Astronomers of the Future Club - February 2019 Meeting Report

by Duncan Lunan - 19:11 on 08 March 2019





Astronomers of the Future Club - February 2019 Meeting Report

by Duncan Lunan


At the meeting of the Astronomers of the Future Club in Troon, on Thursday February 28th, the speaker was Dr. Neil McDonnell of Glasgow University, speaking about ‘Why Philosophy Matters to Safety Engineers’, with particular reference to the University’s Ph.D. student project on safety aspects of sending people back to the Moon. The invitation was prompted by a story in The National, November 27th 2018, headlined ‘One Giant Step for Ph.D. Student to Help NASA Build New Moon Base’. Dr. McDonnell emphasised that his brief doesn’t specifically relate to NASA’s new plans for a lunar space station and a Moon base. However, his own Ph.D. thesis on causation had led to an invitation to visit NASA in Virginia in 2017, as part of a study there on accident investigation, and he has been asked to set up a Ph.D.-level project to study aspects of it which are particularly relevant to spaceflight. However NASA is not allowed to fund overseas activities, so the enquiry is an ongoing collaboration, not commissioned or financed from the USA.

While it might seem strange for philosophers to engage in such practical matters, Dr. McDonnell pointed out that the supposed limitation of philosophy to ‘pure’ thought is a modern one. Aristotle, Plato, Galileo and Newton all considered themselves to be philosophers, specifically natural philosophers, and the Department of Physics at Glasgow University was still called ‘Natural Philosophy’ until the 1970s. Dr. McDonnell’s department looks at the concepts at the core of safety engineering in ways which engineers themselves are not trained to do, examining the philosophy and epistemology of causation – and proceeded to demonstrate why traditional methods are inadequate, particularly in the field of accident investigation, with a thought-provoking and amusing analysis liberally illustrated with cartoons and quotations. NASA is trying to formulate criteria which will allow them to state with certainty, “X is safe”, but the requirements for civil aviation are very different from those of military aircraft and operations, let alone spaceflight. What counts as evidence?

The next meeting of the Astronomers of the Future Club will be on Thursday March 28th, from 19:15 to 21:00 hrs at the RSAS Barassie Works Club, 4 Shore Road, Troon, KA10 6AG. The speaker will be Dr. Martin Sweatman of Edinburgh University School of Engineering, speaking about ‘Prehistory Decoded: a science odyssey’, on the astronomical significance of ancient cave paintings, as reported in the press last year (Charlie Jarvis, ‘Ancient Astronomy Paintings Discovered’, The National, November 28th, 2018).

For more details contact Alan Martin (Chairman of AOTF Club) on: 07947 331 632, or see the AOTF Club web page (http://www.actascio.org/aotfclub.asp).


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