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Lunar images from ASU team combine an artistic eye with precision science.
It's time to send people back to the moon, ASU professor Mark Robinson says.
Smithsonian Air and Space exhibit will feature 61 images from ASU-based team.
February 24, 2016

ASU professor hopes Smithsonian exhibition of LROC team's striking images gets people excited about returning to the moon

Sometimes you get the party started by accidentally crashing someone else’s.

Mark Robinson, a professor in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space ExplorationThe School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., was enjoying a First Fridays art walk in downtown Phoenix during the summer of 2012 when he wandered into monOrchid gallery on Roosevelt. Only the gallery wasn’t open to the public that evening.

“I realized I had just crashed someone’s private party,” Robinson said.

He spoke with someone on the edge of the crowd, who turned out to be the gallery’s owner. Robinson — principal investigator for the ASU-operated cameras aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) — introduced himself and the mission’s photographs, saying he thought they’d make for a great exhibit.

“He was polite, but I think he kind of thought I was … kind of wacko,” Robinson said.

But when he brought in photographs to show the owner and unrolled a 12-foot-long, high-res version of the Tycho crater’s central peak, Robinson recalled, “All he said was, ‘Do you want to do this in October or November?’ ”

That exhibit, which drew thousands of visitors, was the first step on a journey leading to this Friday’s opening of “A New Moon Rises,” an exhibit of 61 images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Robinson hopes it gets people excited about the moon again, in an age when many eyes are turned toward Mars and the thought of manned flights there.

“The moon is this beautiful little world,” Robinson said. “It’s not just a romantic silver disc you see in the sky at night; it’s a world in its own right. And it’s somewhere we should be going back to.”

Small crater on rim of Chaplygin crater on the moon.

Though it might appear a
bit like the Eye of Sauron,
this LROC image is of a
small crater on the rim
of Chaplygin crater.

Photo by NASA/GSFC/
Arizona State University

The LROC’s thousands of images — curated on the team’s website — are often a blend of science and artistry. Tom Watters, senior scientist at the museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies and curator of the exhibit, said one of goals of the Smithsonian event is to “captivate the visitor with the sheer beauty of the landscape of the moon.”

“If it’s lit in a certain way from the high sun angles, you get these wonderful variations in the brightness of the materials, and those can be very surreal-looking,” Watters said. “And if you have the dusk-to-dawn lighting, with the low sun angles with the shadows being cast, the incredible details in the landscape come out.”

He credits all those on the LRO team — the sheer amount of work involved often isn’t obvious to the general public — but said Robinson deserves a large portion of that praise.

“If it wouldn’t embarrass him, he really is the Rembrandt of capturing just the right kind of lighting,” Watters said. “He’s the maestro, the master of doing that.”

The artistry makes sense with Robinson’s background — he didn’t originally intend a career in space. His first college degree was a double major in political science and fine-art photography.

But luckily for the scientific community, that original career path didn’t result in any real jobs. “I was always interested in science,” he said. “… I somehow got into college and did the wrong thing.”

A chance conversation with a friend at a summer construction job led Robinson to Alaska, where he worked with geologists and discovered the field that would take him, metaphorically at least, into the heavens.

A man stands in front of monitors showing moon images.
ASU professor Mark Robinson in the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera Science Operations Center, on the ASU Tempe campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now


His association with the Smithsonian goes back decades, but this is his first exhibit there.

“My hope is that we’re going to get millions of people — maybe I’m being a little optimistic — totally excited about the moon,” Robinson said. “The moon will be a new place. They will realize the moon is a magnificent world in its own right. It’s a world in change right now.”

More than 200 new craters have been imaged since the LRO started orbiting, Robinson said. Another surprise to scientists has been evidence of very young volcanism there, changing the previously assumed timeline that lunar volcanism ended 1 billion to 2 billion years ago.

“It really transforms the moon in my mind,” Watters said. “ … The moon is still alive. There’s still a lot going on there. It’s not a dead object at all.”

The LRO cameras, which were fabricated by Malin Space Science Systems, send back 450 gigabits (about 56 gigabytes) of science data every day and have been doing so for six and a half years. It’s more than all other NASA planetary missions throughout history combined, Robinson said.

About 90 percent of the data flow is automated, both the uplink and the processing. “We couldn’t keep up with it otherwise. It would be like trying to catch Niagara Falls with a 5-gallon bucket,” he said.

