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A long way from Alpha Centauri

Our terribly sensible attitude to space exploration is tested by exciting new discoveries.

Just when you think that you’re getting to know your neighbours, everything changes. And sadly there’s very little we can do about it.

In the past couple of weeks, not only have we realised that there’s a planet in the star system next door, but it turns out the moon and the earth may not be what we thought. You spend 200,000 years getting to know your surroundings and then – bam – suddenly everything is wrong.

“Bam” is the appropriate word here. One of the things we have learned is that the cosmic collision that created the moon may also have created the earth.

The received wisdom has long been that a Mars-sized planet known as Theia collided with the young earth 4.5 billion years ago, and the resulting debris came together to form the moon.

Two new papers have destroyed this neat story. It turns out that other types of creation scenario become possible when you think to consider the influence of the sun on the rotation of the newly formed earth and moon.

So, it could be that a tiny projectile hit a fast-spinning young earth and threw out enough debris to coalesce into the moon, slowing earth’s rotation to its present rate. Equally plausible is the idea that two fast-spinning, half-earth-sized lumps of rock collided and merged to become our slow-spinning earth, again with debris forming a moon.

Both of these ideas resolve a nagging flaw in the Theia idea. The Apollo missions brought back lunar rocks that show the moon to be geologically more similar to earth than the original impact story would allow. The thing is, with the new fast-spin scenario allowed, anything is possible. Researchers expect a slew of hypotheses over the next few months; we have to admit we have no idea now how the earth or the moon formed.

As if that weren’t humbling enough, it turns out we’d missed an earth-sized planet that is orbiting our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. It’s not that we hadn’t looked: the twin stars of Alpha Centauri have been a prime focus for planet-hunters. Yet, somehow, this one slipped through the net.

Planet-hunting astronomers are excited because, they say, everything we know about planet formation indicates that there should be others like it in the Alpha Centauri system and elsewhere in the Milky Way.

It is indeed exciting – yet these discoveries expose a gaping hole in our quest to discover where we came from and where we might be going. There is no way to get to Alpha Centauri. The way things are, there never will be. We aren’t even in any position to put a man on the moon.

Bye, tech

The space shuttle Endeavour made a painfully slow journey through the streets of Los Angeles to its resting place at the California Science Centre a fortnight ago and it made for dismal viewing. Hours later we watched, inspired, as a man used cutting-edge technology to fall to earth from the edge of space. But let’s not miss that he got up there using a balloon filled with helium. Idiots in armchairs have got close to doing that.

The technology that put men on the moon – that enabled them to gather the moon rocks that told us the Theia theory was probably wrong – has been retired for decades. Now we have little scope for checking new theories or, with an ingenious innovation, checking out new planets. Robotic space exploration seems like a pragmatic and sensible use of resources until it hits home that we are once again earthbound.

It’s at moments like these, when the universe has teased us with revelations, that our terribly sensible strategy for modern space exploration feels more like a foolish mistake.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99).

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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Why the philosophy of people-rating app Peeple is fundamentally flawed

The app claims that “character is destiny”, and that we should be constantly judged based on our past interactions with others. But do we really believe that? 

Yesterday, you were probably one of the millions around the world who recoiled from their screen in blank-eyed horror at the news: Peeple, an app to be launched in November, will let others rate you, publicly, on the internet, and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't opt out, and you don't need to join in order to be rated on a scale of one to five by colleagues, friends, and romantic partners. That boy whose girlfriend you stole? He can review you. The boss you swore at as you quit? Her, too. Those people in your life who think you're just a bit average? Expect a lukewarm three stars from them.

Of all the online rage at the app's announcement, perhaps the most was directed at the fact that you can't remove your own profile. Other users need only submit your mobile number and name to create your page, and you have no control about who posts on there. Reviews of two stars or less are invisible to the public for 48 hours, and you have the chance to review them and try to "work it out" with the rater. Once that time is up, though, the negative reviews appear for all to see. You can comment on them to defend your corner, but unless they break the app's rules, you can't delete them.

There are all kinds of problems with Peeple's premise. Despite its founders' promises that bullying and harassment won't be tolerated (helped slightly by the fact that users must be over 21 and use their full name and Facebook profile to comment), it seems impossible that they'll be able to moderate this effectively. And as we've learned from sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp, the majority of reviews are from those seeking to boost the company's reputation, rivals, or angry customers - it's rare to see one that's balanced and helpful.

Yet the biggest flaw of all is the assumption that public rating and shaming has a place, or is even acceptable, in our society. There's something fundamentally broken in the app's presmise, which is summarised in its tagline, "character is destiny".  As western society has moved on from earlier ages where people were fundamentally changed in the eyes of the law and public into "criminals" by virtue of their deeds, or a time where a woman was utterly defined by her sexual acts, we've ceased to accept this as truth. The app's whole set-up assumes that someone who has offended a co-worker is likely to do it again, or a positive review from a partner makes it likely you'll enjoy a good relationship with them. As a society, we accept that some violent criminals are likely to re-offend, but we also see the value of rehabilitation, and can accept that people make mistakes they're unlikely to repeat. 

The dark side of social media is that it moves us backwards on this front. It allows permanent imprints of our online lives to be seen by everyone, to the extent where they seem to represent us. Victims of cyberbullying terrified that naked photos of them will be released, or people who make public gaffes on social media, become reduced to and defined by single acts. The mental health deterioration (and sometimes  suicide) that follows these shamings hints at how unnatural it is for single actions to change lives in such disproportionate ways. 

Jon Ronson, author of So you've been publicly shamed, which cleverly links the current culture of internet shaming with a legal past where criminals were shamed indefinitely as criminals for a single illegal act, seems chilled by the prospect of Peeple:

As one review of Ronson's book noted:

As Ronson makes patently clear, all these people’s punishments by far outweighed the gravity of their so-called crimes. In fact, having researched the history of public shaming in America in the Massachusetts Archives, he can only conclude that Lehrer, for one, was humiliated to a degree that would have been thought excessive even in the 18th century, the Puritans of New England having seemingly worked out that to ruin a person in front of his fellows is also to refuse him a second chance in life.

As Ronson explores in his book, extreme public shaming doesn't make us better people, or encourage us not to repeat offend: it shuts us down and exiles us from society in a way that benefits no one. (This makes Peeple's URL – – seem grimly ironic). What Ronson calls "chronic shame" occurs when our regretted actions harden into something far greater, something we allow to become part of ourselves. As Gershen Kaufman, a scholar of shame, notes:  "Shame is the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within."

We also shouldn't be forever defined by a clutch of "good" actions, or people who see some benefit in leaving us gushing reviews. Those who measure their worth through social media come to rely on the endorphins sparked by small online interactions and boosts to their confidence, at the expense of the more slow-burning satisfaction of real life. A single person's thoughts about us are relatively inconsequential, whether positive or negative - but they're given far greater weight on the internet  by virtue of their permanence and publicity.

In Mary Gordon's novella The Rest of Life, a character wishes that someone had told her earlier that "the world is large and will absorb the errors you innocently make". If we're to avoid tearing each other to pieces, we need to make sure that this remains the case. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.