There must be peanuts

August 3, 2012 • 12:30 pm

The Mars rover Curiosity will touch down on the red planet Monday at about 1:30 a.m. EST (US) Monday, and I’ll post a day in advance so you can stay up to watch, especially since it will be televised live. To see how the landing will take place, go here and watch the movie “Curiosity: Seven minutes of terror.” It will make you marvel at the creativity of our species.

But amidst all the fantastic science that underlies this project, there’s still a bit of woo. As alert reader Chris informs me, the CNN blog Light Years describes a superstition around the landing:

An hour before the Mars rover Curiosity is scheduled to make its dramatic touchdown on the surface of our neighboring planet, there must be peanuts.

David Oh, lead flight director for the mission, explains that it has been a tradition for decades to open up cans of peanuts and pass them around to the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory responsible for overseeing the landing of the rover. Curiosity is scheduled to land at 1:31 a.m. ET Monday.

“It’s always been a lucky charm for us, and missions have always seemed to work out better when we had the peanuts there,” Oh said. “For landing this, I’ll take all the great engineering we have, and all the luck you can give us, too.”

Of course there’s been no controlled experiment, but I bet these guys aren’t gonna mess with cashews or macadmia nuts come Monday morning!

It’s curious that these scientists, and other skeptics like me, often have our own superstitions.  I have a lucky number (I’m not saying what it is), and I used to walk home from school judiciously avoiding stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. Sometimes I still do it just for fun. But my lucky number is nonnegotiable, even though I know in my heart that choosing things (or having a good feeling) based on a single integer is ludicrous.

Does that make me an accommodationist? And do you have any superstitions?

68 thoughts on “There must be peanuts

      1. My guess is that Woof is a software engineer who once worked on a calendar program. One you’ve fixed 10 bugs caused by time-zone and DST issues, you tend to get a bit sensitive about this kind of thing. Or maybe I’m just projecting 😀

        1. ISO-8601
          Or else!
          Just to clarify (mainly for the Americans, who find it particularly hard to conceive that there may be “other” systems) : imagine doing your daily reports for the 150th day of an operation, when you have to report for Americans (in American date format), for Koreans (they’re the Bosses, in Korean format), and for Brits (in British format.
          Then, different parts of the report are to be completed in metric measure (for operational matters), but for compatibility with data acquired 30 years previously, geological information is to be reported in feet (decimal, of course!)

  1. A superstition of mine that springs to mind – I suppose I must have more than one, I just haven’t thought of them, yet – is “always smile at babies and small children, because it helps with brain development and leads to happier and healthier adults”.

    I have a vague memory of seeing a news report that mentioned a study, possibly even a peer-reviewed study, that had something to do with this. In other words, I have no evidence to support the above claim. In my defence, I will point out that very rarely will an adult be angered or disgusted by another adult smiling at a child. And the kids seem to appreciate it, judging from the smiles I most often get in return. Do those kids grow up to be happier than if I had never smiled at them? Doubtful, I guess.

    1. I’m always smiling and/or making faces at babies and children — they think it’s hilarious (although some give you a very good approximation of a “what you looking at?” glare, which is also cute).

      I didn’t know that it also helped with development. Thanks for the update.

      My first child is due any day now; I do not plan to be angry at people who smile at my kid 🙂

    1. I see they didn’t preform any experiments on people who think charms and superstitions are a load.

      Because my hunch is a person without their charm may be handicapped, but the one who doesn’t need it would probably do worse if you forced one upon them.

    2. This article confirms what my own, informal, opinion on the subject had been, namely that although the superstition itself is (quite obviously) worthless, the psychological effects it produces in the one holding it are far from unreal. Not surprising, as there is no mechanism whereby superstition could have any effect (“spooky action at a distance”), whereas the psychological effects are mediated by known biochemical reactions. It is far from irrational for a baseball pitcher who has had three consecutive good starts while wearing mismatched socks, or carrying in his pocket a trinket he found in a hotel room, to wear the socks or carry the trinket in his next start, and do well, not because of any effect of the socks or trinket, but rather because he feels calmer/more in control/luckier with the appropriate item in its appropriated place.

      Here’s what I think are the key paragraphs from the article:

      “Which raises the intriguing possibility that any belief, whether true or not, which increases our confidence might have the same power to get us what we want when the outcome depends on our own performance. Prayer in any religion, then, might be effective not because it actually invokes a supreme being or even a mystic law, but because it invokes our belief in those things, invokes a sense that we have an “ace in the hole,” which then provides us the confidence to perform better, to keep trying, and to remain optimistic.

      A belief in a force external to ourselves that can be invoked to help us may not be merely comforting, then. It may be a powerful psychological lever we can pull to access forces within ourselves that actually affect our ability to achieve what we want—even if our belief is incorrect.”

      1. If the person that falls to superstition took the time to figure out the actual mechanism it would be much more useful than any perceived benefit of superstition.

