinating resources on the internet, one of the best for the history and scientific development of mathematics and related personages is Cantor’s Paradise.

And among their numerous articles one that I’ve found to be especially intriguing is on some incredibly prescient remarks Einstein made over the course of a 5 hour conversation with Norbert Wiener, impromptu onboard a trainride to Geneva. Wiener, while on a business trip, had seen Einstein in the dining car of a previous train and arranged to talk with him and recorded this conversation in a letter to his brother. Remember this was the summer of 1925…

On world affairs:

He was rather pessimistic about the prospect of scientific rapprochement in Europe — said that the Germans had been to long excluded that they were getting out of hand for. At the time the majority view expected the Weimar Republic to successfully reintegrate…

He felt, however, that international rapprochement or another world war were the only things likely to happen. Sadly correct.

He did not agree with Russell that another world war would mean the end of civilization. Although Bertrand Russell was older and perhaps even more influential at the time, Einstein correctly ascertained the dynamics at work.

He thought the leadership of civilization would pass to America and ultimately to Asia. Correct!

He thinks that our general education level in the States is poor, but that there are great centers of learning with us and that much fine work is being done. Very preceptive and correct!

He expects big things from the U.S. And how big they turned out to be!

He is much interested in the Russian situation, is sympathetic with socialism, but is disgusted with the bigotry and the espionage system of the Bolsheviks. Very preceptive.

He regrets the existence of extreme nationalism in Germany, but asserts that there is such a thing. He knew what was going on beneath the surface of German society.

Now on to Physics:

He talked with me even of the possibilities for integral equation methods in relativity and asked me many questions. Yup!

He cleared up in my mind another problem, that of the statistical meaning of the second law of thermodynamics, by explaining that the world as a whole is not near a position of statistical equilibrium, but has a definite trend, as if there had been a creation. He understood that there must have been a Big Bang!

He said that Planck’s treatment of this matter is wholly wrong, and that he considers a right understanding of the subject more difficult than a right understanding relativity theory. Yup!

He considers the present confused state of science to be temporary, and due to the lack of leading ideas. Yup, as subsequent developments showed.

He deplores the flooding of the literature by immature, idea-less papers, and sticks up for form in presentation. Of this he is a master. He understood the long term direction of modern scientific effort.

He is much interested in engineering, he worked seven years in the Swiss patent office. The new electric locomotives excited his intense curiosity. Again, very perceptive.

He is aware of his great position, but not in the least conceited. Wise behaviour too, even though Norbert Wiener in 1925 was a very obscure fellow and certainly then didn’t circulate in the same circles as Einstein.

He does not expect relativity in its present form to last many decades, and hope that further work will soon go beyond it. Many worlds, etc.,

As to quantum theory, in which he has a large share, he is most dissatisfied. Again, right on.

He judges other scientists charitably and not by an excessively large footnote. Moderation, quite commendable when there were, and still are, many incentives for someone in his position to go either way.

He expects somebody to make a big killing in the none too distant future by cleaning up the theory of radiation in quantum theory. And Heisenberg’s famous paper was published a few weeks later…

What is technology?

From the Oxford English Dictionary we can see that there are 2 main meanings in current use:

1.a. The branch of knowledge dealing with the mechanical arts and applied sciences; the study of this.

1.b. The application of such knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry, manufacturing, etc.; the sphere of activity concerned with this; the mechanical arts and applied sciences collectively.

1.c. The product of such application; technological knowledge or know-how; a technological process, method, or technique. Also: machinery, equipment, etc., developed from the practical application of scientific and technical knowledge; an example of this. Also in extended use.

2. A particular practical or industrial art; a branch of the mechanical arts or applied sciences; a technological discipline.

Which can be summarized to:

  1. Technology – The branch of knowledge dealing with the mechanical arts and applied sciences, the application of such for practical purposes, and the product of such application. Or a particular instance thereof.