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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Congratulations to all the TV newsreaders...

.... who managed to say
Vitas Plytnykas was found guilty at the high court in Edinburgh of killing Jolanta Bledaite in Brechin
Fiona Bruce hesitated before starting the sentence but she managed it. For non-Scots the "ch" in Brechin is as in "loch" as sound foreign to standard english.

Some brickbats to Channel 4 News who said Vitas had been in the Russian army. He had been in the Soviet army. I don't think either Russians or Lithuanians would appreciate that.

Friday, February 13, 2009


This is a term invented by Richard Feynman that I linked into a few days ago. The "cargo cults" happened in the south seas when at the end of WW2 the Americans went home & supplies of Coca-cola, comic books etc for the natives dried up. The natives decided to build their own airfields etc out of bamboo & hope they would fool the great sky gods into resuming deliveries. Hence cargo cult science is where the "scientist" puts on a white coat but omits to do real experiments, theory testing & general scientific method.

Catastrophic global warming is a common hunting ground. There is no actual evidence that it is happening but a lot of flashy film of people in white coats & computer programmes (repeatedly found to be nonsense or using nonsense data) & wholly corrupt fascists like Monty Don on Question Time yesterday saying 99% of scientists support them. The passive smoking scare is another. If SEPA prove unable to produce genuine proof that their radium paint is actual paint they would be another. The papers are full of "reports" by "researchers" about the dangers of salt, salmon, having short fingers, what we would evolve into if we spend 100,000 years etc all based either on "statistical research" of asking about 30 people or extrapolating some well known principle beyond any validity. Or creationism which is neither more nor less cargo cultism than the rest.

I ran across Feynman's remark backtracking a google hit on my article about Professor Hulme's article in the Guardian about "post normal science" which fits the definition with a particular emphasis on the alleged duty of the scientist to fix his conclusions to fit the preconceptions of those in power with its conclusion that " scientists ... must trade (normal) truth for influence". There is an awful lot of it about.

During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas -- which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn't work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact, that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked -- or very little of it did.

....But then I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to check on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you'll see the reading scores keep going down -- or hardly going up -- in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There's a witch doctor remedy that doesn't work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress -- lots of theory, but no progress -- in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by this pseudoscience. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it some other way -- or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn't do "the right thing", according to the experts.

So we really ought to look into theories that don't work, and science that isn't science.

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas -- he's the controller -- and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.

if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid -- not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked -- to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can -- if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong -- to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.

The easiest way to explain this idea is to contrast it, for example, with advertising

So by Mann's very act of refusing to make the algorithms of his Hockey Stick fraud public or by refusing to say what experimental proof they have, or don't have of the radium being paint SEPA have proved that they are not scientists but merely advertising flacks doing cargo cult science. The only question remaining is whether, by the standards of advertising flacks their advertising is honest or dishonest.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


When I put up yesterday's post I wrote to SEPA asking:

I have put up a further article on my blog today. If you feel that any of my conclusions are factually wrong I would certainly like you to have the chance to correct them. If you choose not to I will assume you do not dispute them, in which case you should issue a public retraction & ask the BBC to correct their public record.
To which they have now replied
I refer to your email dated 11th February 2009.

Thank you for giving SEPA the opportunity to respond to your blog.

SEPA does not accept the assertions you have made. SEPA stands by its position & does not consider that it would be useful to repeat its opinions on this matter.

Neither SEPA nor its officers are under a duty to deny allegations made in your blog. The absence of a response to the specific points raised does not indicate that SEPA accepts the allegations made. For the avoidance of doubt, neither SEPA nor any of its officers have lied in relation to radium at Dalgety Bay. SEPA reserves its position in relation to the allegations, particularly if the allegations are to be made widely known.

While it may be that SEPA & you have different opinions in relation to radium at Dalgety Bay it is not acceptable that you allege that SEPA or its officers have lied about the matter.

Yours Sincerely
Byron Tilly
Radioactive Substances Manager Bay.
My reply
Thank you for your letter which I have read with interest. I think it likely that there are many matters of opinion on which we might legitimately differ.

I note that on the matters of fact in my posts you do not choose to deny anything I have said & since they differ quite firmly from what SEPA & you have stated both on the radio & elsewhere a reasonable person would assume that that choice was made because the facts are as I stated them. However my offer to publish a letter from you pointing out any error of fact you feel I may have made still stands.

