Arguably a modern Renaissance man, former Microsoft executive and current dinosaur enthusiast Nathan Myhrvold recently shifted his focus into one target: NASA's data on asteroids.
Myhrvold, who is also the CEO of Intellectual Ventures, has slammed the space agency's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission and its successor Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) because of "deeply flawed" statistics.
"None of their results can be replicated," said Myhrvold. "I found one irregularity after another."
The Diameter And Albedo Of Asteroids
Although Myhrvold is not a professional astronomer or astrophysicist, he claims that both missions have fundamental mistakes in their assessment of the size of the more than 157,000 asteroids they have observed.
In 2011, WISE and NEOWISE revealed they determined the diameter of these asteroids with an accuracy of better than 10 percent.
However, Myhrvold says the scientists committed mistakes, forgetting to take into account the margin of error introduced when calculating from a small sample size to an entire population.
When it comes to measuring the albedo or the reflectivity of asteroids' surface, Myhrvold said the scientists forgot to include Kirchhoff's law of thermal radiation in their models. The albedo is crucial as it tells how asteroids can be easily detected.
Based on his calculations, Myhrvold argues that errors in asteroid diameters should be at least 30 percent, and in some cases, it could rise to 300 percent.
He also demonstrated his argument by comparing the albedo calculations to a shiny chrome surface of a restaurant grill. A dark grill surface would result to uncomfortable waves of heat, he said. With that, he said models failed to include the effects of the reflected sunlight.
Dismissing Myhrvold's Criticism
Scientists from WISE and NEOWISE still stand by their 2011 findings. Ned Wright, principal investigator of WISE, says data from the space telescope match very well with AKARI and IRAS, two other infrared telescopes in Japan.
Are these infrared data accurate? To find out if they are, the telescopes have to be calibrated with radar observations which are made when asteroids pass in front of distant stars. When that is completed, Wright says the size errors end up at about 15 percent.
Amy Mainzer, principal investigator of NEOWISE, pointed out some mistakes in Myhrvold's paper. In one formula, Mainzer said Myhrvold confused diameter for radius. She said they have seen his paper for months now and have tried to indicate the problems.
In fact, she said they have even encouraged Myhrvold to submit his study to a journal to be peer-reviewed, but he released it without undergoing the process. Myhrvold has submitted his study to the journal Icarus.
Conclusion — For Now
Myhrvold is not arguing that NASA has overlooked the potential threats and dangers from near-Earth objects and asteroids, but he is questioning whether scientists truly know as much as they believe they do.
He has also grown a reputation for opposing existing studies. In 2013, Myhrvold questioned a paper by Gregory M. Erickson about the growth rate of dinosaurs, saying that there were some statistical errors.
Some experts say Myhrvold's schoolteacher-like scolding is a "fresh perspective" for science.
Kristina Curry Rogers, an author on one of Erickson's papers, said having somebody like Myhrvold with a different perspective is a set of fresh eyes.
"I think there's nothing wrong with that," said Rogers. "It makes us all think."