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24 August 2013 | NewScientist | 5
“A PECULIARLY pointless piece of symbolism that understood nothing about the digital age.” So said Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, after revealing that UK security officials had smashed up hard drives at his newspaper’s offices, believed to contain documentation of leaks by the fugitive US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.
He wrote shortly after news arrived of the detention of David Miranda, partner of the Guardian journalist who broke Snowden’s story, for 9 hours at Heathrow airport. His electronic devices were also confiscated.
As New Scientist went to press, details of these incidents were still emerging. But they are puzzling. The existence of offshore servers
and encrypted backups makes the seizure of physical devices seem like posturing, akin to shutting the stable door after the horse has been cloned and shipped around the world. Rusbridger noted that his paper’s investigation would continue – just not in London.
Good. Whether smashing up computers or snooping on calls and emails, the apparatus of state security needs more scrutiny, not less. And it’s not just journalists who should care about that. n
Naming the final frontier
If we need names for objects in space, why not let everyone chip in?
THE ambitiously titled Spaceport America sits just outside Truth or Consequences, a small city in New Mexico that changed its name in 1950 to tie in with a popular radio quiz. Undignified? Perhaps. But there’s a long list of Old West towns whose names come with a colourful story, often relating to how they were settled. Tombstone, Arizona, for example, was named by its founder, who had reputedly been warned the place would be the death of him.
Soon, suborbital joyrides will start departing from Spaceport America. Expeditions to explore, mine and settle nearby planets and asteroids are planned. There are even starry-eyed dreamers who have designs on escaping the solar system altogether – although such schemes are very unlikely to be realised any time soon (see page 8).
All this activity is reflected in a shift in the public perception of space: from “heavenly realm” to everyday reality. So the pledge by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to heed public opinion when naming celestial bodies is in-keeping with the zeitgeist – even if its hand was forced by the good-natured outcry
over its earlier decision to ignore a bid, led by Star Trek star William Shatner, to name a Plutonian moon “Vulcan” (see page 7).
Traditionalists will probably have welcomed the earlier decision and may rue the IAU’s change of heart. Vulcan, the Roman god of fire whom the Trekkies professed,
somewhat disingenuously, to be commemorating, is hardly an appropriate moniker for a body in the frigid outer wastes of the solar system. Alas, the chance to bestow the more classically appropriate name Persephone on a Plutonian companion seems to have passed.
Those trying to preserve the dignity of space may have qualms (see page 27). But the time for nominative prissiness may have passed too. For the moment, the IAU retains the final word, but with an ever-growing list of celestial bodies needing names, odds are that it will sooner or later have to cede power to the people.
Then, formality will give way to folklore. One day, perhaps, the space-born will swap yarns about how their settlements got their quaint names: continuing a tradition from the wild frontier to the final frontier. n
No smashing the system
“Pledging to heed public opinion when naming celestial bodies is in line with the zeitgeist ”
“I WILL break up my father’s empire.” The film Inception tells the story of an attempt to influence a businessman’s behaviour by using futuristic gadgetry to get inside his mind.
That makes for an exciting movie, but there’s a simpler way. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus can condition people just by planting false information on a personality profile. For example, “reminding” someone of that time they drank far too much vodka as a teen may make them want to drink less of it in the future (see page 28), even if
the event never occurred. Is this ethical? That, of course,
depends on how voluntary the procedure is. (Loftus has already had requests from people seeking to kick habits.) Fiddling with one’s memory might seem creepy, but it has a precedent. People have long drunk to forget. Perhaps soon we’ll remember to not drink. n
Remember to forget
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