From the style of your letter would I be correct in thinking a lawyer, paid for by the taxpayer, has been involved in its drafting?

In any case, until such time as you are willing to present any alternative to what I have said, I trust you will understand that I must ask for your assurance that no SEPA representative will ever make what could be considered a criticism of the accuracy of my words in a way you are not willing to do directly.

I have also contacted a number of MSPs to ask if they think such unjustified fearmongering is a proper use of public funds. In fairness to them any response will be confidential unless they authorise publication.

UPDATE I sent them this on Friday morning:

On further consideration I must ask you to clarify part of what you wrote. That "Neither SEPA nor its officers are under a duty to deny allegations made." My first letter to you, on February 2nd, simply asked for confirmation of the method of scientific testing which, you stated on the radio had been done. How had it unequivocally proven that the particles were of radium paint as you stated? I also requested figures for the background radiation at Dalgety & adjoining beaches. I assume such measurements have been made since it would obviously be impossible to claim a dangerous or even significant increase without them.

My 2nd & 3rd repetitions of this request invoked the Freedom of Information Act. Could you please advise what exactly are the grounds you had for saying that the duties of the FoI do not apply to SEPA or to this particular request & that neither SEPA nor its officers are under a duty to obey it.


Not my words but those of the Sydney Morning Herald who are clearly annoyed at the perhaps 300 unnecessary deaths. However since Green politicians & their media liars cause the deaths of 24,000 people in Britain annually because of the fuel poverty they know could be ended with nuclear power, it would be even more reasonable for some part of the British media to say the same. There is certainly no question that the Greens, of all parties, are deliberate mass murderers. Instead we have seen reporting which implicitly blames the warming, though it has been difficult for the BBC to stress catastrophic warming in the current British climate.

I got this item from CCNet which anybody can subscribe to here & which anybody who wants to know something more than the lies the BBC cover us with should do.

The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 February 2009

Miranda Devine

It wasn't climate change which killed as many as 300 people in Victoria last weekend. It wasn't arsonists. It was the unstoppable intensity of a bushfire, turbo-charged by huge quantities of ground fuel which had been allowed to accumulate over years of drought. It was the power of green ideology over government to oppose attempts to reduce fuel hazards before a megafire erupts, and which prevents landholders from clearing vegetation to protect themselves.

So many people need not have died so horribly. The warnings have been there for a decade. If politicians are intent on whipping up a lynch mob to divert attention from their own culpability, it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but greenies.

Governments appeasing the green beast have ignored numerous state and federal bushfire inquiries over the past decade, almost all of which have recommended increasing the practice of "prescribed burning". Also known as "hazard reduction", it is a methodical regime of burning off flammable ground cover in cooler months, in a controlled fashion, so it does not fuel the inevitable summer bushfires.

In July 2007 Scott Gentle, the Victorian manager of Timber Communities Australia, who lives in Healesville where two fires were still burning yesterday, gave testimony to a Victorian parliamentary bushfire inquiry so prescient it sends a chill down your spine.

"Living in an area like Healesville, whether because of dumb luck or whatever, we have not experienced a fire ... since ... about 1963. God help us if we ever do, because it will make Ash Wednesday look like a picnic." God help him, he was right.

Gentle complained of obstruction from green local government authorities of any type of fire mitigation strategies. He told of green interference at Kinglake - at the epicentre of Saturday's disaster, where at least 147 people died - during a smaller fire there in 2007.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Dalgety Bay.

Steuart Campbell is a science writer author of a number of books, mainly debunking scientific illiteracy & regular writer of letters on the nuclear issue in the Scotsman. We first met when, in 2001, we were the only 2 people to speak at the Scottish LibDim conference to say windmills would not be enough & we would need nuclear power - but we still got 1/3rd of the audience on our side. He was better known than me but has also since been unable to remain in the party because of the scientific illiterates. We often don't agree but both respect facts so that is fine. Not being sure how much I was being lied to over the Dalgety bay radiation hazard discussed here & here I asked his advice & thank him for this:
I was myself interested in what radium paint is. Apparently, it consisted of a radium salt (radium chloride), zinc sulphide and a glue binder. The zinc sulphide emits light when struck by the radionuclides. It seems that the radium involved was Ra-226 that emits alpha particles, which, as you probably know, cannot penetrate skin, or even a sheet of paper (some sources say that gamma rays are also emitted but I can't confirm that).

