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SCIENCE IN MIND

Smashing end in store for MIT-led lunar mission

An artist’s rendering of GRAIL spacecraft in orbit around the moon. The washing machine-sized spacecraft, named Ebb and Flow, are coming closer and closer to the moon’s surface and are expected to crash-land Monday afternoon.

NASA via Reuters

An artist’s rendering of GRAIL spacecraft in orbit around the moon. The washing machine-sized spacecraft, named Ebb and Flow, are coming closer and closer to the moon’s surface and are expected to crash-land Monday afternoon.

Stories about space exploration have strong beginnings: the suspense of launch, the big plans for exploration. Those are followed by substantive plot twists, powered by the often-unexpected data that missions send back and the insights they provide into the universe. But stories about space exploration generally don’t emphasize the ending. So what happens when the datastream dies? Some missions, such as Voyager, keep collecting data and journey onward toward interstellar space years longer than anyone expected. But even the most persistent robotic explorers, such as the Mars rover Spirit, eventually rest in peace.

Earlier this month, when the first results from GRAIL, a lunar gravity-mapping mission, were made public, the MIT scientist who heads the mission hinted that the end was near for the twin spacecraft that have been flying in tight formation around the moon, taking their primary data this spring.

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“We’re still working on final details,” said geoscientist Maria Zuber. “For most orbital missions, what’s usually done after regular mapping is they are brought up to higher orbit to do longer-term observations where orbit is stable. On this particular mission, we took the opposite strategy. We wanted to make the highest-resolution global gravity map.” That meant the pair of washing machine-sized spacecraft, named Ebb and Flow, came closer and closer to the moon’s surface. Now, the two spacecraft are navigating about as low as a commercial airliner at times, providing new challenges and experience in low-altitude navigation for scientists.

That also makes a crash-landing their only possible fate. On Thursday, NASA announced they would crash-land about 5:28 p.m. on Monday. There will be no images of their final moments, because the region where they will strike — near a crater named Goldschmidt — will be in shadow at the time. Flow will hit first, at about 3,760 miles per hour, followed by Ebb about 20 seconds afterward.

Study looks at ‘complexity’ of Arab Spring

What can the unusual combination of evolution and world history tell us about what to expect after the Arab Spring? A new study from the New England Complex Systems Institute, an independent research institution based in Cambridge, uses mathematical tools and a scientific approach to argue that the type of protests and revolts that sparked governmental upheavals in the Middle East are unlikely to result in democracies.

The researchers compare governmental changes to the biological process of evolution and argue that complexity builds successively from a simpler scaffolding. It is unlikely for a highly complex system, such as a human being, to arise directly from single-celled bacteria without many intermediary steps, and the authors argue that something similar holds true for government.

Democracies are, by their nature, inherently more complex than autocracies. Thus, just as scientists expect evolution of new traits and organisms to unfold over time, with many iterations, it may be unrealistic to expect a country plunged into chaos from a ­violent revolution to spontaneously turn into a democracy, even if that is what people would like to have happen.

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The researchers examined governmental change over a half-century and found that democracies are far more likely to result from a leader stepping down than governmental changes induced by a revolution, civil war, rebels, or protests.

The New England Complex Systems Institute specializes in studying “complexity.” It is a term most people use casually in their daily lives. But institute researchers mean something specific by the term: it is the amount of information one would need to describe a system, Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the institute, said in an e-mail. Of course, one could describe a “system” at multiple levels of resolution, so complexity also depends on how far you zoom in.

Bar-Yam answered questions about the work by e-mail.

Q: What did you find when you analyzed historical revolutions?

A: Revolutions are about changing the government very quickly. The problem is that building a complex government can’t be done quickly if you want to do a good job. This means that violent­ ­revolutions that disrupt the existing government structures tend to result in simpler structures, typically autocracies, rather than more complex structures, specifically representative democracies — this is true even when the people who make the revolution want a representative democracy.

A classic example is the French Revolution, which set up legislative bodies, but they were ineffective.

Eventually Napoleon stepped in and took over — which was possible because of the turmoil that was ongoing. There are many other cases where revolutions involved violence, and they had a much higher probability of ending up as autocracies than those which had less disruptive governmental transitions.

Q: What does that suggest about the Arab Spring?

A: The revolutions of the Arab Spring want to fix problems of the existing governments. They expect/need a quick fix because the conditions are so bad.

However, making a government requires careful construction — selection over time like in evolution. If the new governments are required to solve problems quickly, frustrations will build and result in autocracies because they are the only kind of system that can be up and running quickly.

Remembering when ‘Obamadon’ roamed the earth

The small insect-eating lizard was discovered in the badlands of northeastern Montana, its fossil preserved in an area called the Hell Creek formation. Less than a foot long, the lizard had elaborate teeth with three cusps on each tooth and a slender jaw. Some 65 million years ago, it went extinct. And now, it is named for the 44th president of the United States: Obamadon gracilis.

The ancient lizard species bearing President Obama’s name was discovered when researchers from Yale and Harvard universities reexamined fossil collections all across the country, as part of an effort to understand what happened to lizards and snakes during the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs.

In the process, Yale paleontologist Nicholas Longrich said the team encountered several species that were previously unknown or misclassified lurking in museum collections. There was one ferocious carnivorous lizard in need of a name, but that one did not turn out to be presidential. The small one with the slender jaw seemed just right. There was one problem. This was before November.

“I was seriously thinking, if the election had gone the other way, I would have yanked it,” Longrich said. “It might have seemed like we were mocking it, naming a lizard that goes extinct after that, seemed kind of cruel.”

Longrich and colleagues described the Obamadon in a paper published last Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.

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