  2. Didn’t Rebecca Watson do a talk on this at some Skepticon recently? Can’t bring it immediately to mind though?

  3. I have a handful of mini-rituals like that. I used to pray and still occasionally do, but I’m at least aware it’s nothing more than an attempt to communicate with any super-intelligent beings (at all, I don’t address any creature in particular) which is overwhelmingly likely to go unnoticed by everything but me.

    I have the occasional thing like that, but they’re all really just for fun, which I think disqualifies them as superstitions. If I were working at NASA, I might do peanuts for fun, but I’d like to think I wouldn’t have any serious concern about Mars if I chose almonds or whatever.

    I also tend to say “Macbeth” once or several times before performing onstage. Again, no harm in having little personal traditions.

  4. I used to walk home from school judiciously avoiding stepping on cracks in the sidewalk.

    Me too! Are you borderline OCD too? Did you develop the asymmetrical gait where you clear one whole slab and then hit the middle of the next?

    Re Mars lander – here’s hoping for some fresh data for the Drake equation!

  5. I too have one superstition. It involves how I carry money in my wallet. If I don’t do it right, things fall in a heap. Like Jerry, I will not reveal the rule; (is that a sign of the power the superstition has over us? If we tell, is it like stepping on the cracks? What harm can it do)? And yet the secret stays with me. I like to think of myself as reasonable and rational in pretty much every other way. I even step on cracks!
    Bob(on hols in Florida)

  6. I can’t think of any I have, but surely as soon as you’re aware that it is a superstition, it fails to be one, because whatever it is you’re doing, there’s an implicit “wink” involved. That certainly seems true of the NASA peanuts.

    The real superstitions, like, oh, I don’t know, that praying to my sky daddy will help me win a football game, are the ones we need to be concerned about.

  7. I think there is a difference between a tradition and a superstition, if they were just opening the can of peanuts and didn’t think whether or not they opened the can of peanuts would effect the rover then it would just a be a tradition. This comment:
    “It’s always been a lucky charm for us, and missions have always seemed to work out better when we had the peanuts there,” Oh said. “For landing this, I’ll take all the great engineering we have, and all the luck you can give us, too.” seems to indicate that the peanuts have an effect on the rover. Oh clearly believes in luck.

    I think Jerry’s lucky number is completely irrational yes but he seems to know it is irrational and has no bearing on the real world.
    Even saying that one knows something in one’s heart is irrational for us rationalists; our hearts simply pump blood around our body… I know it’s a figure of speech for us now 😉

    1. I think Jerry’s lucky number is completely irrational

      “Completely irrational”?
      So, there exists something that is partly irrational and partly rational, such as the ratio of two numbers, one rational and one irrational? Like 2*PI = PI/(1/2)?
      So, ploughing straight ahead is at least not completely irrational, and may be partly rational.
      But since PI/2 is also partly rational, then turning right around is also not completely irrational.
      This is not helpful guidance. 🙂

  8. In Michael Shermer’s book “The Believing Brain,” he hypothesizes that people who have the imagination to be a top scientist also have the imagination to fall for woo. He has some examples of individuals and I bet he’d find this blog post fascinating, if a bit sad.

    Speaking of peanuts, a few times I have shut down anti-genetically-modified-food nuttery by suggesting that the technology may one day create a hypoallergenic peanut. I’m turning their imagination from scifi horrors to the horrors that are already here in the real world.

    1. …and p.s. I knock on wood. Somehow it relieves anxiety about bad things happening. Anxiety is a bad thing (usually) so I haven’t tried to make myself stop it.

  9. On Wired Science they have an article titled “Cross Your Fingers: How to Watch NASA’s Mars Rover Land on Sunday” That made me think it’d be fun to start a prayer campaign, “National Pray for the Mars Rover Day” or some such. It is amusing to me somehow.

    I don’t know if I ever cross my fingers or such. I eat a lot of Chinese food and get a lot of fortune cookies and I am always kind of amazed at the little irrational charge I get out of reading one. My skeptical brain can be thinking about them printing them out by the millions in some cookie factory somewhere, or remarking to the person next to me how they never say, ‘You will die soon’, but some other part of my brain is at the same time going, Hey, great, my ‘plans are about to pay off’!

    Add a little history and a group of people genuflecting to the fortune and you’d have a religion.

    1. The day my wife and I were discharged from hospital after surviving a road traffic accident which was fatal for three others, we had dinner in a local Chinese restaurant. My fortune cookie said “You will never have a serious car accident”!

      As an aside, a loving wife and her two beautiful young daughters, all devout Roman Catholics, died; we two atheists survived.

      Mysterious ways.

      1. As an aside, a loving wife and her two beautiful young daughters, all devout Roman Catholics, died; we two atheists survived.
        Mysterious ways.

        Nothing mysterious about it : God is a member of the Orange Lodge.
        Which makes me shudder to think what Ranger’s Board of Directors were really up to. It probably involved goat masks, at least.