According to Sumner, Wheldon and Watson (Radiation Risks), a layer of normal soil one foot deep and one mile square would produce, inter alia, 1 g of Ra. So some Ra at Dalgety Bay would be natural.

According to, radium decomposes in water! Surely RaCl2 would do so.

Doesn't that mean that the radium on Dalgety Beach must all have dissolved by now? Or does it mean that the Cl2 has dissolved, leaving just the Ra?
So if:

Firstly the amount of paint in numbers on the dials of about 20 bombers would be enough to cover no more than a few square inches & might weigh about 1/10th of a gram. Of that we would expect about half to be gum & the rest to be of the other 4 elements, of which only radium is radioactive. Thus the radium initially deposited would be a very small fraction of that which was there naturally.

Secondly natural radium is a very small fraction indeed of all naturally occurring radioactives - uranium being far greater, thorium 4 times greater than uranium etc.

Thirdly radium is water solvent. Now you can leave a soluble paint for decades in somewhere completely dry, like the interior of the Great Pyramid, for a very long time without damage.

Not the foreshore of Dalgety Bay.

Soluble paint would drain away within days let alone 60 years.

Fourthly, even were it to be true that this level of radiation could be harmful, according to the report, if you spent 2000 hours on the beach you would still only have a 1:900 chance of interacting with (ie walking on) a particle.

Fifthly there actually is no evidence for the linear no threshold (LNT) theory of damage. ALL the evidence actually supports the hormesis theory.

Sixthly ignoring that the amount of radioactivity produced by these dials has never been shown to have done any harm to those using them in real life.

Seventhly if there was actually conclusive evidence that radioactive dials had been dumped & they had not merely lied about a radioactive dial & paint vial having been found.

Eigthly SEPA had not deliberately lied to the audience about having tested the radioactive particles & proven them to be paint (& were still maintaining that lie).

Ninethly the amount of radioactivity from these particles would still be many orders of magnitude (many 10s of times) less than the natural radiation we do not suffer from every day.

Or, tenthly, it was even further less than the natural radiation that, while officially above the "safe limit" occurs in many places in the world, including tourist centres like Yellowstone, has never harmed anybody.

If a single 1 of these 10 is as I & the evidence say then SEPA have lied, deliberately & continuously, for the specific purpose of creating an eco-fascist "hobgoblin" to frighten us into giving them ever bigger budgets. As can be seen they have in fact lied on all 10. They have done so without the slightest concern for the false fears it may put locals under or indeed the damage to tourism & the local economy.

I assume that what the eco-fascists are saying about Dounreay beach or indeed the rather more radioactive beach in Aberdeen is equally devoid of honesty.

As obviously are the newspapers, particularly the Herald who appear to have effectively merely rewritten SEPA's press releases.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


This is a reply I got from SEPA to my email given on last Monday's blog together with my response, new questions & repetition of unanswered ones
Thank you for your enquiry about the radium contamination that has been found at Dalgety Bay.

While I recognise that radium-226 is a naturally occurring radionuclide, being part of the uranium-238 decay series, the concentration of radium found at Dalgety Bay is many orders of magnitude higher than is found in nature, and as such is a consequence of a man-made activity.

For example one of the particles identifed had an activity of 147,000 Bq of Radium-226 with a weight of just over 1 gram. This compares with activity levels of a few hundred Bq per Kg for the most active granites. There is therefore roughly a factor of 1 million between natural concentrations and the activity found in the items reciovered at Dalgety Bay in this case. Other particles found also present large factors between the radium concentration found and those that occur naturally. The information on particle activity is contained within the report found on SEPA's web site. On this basis the presence of the radium found at Dalgety Bay cannot be attributed to natural sources. This is the evidence to which I referred during the interview on Radio Scotland last week.

The lack of high concentrations of the higher members of the uranium-238 series consistent with the radium found also points to the radium being of man made origin.

Over the years, many items have been recovered from the Dalgety Beach including luminised dials, a vial of active material, and there is therefore strong circumstantial evidence for there being luminised paint items on the beach. Previously much of the activity recovered was associated with clinker which demonstrated that the material had been burned in the past. The burning of luminised items was once a common disposal practice and I have experience of that type of contamination at another site which has now been remediated. We are also aware that the small particles or flakes that have been found on the beach are similar to those described to us by someone who worked on the airfield after the second world war when luminised intrumnetrs continude to be maintained and repaired.