Even with that automation, it takes a team of 30 people, including about a dozen undergraduate students, to keep the project humming. Each image must be planned — not only the location for visual or scientific purposes and what the lighting will be, but even down to what the temperature will be at the moment the image is captured, as that can affect other components. The oblique images’ composition especially receives an extra level of review.

Antoniadi crater wall on the moon.
In this oblique view, the 4,000-meter-tall cliff in the background is the east wall of Antoniadi crater, which is 140 kilometers in diameter. The bottom of the small bowl-shaped crater tucked behind peaks in the center ground is the lowest point on the moon, more than 9 kilometers below the mean radius (comparable to sea level on Earth). Photo by NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University


The images are incredibly crisp, especially considering that the spacecraft is moving at 1,600 meters per second — more than 3,500 miles per hour. The team needed an effective exposure time of 0.3 milliseconds, three times shorter than the fastest of cameras available.

They achieved that, and the result is photographs of incredible depth and variation in tone. Shadows and highlights reveal detail, and some of the images appear more like modern art than science resource.

The exhibit, which will run at least through December, will include a state-of-the-art laser projector showing the latest LROC images, a large 3-D model of a lunar crater and an interactive kiosk that allows visitors to explore more of the LROC data. A similar one stands in the visitor center in Interdisciplinary A on the Tempe campus.

Robinson hopes the beauty of the images draws visitors in, and that the delight in seeing LROC images that show the human and rover tracks from Apollo missions sparks questions as to why we aren’t returning there.

“How do you really top human beings for the first time walking on another world?” Robinson said. “But now that’s 47 years ago. It’s time to go back in a different manner, a more measured manner. …

“The time is right now to start heading back, not to plant a flag and pick up a few rocks, but this time for sustained exploration and sustained science. And that will enable us to go to Mars and even farther out into the solar system.”

Top photo: In this view of the moon, the South Pole is at the center. The colors represent different elevations. The large, roughly circular, low-lying area (deep blue and purple) is the South Pole–Aitken Basin, the largest and deepest impact feature on the moon. Photo by NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

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Politicians use fallacies like scare tactics to manipulate voters.
Part of being a member of a successful democracy is to be an educated voter.
February 24, 2016

ASU philosophy professor urges voters to use reason, logic when making decisions

Advertising is a multibillion-dollar business for one reason: It works.

Ever since people have been buying things, there have been people telling them why they should. And these salespeople have become very good at it, often employing fallacious, yet extremely persuasive arguments for why we can’t live without a certain product.

From images of a literal chocolate man being mauled by women unable to resist his allure after using Axe body spray to the story of a man who was one bite of a Nutrigrain bar away from conquering the world, advertisers have proven they know how to convince the general public to buy their products.

When all that’s at stake is whether you opt for name-brand hot dogs or bargain-bin mystery meat, there’s not much cause for concern — except maybe for a case of indigestion. But when similar tactics are used to sway people’s opinions of issues like health care, immigration or, perhaps, who should be the leader of the free world, it becomes significantly more important to be aware of all the facts, and to employ logic when making decisions.

The infamous 1964 “Daisy” political ad is one example of the use of the scare-tactic fallacy. It opens on a scene of a child in a field counting daisy petals when suddenly, out of nowhere, an atomic bomb explodes, mercilessly taking the innocent child and, presumably, all life as we know it along with it. The ad — considered an important factor in former President Lyndon B. Johnson's landslide 1964 victory over Barry Goldwater — was pulled after airing only once for its controversial implication that electing Goldwater would result in nuclear war.

The practice of using fallacies to manipulate voters still happens today. To get a better understanding of how those fallacies are employed and how to avoid being manipulated by them, ASU Now sat down with Bertha Alvarez ManninenBertha Alvarez Manninen is an associate professor of philosophy in the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies, an academic unit of ASU's New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. (pictured), an associate professor of philosophy who relishes the opportunity to open her students’ eyes to logic and reason.

portrait of Bertha Manninen

Question: What are some of the most common fallacies that voters can look out for?

Answer: This election year in particular, I am seeing a lot of scare tactics. Some politicians like to scare voters into thinking that something horrible will happen to the country if they aren't the one elected. Of course, they rarely offer any evidence that these horrible things will happen. This uses fear, misinformation and relies on people's prejudices instead of approaching issues with rational thought, evidence and argumentation.

There's also always a lot of personal attacks in politics. When people disagree with each other on ethical issues, religious issues or policies, instead of debating the logic that underlies their arguments or citing any actual evidence in favor of their position, they start to personally attack each other. For example, people who are in favor of some kind of universal health care are often derided as socialist or communist, and rarely are their actual arguments or reasons heard.

