Monday, January 23, 2012

Short Sharp Science - 'Newt Skywalker' wins South Carolina primary

Peter Aldhous, San Francisco bureau chief
(Image: Richard Ellis/Getty)

Following his stunning victory in the Republican presidential primary in South Carolina, former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich is being dubbed the comeback kid. This famously combative politician, often referred to as the GOP's "attack dog", has another nickname that should amuse New Scientist readers: Newt Skywalker.
The moniker stems from Gingrich's longstanding interest in technology – allied to an expansive vision that sometimes seems to blur the line between science fact and science fiction. As Politico explains:
"Gingrich earned the Star Wars-era nickname in the 1980s and '90s – back when his high-tech, futuristic proselytizing landed his face, bathed in electric lime, on the cover of Wired."
Gingrich was selected by Scientific American earlier this month as the Republican candidate with the most convincing geek credentials. He has enthusiastically backed investment in research and science education as vital to spurring economic growth, and has a passion for zoos and conservation.
But some of Gingrich's wilder statements on technological issues will cause raised eyebrows from those with their feet planted firmly on earth. Gingrich's technological vision has extended to discussing lunar colonies to harvest minerals, deploying lasers to knock out North Korean missiles, and apocalyptic warnings about the US being sent crashing into a new dark age by an electromagnetic pulse from an airborne nuclear blast.
The ease with which Gingrich embraces speculative technologies relates to a more general criticism of the candidate: he is a fount of big ideas, but often has trouble distinguishing those worth pursuing from the mere fanciful.
His shifting position on climate change – apparently to triangulate with the intense scepticism that has become Republican orthodoxy – may also give scientists pause for thought. As recently as 2007, he backed cap-and-trade to control US greenhouse emissions, and in 2008 he made a video for Al Gore's Alliance for Climate protection with Democrat Nancy Pelosi, then House speaker, in which he said:
"[W]e do agree that our country must take action to address climate change ... If enough of us demand action from our leaders, we can spark the innovation that we need."
Now Gingrich says "there is no settled scientific conclusion" on whether human activities are causing global warming, and earlier this month he abruptly cut a chapter contributed by a prominent climate scientist from a book on environmental issues to be published under his name.
This week should provide a good opportunity to judge Gingrich's positions on space exploration, as he is promising a "visionary speech" in Florida, home to NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
Space enthusiasts will be watching closely, given Gingrich's previous withering criticism of NASA. At a debate in December, he had this to say:
"You have a National Aeronautics and Space Administration which has currently got no vehicles that can get to the space station. Has it occurred to you to wonder what the billions are for and what the thousands of employees are doing? They sit around and they think space."
In an interview in Florida a few months earlier, Gingrich emphasised the role of the private sector and set his sights on Mars (giving him some common ground with the Obama administration):
I think that we frankly ought to ... put up a big prize, challenge the private sector, and get back into space within two years, and in an aggressive way. We ought to set a goal of getting to the moon, getting permanently on Mars."
Newt Skywalker, or future president? Voters in the Florida Republican primary will get their say on 31 January.

1 comment:

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