The sentence to which you refer in your email about our belief is not about whether or not the contamination is due to luminised paint, but relates to the degree of proof that it is due to activities of the MoD.

I trust that this addresses your questions.

Byron Tilly
Radioactive Substances Manager

Thank you for your letter Mr Tilly which, on first reading sounds impressive. Less so on seeing what it actually says & equally what it doesn't.

The claim that radium must be artificial because it is "orders of magnitude" (i.e. 10s of times) greater than background is dubious. When Henri & Marie Curie processed many tons of pitchblende to find enough radium to cover the bottom of a cup they were starting with something orders of magnitude more concentrated than background - indeed that is implicit in the ore of any rare material. Had the measuring instruments existed at the time the Curies would certainly have found particles within the pitchblende which was in turn orders of magnitude more radioactive than that - indeed that is ultimately what they did. I would be interested to know whether you have investigated Kerala, Yellowstone Park or Guarapart bech in Brazil, all with natural radiation levels much higher than official safe limits without even statistiical evidence of any harm, to determine that similar levels do not occur naturally there?

Your claim to have found actual dials is more spectacular. On the other hand it raises the question - if you have found such radioactive dials, in the plural, lying about on the beach why does your report limit itself to claiming "A total of 37 items were retrieved from 29 locations in the survey area. The depth at which these items were retrieved ranged from surface to 270 mm below ground level. The size of the recovered items varied from 1 mm to 120 mm, whilst the weight range was less than 1 g to 380 g." This is like saying you found evidence of mice behind the skirting board but never thought to mention the herd of elephants. Even more surprising is the claim to have found a vial of (radio)active material. If this is a vial of radium paint, as you imply, which had lain unbroken on the shore for over 50 years it would be a most remarkable specimen - particularly since the painting of the dial took place prior to the manufacture of the aircraft, rather than when it was being flown so there is no conceivable reason why it would have been on the airfield in the first place.

As to what you don't say. Firstly you don't say that the claim, made nationally & still being maintained by SEPA, to have analysed actual radioactive particles & proven them to have been paint, is actually in any way true. Even if some non-radioactive paint particles have been found this does not prove they came from the airfield, let alone from the aircraft in question, let alone from the cabin of the aircraft, let alone from numbers painted on the interior of a few dials. Is the claim to have had these microscopic particles tested & proven to be paint true or false? If it is false when did SEPA ask the BBC to report this & fire the man who said it?

Secondly SEPA have refused to answer my question about background radiation in the area & adjoining beaches. Is Dalgety Bay's significantly above that found elsewhere? Does it even approach the levels found elsewhere, including in popular tourist attractions like Yellowstone mentioned above?

If the answer to any of these questions is No then SEPA have clearly lied & are maintaining the lie, in a manner bound to inspire false fears in the public & to have a positive effect on your own budget. As Mencken said "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." What actual evidence have you that this particular hobgoblin is not imaginary.

On a slightly different matter was the statement by SEPA representative Colin Bayes, reported by you that the MOD have recognised that the radiation comes from them & it is their responsibility to clear it up actually true?

Monday, February 09, 2009


I did an article on historic X-Prizes previously. Well here are edited excerpts from comments on a Spacepolitics discussion on the subject which adds a lot more:

Bill wrote @ June 10th, 2007 at 8:58 am
I worked for Newt in the 90s), but here’s a mid-90s quote from the Speaker:

“We want to explore the use of prizes, which have been used in the West since the late Seventeenth Century and have had a big impact… We want to explore the use of prizes where, if we have a goal we want to achieve, let’s set up a prize and whichever entrepreneur gets there first gets the money.”
Newt Gingrich, 1995


Newt was also one of the key figures in saving DC-X in the early 90s []

Ray wrote @ June 11th, 2007 at 9:59 pm
... there’s a Mars Prize that was won just a few days ago: the $5,000 University Mars Rover prize by the Mars Society.

anonymous wrote @ June 12th, 2007 at 2:35 am
A follow-up post with a more complete list of technology inducement prizes have initiated and/or transformed whole companies and/or industries:

...1775 - Alkali Prize

In 1775, King Louis XVI offered a prize of 2,400 livres to anyone who found a commercially viable artificial process for the production of alkali. Naturally occurring alkali was used in paper, soap, and glass production, but discovery of an artificial process in 1791 by Nicolas Leblanc enabled much greater production and launched the French chemical industry.

