Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bad Science? Former Microsoft Exec Accuses NASA of Statistical Errors

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bad Science? Former Microsoft Exec Accuses NASA of Statistical Errors

Article excerpt

Not everyone's hobby is to pick apart scientific papers, but Nathan Myhrvold has done just that.

In 2013 the former Microsoft chief technologist published a paper pointing out statistical errors in research about the growth rate of dinosaurs that ultimately led to several journal corrections of a Florida State University paleontologist's papers.

Now Dr. Myhrvold is taking on NASA and stirring controversy.

Myhrvold is not an astronomer, but the topic he's tackling is the identification and description of asteroids.

"He's a very smart man," Lindley Johnson, who oversees NASA's planetary defense program, told The New York Times. "But that doesn't make him an expert in everything."

So what are Myhrvold's grievances?

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer spacecraft has been gathering data on celestial objects from space since 2009, including the heat emissions of asteroids. NEOWISE, an offshoot of the WISE mission, uses that data to calculate the size and reflectivity of asteroids.

This information could help scientists predict which asteroids might slam into Earth and cause massive damage in the future.

But Myhrvold, who analyzes the NEOWISE results in a paper submitted to the journal Icarus and published online ahead of review, says that the WISE and NEOWISE research is filled with errors.

"The bad news is it's all basically wrong," he told the Times. "Unfortunately for a lot of it, it's never going to be as accurate as they had hoped."

NASA scientists claim that the WISE and NEOWISE missions can determine the diameter of asteroids within about 10 percent of their actual size. Myhrvold says that, thanks to mistakes along the way, it is much more inaccurate and estimates could be more than 100 percent off.

But they also calculate asteroids' reflectivity incorrectly too, Myhrvold says. He suggests they fail to account for Kirchhoff's law of thermal radiation, which states that shinier objects radiate less heat, in their thermal models of asteroids. …

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