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To Open The Sky

The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter

The Cassini Mission to Saturn

A personal view


The Opponents of Cassini

The small segment of the citizenry that opposes the launch of Cassini seems to come from the anti-nuclear camp. They are not Luddites; they do not reject technology in general. But they certainly reject nuclear technology, in all its forms. Their number includes a smattering of scientists, of whom the most prominent is Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist associated with the City University of New York.

While they do not reject technology, few of them demonstrate a thorough understanding of the science and engineering that produce it. I include Dr. Kaku in this. Although he has written a number of books, including a well-regarded popular explanation of superstring theories, and clearly is intelligent, his paper on the risks of Cassini reads like a political tract rather than a scientific analysis. Also, those of his recent appearances on radio talk shows that I've heard are characterized by numerous mis-statements which he maintains even after being corrected. Indeed, like the great majority of Cassini opponents I've encountered, he seems to be uninterested in understanding what he opposes.

I am an engineer and a technophile. In particular, I like space technology. I even like nuclear reactors (provided they are well-designed.) I do not expect everyone to share my admiration for these technologies, nor do I require everyone to have an engineering-level understanding of them — to be the proverbial "rocket scientist." However, a basic understanding is essential for making good choices in this technology-filled world. To the extent that a Cassini opponent — or anyone — lacks that basic understanding, they are flying blind. I call that regrettable.

But I also call it understandable. For it is true that both space technology and nuclear technology have in America been handled less responsibly than they might have been. Nuclear technology (both weapons manufacture and commercial power reactors) has a long history of inadequate designs, careless operations and even deception. It is also true that American schools have not consistently taught science adequately. So I can accept that some might doubt any claim that comes from what they have learned to see as a corrupt establishment willing to push technology that threatens human life.

What I will not accept is those doubters refusing to listen to anyone who is in favor of technology. True, I cannot force them to listen. But what I can do is to point out certain truths:

  • That, despite what our lamentable track record might have led some to believe, nuclear technology is not inherently fatal to human life;
  • That the history which records its safe and successful uses is not all a tissue of lies;
  • That not everyone who advocates RTGs or reactors is part of a conspiracy to "militarize space" (assuming that such an absurd conspiracy even exists);
  • That engineers are usually paid according to how well and safely their creations perform, not how well they put one over on the public;
  • That, in the case of Cassini, the public has had chances to review the documentation, to assess the risks, and to make their views known; and
  • That technologists and their families also live on planet Earth. If they poison others, they will poison their own children as well.

That these things are truths is something anyone who cares to look can verify. Yes, some engineers have done bad designs, some managers have been short-sighted or careless, some politicians have been corrupt. It is right to be on guard for such failings, and to protest them when they are found.

On the other hand, those who see inept design, bad judgement, lies and conspiracies everywhere are not the clear-headed few who have escaped a delusion that afflicts the rest of us. They are not in the vanguard; instead, they are likely to be left behind.

So I intend to continue pointing out these truths. When doing so, I hope to shed more light than heat. But if heat is what it takes, then that is what I will apply.

NOTE: The opinions expressed here are solely my own.

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Copyright © 1997-2015 Christopher P. Winter. All rights reserved.
This page was created in 1997. Its contents were last modified on 25 October 2015.