1795 - Napoleon’s Food Preservation Prize

In 1795, Napoleon’s Society for the Encouragement of Industry offered a 12,000 franc prize for a method of food preservation to help feed Napoleon’s army. Nicolas Appert devised a solution using champagne bottles in 1809 and was awarded the prize in 1810 on the condition that he publish his methods. The discovery marked the beginning of the canning industry.

1820 - Montyon Prizes

In 1820, the French Royal Academy of Sciences began offering large monetary awards after a private donor established the Montyon Fund for prizes in medicine… In the mid-1800’s, private contributions to the French Royal Academy lead to the establishment of dozens of additional monetary prizes. These included the Jecker Prize, established in 1851 “to accelerate the progress of organic chemistry”… Charles Friedel was among the winners of the Jecker Prize for his now famous Friedel-Crafts reaction.

1823 - Turbine Prize

In 1823 the French Society for the Encouragement of Industry offered a prize of 6,000 francs for the development of a large-scale commercial hydraulic turbine. The prize was won in 1827 by then 25 year-old Benoit Fourneyron. His turbine was placed in the public domain and was immediately implemented across Europe and helped to power the burgeoning New England textile industry.

1895 - Chicago Times-Herald Prize for Motors

In 1895, the Chicago Times-Herald offered a $5000 Prize for Motors to be awarded for the development of “practicable, self propelling road carriages,” as determined by a 54-mile race. The winner was J. Frank Duryea. Even more than the prize money, the publicity generated did much to promote investment in automotive innovation.

1903 - Deutsch-Archdeacon Prize

In 1903, French Aero Club members Earnest Archdeacon and Henry Deutsch de la Meurthe offered a prize of 50,000 francs to the first pilot to fly a heavier-than-air vehicle in a 1km circular course. Henry Farman won the prize in 1907, and went on to become a commercial airplane manufacturer.

1909 - Rheims Airshow Prizes

Also in 1909, several prizes for speed, distance, and altitude were offered at the Rheims Airshow. Glenn Curtiss won two prizes for speed, including the Gordon Bennett Prize, and launched an airplane manufacturing business with his winnings.

...2001 - Innocentive

The now independent company InnoCentive was founded by Eli Lilly in 2001 as a registry for scientific innovation prizes. Companies post specific scientific needs, a prize amount, and a deadline. The innovator providing the best solution is awarded the prize. To date, over 80 prizes have been awarded.

2005 - Grainger Challenges

In 2005, the National Academy of Engineering announced the first in a planned series of Grainger Challenges, offering a $1 million first prize and $200 and $100 thousand second and third prizes for the development of economical filtration devices for the removal or arsenic from well water in developing countries. Over 70 entries were submitted, and Abul Hussan was announced the winner in 2007 for his SONO filter that has already been implemented to provide safe drinking water to 400,000 people.

For those advocating lunar/asteroid sample return prizes, these two may be of interest:

1991 - FCC Pioneer Preferences

In 1991, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the Pioneer Preference Program, offering a reward of preferential licensing (worth many millions of dollars) for the development of new spectrum-using communications services and technologies. Five companies received the reward before the program ended in 1997, and a sixth, Qualcomm, was granted the award for its development of digital wireless technology after a legal appeal.

2000 - Goldcorp Challenge

Also in 2000, the gold mining company Goldcorp introduced the Goldcorp Challenge: the company released all of its geological data on an underperforming Canadian mine, and offered $575,000 in prizes including a grand prize of $105,000 for the most accurate predictions of where to dig to find the most gold. Over 1,400 people participated from 50 countries, with 80% of 110 identified digging sites yielding significant quantities of gold. A partnership of two Australian companies using computer fractal technology won the grand prize in 2001.

The text above is excerpted from

Again, we shouldn’t oversell prizes. For example, there are a few failed prizes listed at the website above.

But neither should we make false claims constraining the limits of inducement prizes. History clearly shows that they can be a powerful tool for innovation.

