Though it had carried out its robotic exploration of Jupiter and Saturn with skill and perseverance far beyond the call of duty if one can apply such language to a robot , by the time it was passing the outer limits of the planetary system, it was clear to NASA that it was hundreds of thousands of miles from where computer tracking programs said it should be. How was that possible?
The way objects move in space, whether they are planets the size of Jupiter or tiny craft like Pioneer, is governed by well-known laws of physics that give precise answers about location that can be measured in centimeters, even on the scale of the solar system. For Pioneer to be hundreds of thousands of miles off course was simply not possible.
No matter how it was tackled, the problem just wouldn't go away, and it soon became clear that something truly weird was going on.
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Did a distant spacecraft prove Einstein and Newton wrong? The deeper they dug, the less they seemed to understand. Immersed in the daily tracking logs of the year-old space probe, startling and perhaps revolutionary questions began to emerge: Was the spacecraft's errant course proof of some new and unknown wrinkle in the fundamental laws of physics?
A slightly off-course spaceship may seem an unlikely subject for deep speculations about the fundamental nature of the universe, but obvious solutions to Pioneer's flight deviation were not forthcoming. Yet this was a matter of "black letter" physics, and errors of this kind and of this magnitude just cannot occur.
What could be the cause of "The Anomaly"? The NASA sleuths could not seem to agree, though the list of possible culprits was long and scary: A fundamental error in Einstein's equations?
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The only thing clear about the questions posed by Pioneer and "The Anomaly" was that potentially groundbreaking discoveries were in the offing for those brave enough and smart enough to tackle them successfully. This is territory young scientists call "new physics" -- an unmapped land where new Nobel Prizes are sometimes also found. Writing in clear, sharp prose free of technical language, science writer and former Mexico City bureau chief for "The Economist" Konstantin Kakaes gives us a spine-tingling scientific detective story, tracking the mental processes and the spadework of those committed to untangling this high-stakes science enigma.
Scientists may be motivated by glory and fame, they are human after all, but the good ones are also motivated by a fundamental desire to understand. Those men working on the Pioneer Anomaly, which, if true, would upend Einstein's theory of gravity, were motivated by understanding. What force could be acting on a spacecraft that made its actual distance so much different than the distance it should be at under Einstein's theory? This short book reads like an unfolding mystery, and Kakaes holds the answer until the end. In doing so, you learn to appreciate the incredible amount of honest work done by the team at Jet Propulsion Laboratory also known as the coolest place on earth in the face of bureaucratic intransigence along with lost and fading data.
The pacing of the book is excellent, and while Kakaes expects a lot from the reader he doesn't skip over the science, since it's the integral to understanding the issue , he's a more than capable guide and you need not have a previously strong understanding of general relativity before diving in. Still, I admire for Kakaes for trusting his audience's intelligence, which allows him to tell a story without reverting to gimmicky metaphors. For those dismayed by the current canon of science writing for general readers as too dumbed down and extrapolative, this is the book for you.
Kakaes ends with some big thoughts, ones that leave the reader thinking long after finishing.
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One of the biggest is the how fine the line is between being right versus drastically wrong when the data you need to disprove a theory only need be slightly different than the proposed model. Kakaes rightly strives to point out that, in history, we value the experiments that prove theories wrong, as we consider that "progress".
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But in science, the thousandth proof of a theory can be just as important as a proof against that theory. This is what makes Turyshev, the lead scientist by the end of the Pioneer saga, a true hero; he just followed the data, and it's lucky we had someone like him leading the charge. But it's worth spending a lot of time on Chapter 9 of Kakaes' book, which start out with the sentence, "There are different ways of being wrong. One can be wrong the way Ptolemy was wrong, which is to say very wrong. The sun doesn't sort of go around the earth.
Or one can be wrong the way Copernicus was wrong when he theorized that Earth went around the sun in a circle, which is only a little bit wrong. Kepler, for reasons later made clear by Newton, postulated that Earth in fact moves in an ellipse. This, too, is only a little bit wrong, as Einstein showed The difference between Newton's picture of the world and Einstein's is enormous.
Yet the empirical basis for distinguishing between them, for judging one false and the other true, emerges from tiny, tiny differences in measurement. Kakaes' world view might be able to summed up in the phrases of "don't believe the hype" coupled with "it's far more complicated than Malcolm Gladwell makes it sound".
This is a welcome departure from current science writing for a general audience, and I think anyone truly interested in real science, the kind that takes decades to prove or disprove based off of meticulous work and careful observation, will really appreciate this book. Kakaes end with a "Coda", which is, in my opinion, a funny way to say "Epilogue", but nevertheless it is very moving.
Review: The Pioneer Detectives
The author reflects on Pioneer 10's journey, and how it is likely to exist far longer than Earth will, out among the stars. This impossible amount of time, these impossible distances, is what astronomy has always, and will always be about. We look to the stars and try to imagine, try to comprehend, the impossible expanse of the universe.
It's a fitting ending to the book, and eloquently written by a capable author.
Pioneer 10's Quirky Path Through Space Poses Compelling Mystery For Physicists
Like Pioneer 10, they are words that last, long after I stop reading books on an Amazon Kindle. Reading this was a pleasure, and I appreciated the fact that it cost less than most of the magazines at the airport news stand. Kakaes has a clear and enjoyable writing style, and he has an interesting story to tell about a decades long effort, undertaken by an eclectic collection of scientists, to understand and explain an anomaly in the path taken by the Pioneer spacecraft as it traversed the solar system.
In a nutshell, it didn't seem to be going where both Einstein and Newton said it should be going. Since there was, in the air, the idea that a great scientific discovery might be lodged in the explanation, the story provides insight into the intersection between scientific integrity and rigor, on the one hand, and human nature on the other.
In the end, by dint of tremendous effort and a profound respect for the power of details, the scientists pretty much figured out what was going on [SPOILER ALERT], however they did so by using the laws of physics we already had; no new insights into the structure of the universe came to light. There are no charlatans in this tale, but Kakaes gently suggests that at least one scientist important to the story had difficulty facing the fact that most of his professional life had been spent on what turned out to be a bit of a fool's errand. Kakaes elegantly avoids portraying this man as either comic or tragic, but in the end perhaps he was a little of both.
However, another scientist who was arguably of equal importance to the story, and who spent a decade or two of his own chasing the chimera of a great discovery, faced the same result with the untroubled equanimity: Not everybody gets to discovery something. It shows that, in the end, science's greatest strength does not derive from scientists' pursuit of glorious discoveries, but rather from their willingness to chose disappointment over delusion.
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