Finally, the fallacy of hasty generalization is pretty prevalent in politics as well. This is when you use a small sample of a group to make generalizations about most or all members of the group. Any time we make a prejudicial remark about any group in particular, we are engaging in hasty generalization. It's a fallacy because we rarely have any actual evidence to suggest that most or all members of the group share in the characteristics one is accusing them of having. So instead of finding evidence, we draw from a small sample to the whole. Clearly, we see that nothing good ever comes out of making sweeping negative generalizations about whole groups of people, and yet this fallacy is one of the most often committed ones.

Q: Why are these fallacies so successful at manipulating voters?

A: Fallacies are successful because they often appeal to your emotions, both negative and positive. If someone can manipulate you using fear, for example, that is often very effective in getting you to do what they want. Sadly, we are not a society that is taught from an early age to use reason and logic as much as we are taught to go with our gut and use our initial reactions or emotions. So fallacies work because they appeal to those knee-jerk reactions that humans tend to have. But as history has shown us, leaders and politicians who rely on fallacies in arguments are typically successful only in getting people to blindly follow them. It is typically the rational thinkers of society that can battle this kind of manipulation. This is why I think it is so important to study critical thinking, logic and philosophy. All I want for my students is for them to leave my class a little bit more skeptical and a little bit more critical than they were when they first entered it. I want them to be able to see through bad arguments and to be able to create good ones. This is the kind of thinking that helps guard people against being manipulated.

Q: Can you point to some examples of these fallacies in action?

A: Most political ads are full of these fallacies. After 9/11, for example, many politicians would argue that if we didn't vote them, or their party, into office, then that meant that we would probably experience another terrorist attack. This is an example of the fallacy of scare tactics. Rarely do they offer any evidence that their tactics will keep us safe or that the opposition's tactics would not.

People who argue that vaccines cause autism because the diagnosis of autism came shortly after their child received vaccines are committing the false-cause fallacy — that is, just because X came after Y doesn't mean that Y caused X. You need actual evidence of a causal relation, not just the fact that something came before another.

When people argue that we should get rid of welfare programs because they assume all or most of welfare recipients abuse the program, and the only evidence they have for that is because they have witnessed a few abuses themselves, this commits the hasty-generalization fallacy. They are drawing conclusions about the whole group based on a few. Imagine if I argued that we should get rid of student financial aid because some students abuse the program. That commits the same fallacy. You cannot judge the whole on the actions of a few, and you can't take steps that would hurt the whole because of those few.

Q: What are some other areas besides political ad campaigns that these fallacies can be used by politicians?

A: Sadly, I feel that as a country we are moving more toward exclusion of those who we perceive as different. Again, this commits the hasty-generalization fallacy. Just because there are certain members of a religious group that may commit terrorist acts, it is patently fallacious and morally wrong to hold everyone in that group accountable as well.

Right now politicians have been using scare tactics to deny shelter to Syrian refugees, even though there is no reliable evidence that any one of them poses a threat, and even though we have an extensive vetting system in this country, because there may be a danger that a few of them might engage in violent activity. This is both hasty-generalization and scare tactics.

I remember when there were a few cases of Ebola last year in the United States and everyone started freaking out, even though deaths from Ebola in a country such as ours is exceedingly rare, even though Ebola is actually quite difficult to get and even though more people die of the flu every year in the United States. People were still freaking out and calling for the forced containment and quarantine of physicians and nurses who came back from helping Ebola patients (a nurse in New Jersey was forcibly quarantined because she showed a slight fever, even though she had no other signs of infection). Think about that — instead of acting rationally and according to the evidence, we let our fears take over, even if it meant violating the fundamental rights of our citizens. This is one reason why it's so imperative to be rational and critical thinkers. Voltaire said it best: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Q: If you could give voters one piece of advice as far as how to protect themselves from being manipulated, what would it be?

A: Americans often claim that they are so proud of their freedoms and that they live in a democracy. But part of being a member of a successful democracy is to be an educated voter and a critical thinker. A democracy where people are easily manipulated is one that can fall into the hands of the wrong leaders, and one that can be made to do horrible and unethical things. We have a moral responsibility to ourselves and our country to be the kind of citizen that is persuaded by logic, reason and evidence, rather than fear or prejudice. We should embrace dialogue among opposing viewpoints, rather than fall into the habit of fallaciously attacking each other.