Thomas Matula wrote @ June 12th, 2007 at 2:41 pm
Yes there were many failures, most of which are excluded from lists like this one, which is why prizes were replaced by grants in the 20th Century as a way for advancing technology. For example the website misses the Longitude Prize offered by King Phillip III in 1598 and a similar one offered by the Dutch in the same year. But then the technology for clock making was not advanced enough for the conditions of the prize. Even the Longitude Prize offered in 1714 took over 60 years to win and the inventor had to wait decades for payment while other clockmakers stole his intellectual property.

And from that same website you cited.

some other examples of prizes that advanced technology.

And we know how computer innovation was driven in the 1980’s and 1990’s by the Fredkin Prize.

[[[1980 - Fredkin Prize

In 1980, computer scientist Edward Fredkin offered a $100,000 prize for the first computer chess program to beat a reigning world chess champion. IBM’s Deep Blue Chess team won the prize in 1996 when their machine defeated Gary Kasparov.]]]

And even the successful Alkali Prize shows two of the problems with prizes – intellectual property ownership and getting the money you won.

[[[1775 - Alkali Prize

In 1775, King Louis XVI offered a prize of 2,400 livres to anyone who found a commercially viable artificial process for the production of alkali. Naturally occurring alkali was used in paper, soap, and glass production, but discovery of an artificial process in 1791 by Nicolas Leblanc enabled much greater production and launched the French chemical industry. Unfortunately for Leblanc, the French Revolution destroyed his alkali factory and prevented the King from giving Leblanc his award. Leblanc committed suicide in 1806, and it was not until 1855 that his heirs received the prize payment from the French government.]]]

Industry stole his invention, without compensation, while the King lost his head before paying the prize.

Same with the famous Napoleon prize for food preservation.

[[[1795 - Napoleon's Food Preservation Prize

In 1795, Napoleon’s Society for the Encouragement of Industry offered a 12,000 franc prize for a method of food preservation to help feed Napoleon’s army. Nicolas Appert devised a solution using champagne bottles in 1809 and was awarded the prize in 1810 on the condition that he publish his methods. The discovery marked the beginning of the canning industry.]]]

I expect the patent rights would have been worth far more the 12,000 francs, even in 1810.

Actually there is a very solid literature in economics on prizes and their role in innovation strategies. I will provide a reading list below tomorrow for those interested in actually learning something about prizes and technological development beyond the current hype.

However the Senate already knows the real advantages and limitations of prizes as Molly Macauley, a Ph.D. in economists who works for the group Resources for the Future testified on it at the Senate hearings on the Centennial prizes.

A copy of her testimony is located here.

It’s a pity space advocates ignore it. Instead, they believe like the Soviet economists believed, that prizes are the ultimate solution and a substitute for markets and ROI. The results of Soviet economic policy show the risks of basing a national technical innovation policy on prizes as many libertarians propose…

Also from the website to a number of academic and political papers on the economics of prizes (in the “Papers” section on the right side).

...Here’s an old Mars Society document that has a section on a “Mars Prize” about the size of the one we’re discussing. The prize part is on pages 10-11. You can see that it proposes a few smaller prizes to develop “building blocks” for the big prize.

Even the smallest prize in this proposal is huge compared to the prizes that are actually out or trying to get funding.

Anon June 15th

It’s hard to find examples on either side of the Atlantic where European-style government loan subsidies have produced an independent, profitable, going concern, nevertheless an independent, market-leading competitor. Governments are notoriously bad at picking the right private sector solution; the government loan subsidies choke off much greater amounts of private sector investment and competition; and it’s very difficult to wean companies off government loan subsidies once they become reliant on the low cost of capital.

Thomas Matula wrote @ June 18th, 2007 at 6:30 pm
Even adjusted for inflation, the $10 million X-Prize was probably the largest prize in history and is clearing approaching the limit for practical prizes. I am being generous when I place that limit at a $100 million. And that limit would only work if there are major markets waiting for the winning entry, and even for the also rans.

Thomas Matula wrote @ June 18th, 2007 at 6:41 pm

Exactly. The Russians invested directly in the development of new rocket engines. They did not offer prizes for them.

Thomas Matula wrote @ June 18th, 2007 at 6:41 pm
...Here is the list of articles I indicated;

Arrow, Kenneth J. (1969). ‘Classificatory Notes on the Production and Transmission of Technological Knowledge,’ American Economic Review, 59: 29-35.

