Tech titan Nathan Myhrvold revisits NASA asteroid argument in peer-reviewed paper

Nathan MyhrvoldNathan Myhrvold
in his office at Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, Wash., Nathan Myhrvold shows off a fragment of the Chelyabinsk meteorite, which was left behind by an asteroid impact in 2013. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Nathan Myhrvold is back, and this time he’s got peer review on his side.

Two years ago, the Seattle tech pioneer tangled with NASA and the scientists behind an infrared sky survey mission known as NEOWISE, over a data set that cataloged the characteristics of more than 157,000 asteroids.

In a lengthy assessment, Myhrvold said the NEOWISE team had made flawed and misleading correlations between the brightness and the size of asteroids.

In response, NASA pointed to mistakes in Myhrvold’s critique and noted that his claims hadn’t gone through scientific peer review. “It is important that any paper undergo peer review by an independent journal before it can be seriously considered,” NASA said at the time.

If that’s so, then it’s time for serious consideration. Myhrvold’s paper, “An Empirical Examination of WISE/NEOWISE Asteroid Analysis and Results,” has now been published (with corrections of what he acknowledged were mistakes) in the peer-reviewed journal Icarus.

And that’s not all: Today Myhrvold posted a detailed rundown on the Medium website, listing what’s wrong with the NEOWISE data in relatively lay terms. He also contributed a post to Retraction Watch that focused on his efforts to use the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, to get to the bottom of the controversy.

In 25 words or less: Myhrvold insists that the NEOWISE team hadn’t been sufficiently forthcoming with the data to back up its assessment of asteroid size distribution, and fed in data from other sources to make that assessment look more precise than it actually was. (OK, that was 40 words, but I tried.)

NASA continues to stand by the data and findings from the NEOWISE team, and the documents that Myhrvold has been getting through the FOIA process suggest that the exchange has gotten increasingly bogged down in lawyerly wrangling.

Why pursue this dispute so doggedly? “Bad judgment?” Myhrvold joked today during a telephone interview with GeekWire.

Myhrvold served as Microsoft’s first chief technology officer, and thanks to his success in that position, he’s now able to take on a wide range of challenges. He’s the CEO of Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, Wash.; the author of a series of books that take a scientific approach to cuisine; and a dinosaur researcher who’s gotten into squabbles with paleontologists in the past.

Like the dinosaur debate, Myhrvold’s adversarial attitude is motivated in part by a feeling that he has to right what he sees as an unacknowledged wrong in someone’s scientific analysis. “Once I got started on it, there are a variety of things that could have had me quit,” he said.

But as long as he was facing resistance, he felt that he was in the position of either giving up or pressing on. “To me, that wasn’t much of a choice,” Myhrvold said.

Now Myhrvold is getting ready to press on with the next step in his own asteroid assessment, in league with UCLA planetary scientist Jean-Luc Margot as well as researchers at the University of Washington.

“What we’re hoping to do is reanalyze the NEOWISE data, and do so in an open and transparent way,” Myhrvold said. “Our goal overall is to take the code and the data, and post the results so that anybody can use it.”

He’s also hoping to come up with surprises that may have been missed in the initial data analysis. “Asteroids are very diverse objects — and in general, when you examine bodies you’ve never looked at before in a new way, you find stuff,” he said.

There could well be more good stuff ahead: The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, or LSST, is expected to provide a wealth of data about asteroids when it comes online in the early 2020s.

NASA is also considering whether to go ahead with a space telescope known as NEOCam to follow up on NEOWISE’s asteroid search. Myhrvold, however, argues that LSST will be capable of doing most of what NEOCam would do. “NEOCam was designed many years ago for finding asteroids, not really for measuring their properties,” he said.

Myhrvold said “what the world really needs” is a different type of space telescope that can supplement the LSST’s observations. And that’s likely to be the starting point for the next asteroid argument.

The argument isn’t merely academic: Getting the right sort of information about asteroids could help scientists gain a better understanding about the origins of the solar system, the availability of space resources, and the prospects for identifying and diverting potentially harmful space rocks.

Myhrvold pointed to the Tunguska event, a massive explosion that destroyed half a million acres of forest land in Siberia in 1908 and was thought to have been caused by an incoming asteroid or comet.

“If that had happened in a populated part of Earth … the whole 20th century would have been scarred by this,” Myhrvold said. “We basically had our wakeup call on asteroids, and we didn’t hear it.”

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