Che, Yeon-Koo, and Ian Gale. 2003. Optimal design of research contests. American EconomicReview 93 (3):646-671.

Crawford, Elisabeth 1980. The prize system of the academy of sciences, 1850-1914. In Robert Fox and George Weisz, editors, The organization of science and technology in France 1808-1914, pages 283–307. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Crosland, Maurice 1979. From prizes to grants in the support of scientific research in France in the nineteenth century: The montyon legacy. Minerva, 17(3):355–380.

Crosland, Maurice and Antonio Galvez, 1989. The emergence of research grants within the prize system of the french academy of sciences, 1795-1914. Social Studies of Science, 19:71–100.

Hanson, Robin Hanson 1998. Patterns of Patronage:
Why Grants Won Over Prizes in Science.

Harry Paul. The trouble with prizes. In From Knowledge to Power, The Rise of the Science Empire in France, 1860-1939, pages 288–293. Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Llobet, Gerard, Hugo Hopenhayn, and Matthew Mitchell 2000. Rewarding Sequential Innovators: Prizes, Patents and Buyouts, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Research Department Staff Report 273

Macauley, Molly K. 2005. Advantages and disadvantages of prizes in a portfolio of financial incentives for space activities. Space Policy 21 (1):29-39.

Moldovanu, Benny, and Aner Sela. 2001. The optimal allocation of prizes in contests. American Economic Review 91 (3):542-558.

Nalebuff, Barry J., and Joseph E. Stiglitz. 1983. Prizes and incentives: Towards a general theory of compensation and competition. Bell Journal of Economics 14 (1):21-43.

National Academy of Engineering (NAE). 1999. Concerning federally sponsored inducement prizes in engineering and science. Washington, DC.

Shavell, Steven, and Tanguy van Ypersele. 1999. Rewards versus intellectual property rights. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Jack Sommer. A radical proposal for reorganizing research support: Lotteries, prizes. The Scientist, pages 11,13,17, June 10 1991.

Taylor, Curtis R. 1995. Digging for carrots: An analysis of research tournaments. American Economic Review 85 (4):872-890.

Wright, Brian D. 1983. The economics of invention incentives: Patents, prizes, and research contracts. American Economic Review 73 (4):691-707.

The research is clear on the conditions for successful prizes. It must be a task a group of individuals are able to accomplish with self-funding, or a single patron. If a firm it must fall under their high risk R&D budget. This is the key limit on the pool of applicants and the smaller the pool of applicants the less likely it is a prize will be won.

Given how close the x-prize came to failing, only a single team was able to raise the funds to make an attempt a bare 3 months before the prize vanished, shows how critical this is. And it took that team 2.5 times the amount of the prize to succeed.

Other factors include the promise of commercial markets following the prize. The high start-up cost of Virgin Galactic, some $275 million and counting, makes it clear that even if some of the other teams had won they would not have had the deep pockets to take their entry to market as Burt Rutan/ Paul Allen were able to do.

And this leads to a third guideline. Structure the rules to favor an entry that is competitive in the marketplace after the contest. The classic failure in this regard was Richard Feynman nanotech prize of 1959 of $1000 to build a motor 1/64 of an inch wide. The winder simply used existing jewelry tools to make it creating no technology of value to nanotech.

In terms of the lunar prize below, or the Mars prize, no follow-on markets exists to sustain the technology, so likely solutions would be one off stunts, not major breakthroughs. So there would be even less incentives then the X-prize.

anon V-Prize for transatlantic sub orbital with "spaceports"

Caltech alumnus wrote @ June 19th, 2007 at 12:19 pm
Dr. Matula,

You are mistaken. By classifying it as a “failure” you are leaping to the conclusion that Feynman’s objective was to develop new technology or to build a nanotech industry.

This motor has been on prominent display, for many years, in the physics building where Dr. Feynman used to work. I saw the display in the early 1980s when I was a student, and Dr. Feynman was still alive, and I believe it was there long before I ever set foot on campus.

If Feynman’s intention had been to develop “new technology” or to kick-start the nanotech industry, it would have been quite easy for someone of his stature to persuade somebody to fund another prize, of much more challenge. All he had to was ask, and people would have jumped at the chance to fund such a prize. The fact that he did not strongly suggests that he considered the prize to be a success.

Thomas Matula wrote @ June 19th, 2007 at 2:17 pm
CalTech Alumni

Richard Feynman offered two prizes for $1,000 of his own money with the hope of jump starting nanotechnology.

The first was for an electric motor. The full story is here.
Tuesday, 8 June, 2004, 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK
Small world’s big achievement
By Roland Pease
BBC radio science

Some quotes:
[[[Richard Feynman had specified a working electric motor no more than 1/64th of an inch on a side, confidently expecting making such a device would take an entirely new approach to engineering. Bill McLellan proved him wrong.

"He'd seen a lot of cranks come in with motors who didn't understand the challenge and I brought in a big box, and he said 'Uh-oh, here's another one of them'. And then I opened my wooden box and there was my microscope, and he said 'Oh! Nobody else brought a microscope!'".

But Feynman had to agree, the motor met his specification.]]]


[[["Feynman's disappointment was he didn't get the new method," says McLellan.]]]

So Richard Feynman himself regarded it as a failure.

So in summation the verdict of the literature and my statement that Richard Feynman prize was a failure stands. Indeed as indicated he felt that way himself.

And it is a lesson to be careful how you state the conditions of the prize.

benny wrote @ August 31st, 2007 at 1:59 am
It may be worth pointing out that a unique large prize is optimal only if cost is linear in effort. If costs raise quicker (say at a quadratic rate) then several prizes may be optimal. A good example is important architectural contests that offer 3-5 prizes, sometimes quite large. This is all spelled out in “The optimal allocation of prizes in contests” by Moldovanu and Sela, published in the American Economic Review, 2001

My comment - I don’t agree that large prizes are necessarily not going to work. Yes they would be beyond the guy & his brother teams (the Wrights & Rutans) but Exxon might well decide that an extra $20 bn on the ledgers was enough to make something like an atomic spaceship capable of reaching not just Mars but other places worthwhile. Though I do agree that cutting it into a lot of smaller prizes for steps along the way might work better.

In any case what is the downside? Offer $20 bn for the first Mars landing, if it is American & the Chinese get there first - no payout & the government still has the $20 bn. Perhaps a lot of people saying we should have put up $40 bn & let a small bank fail but the economy is not worse off than if no prize had been offered & the Chinese still got there first.

Equally this is not a competitor with NASA. Nasa get $18 bn & would want much more for a Mars ship but they get this annually. A $20 bn prize would probably take 15-20 years to be won & so is amortised over that period & government can certainly afford $1 bn a year or less depending on what interest rate is applied.

Equally whatever Feynman may have felt if you say not creating an entire new industry for an investment of $1,000 is a failure you have pretty tough success standards.

In the same way an X-Prize for getting various lengths & strengths of nanotube might have a much more innovative effect than letting much of the universe’s wealth go to whoever makes one 31,000 miles long & has a space elevator

My feeling is that the reason X-Prizes aren’t the normal way of doing things is because most government expenditure isn’t to achieve things but, as suggested above, to pay off political favours & provide permanent jobs to public employees. Cynical I know.

UPDATE Looking through Sobel's book Longitude I found a mention of the early Spanish Longitude Prize & a similar Dutch one which were classed as a failure because they werem't won. There is some backstory. Galilleo put forward a method of timekeeping making use of the timing of the orbits of the moons of Jupiter but it was judged, correctly, as unusable from the rolling deck of a ship. He did nevertheless get a gold chain from the Dutch. However this did work on land & where there was enough time for observation & thus directly created land maps resembling modern ones. Thus while a failure in its set objective & thus costing Spain nothing, it was actually pretty successful. This is an example of how good science almost always pays off even if serindipitously. In these terms it is remarkable how few of the prizes have failed to achieve anything & even those ones have been worth the money - ie zero.

Sunday, February 08, 2009


GDP of the following former British ruled states (Ireland & Hong Kong aren't formally Commonwealth members but I am including them anyway:

India, Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Pakistan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangladesh, Ireland, New Zealand (listed by GDP) came to $10.2 trillion last year.
The EU was $15 trillion & the US $14.6

The good & bad news for empire loyalists is that the Commonwealth is growing faster than the other 2 & that it is doing so because the big player is India, which is just ahead of the EU's big player Germany. California is the big player in the US union but it is laid out more equally.

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