  10. I’ve recently developed a superstitious habit that I’m not exactly proud of: while I’m conducting mating trials with the flies I work on, I have to be listening to Thelonious Monk. Ever since I’ve started this, my experiments have been going very well…of course, the radical change in experimental design might also have something to do with this.

    1. Now you need to compare your results when you play Coltrane because you know they’re listening too.

      And if you really want to get them into the mood, play some crooners for them.

      1. Good thinking. To confirm that the flies are responding to my music, I could also play some Joy Division, in which case I expect them all to retreat to isolated corners and sulk.

  11. Nothing that I would describe as superstitious rituals but rather obsessive compulsive rituals (are they related?) I have to stand over the stove – like some nutty old maid – and intone: off, off, off…for each of the switches, in a series of three, and rattle the door knob three times when I leave the house.

    1. Pointing and calling is a method in occupational safety for avoiding mistakes by pointing at important indicators and calling out the status [out] loud.”

      “Pointing and calling requires the co-action and co-reaction among the operator’s brain, eyes, hands, mouth, and ears.”

      That’s why I do it.

      1. Interesting. Perhaps I’m not as nutty as I thought I was. In the light of that article it seems that the only thing that might be a bit compulsive about my behavior is my penchant for doing things in threes.

    2. Please be careful about using gendered insults like “nutty old maid.” I doubt that never-married women are more prone to OCD than men like you. This objection may seem over sensitive to you, but it does have a subtle bullying effect, even though I’m sure that was unintended.

      1. It’s an allusion that I drew from the writings of Florence King (a self described old maid). I can’t remember which of her books or essays it appeared in since I read her books many years ago.

        Besides, are you trying to deny me the right to self-identify with crazy old maids merely because I’m a crazy old bachelor? How dare you subject me to your gender tyranny! I just don’t happen to fancy the sinister images of unabombers, kiddie diddlers, etc., that “crazy old bachelor” evokes.

        For a moment there I thought that I had mistakenly posted at FTB.

        1. Caroline52 asked you to consider the effect of gendered insults on others, and your reply was about your right to say things. I’m not here to get political, I’ll just say you talked past her point.

  12. I can remember walking home with my sister and stepping on all the cracks just to annoy her. As for superstitions, I don’t have any unless there’s an “r” in the month.

  13. As a teenager, I used to walk under ladders, choose the number 13 (hey, it’s a prime), I wasn’t bothered by black cats, etc. However, I did draw the line at breaking mirrors, if only because I didn’t want to clean up the mess of broken glass.

  14. Here’s a valid NASA superstition: Don’t try manned missions around the end of January or beginning of February.

    Apollo 1 Jan 27 1967
    STS-51 Jan 28 1986
    STS-107 Feb 1 2003

    1. That’s a correlation, but do you have a causative principle to go with it?
      Actually, there is one : in 1986, one of the problems was the o-rings being less flexible while they were cold ; in 2003, the wing leading edge seems to have been cracked by a block of falling ice.
      But the Russians have been launching from Baikonur for decades, and not caring about conditions that would make a Floridian curl up and die of hypothermia. So the ice can be managed.
      Does launching from Kouru (or SeaLaunch, on the Pacific Equator) have the same problem?
      I think the underlying cause is more about “uncommon” environmental conditions, as opposed to the “unknown” or the “routine”.

  15. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.

    I worried about doing that after I first heard the rhyme but after asking her if her back hurt, I figured out that it either hurt or it didn’t and had nothing to do with the cracks I stepped on.

    It still became a diversion on walks with my wife when there’s nothing else on my mind. There no longer is a sense of doom or guilt though.

    If the rover crashes, it’s Rebecca Watson’s fault.

  16. Jerry mentioned the video Seven Minutes of Terror. If you haven’t watched this, you really should! It will be amazing if all planed works! Any superstitions seem to be warranted in this case.


    1. Yes there will be. To scoop Jerry I guess, you can find NASA’s TV schedule here:

      In particular:

      Sunday, Aug. 5
      — 9:30 a.m. – Final Prelanding Update News Briefing
      — 3 p.m. – NASA Science News Briefing
      — 8:30 p.m. to about 11 p.m. – Landing Commentary No. 1
      — No earlier than 11:15 p.m. – Post-landing News Briefing

      Note that the times are PDT!

      The ASA public TV channel will be covering this and NASA will also be doing Internet video streaming.

      The public networks, I have no idea.


      1. There’s nothing I can see on the UK’s broadcast TV. There’s a lot of wasted electrons about some sporting events instead.
        Not even a Sky at Night special.

  17. And it is through realizing that I had so many subtle superstitions that I first became a skeptic, and now a full blown atheist. Give me proof foe EVERYTHING!

    1. Richard Herrnstein (infamous for The Bell Curve) did some research on this back in the 1950s as I recall. Give pigeons a key to peck, and an intermittent food reward for pecking it, and they will develop all manner of distinctive head bobs, flourishes, and baroque pecking styles, apparently in the belief that such details matter for getting the reward. But in fact they don’t; whether or not any given peck earns a reward is determined randomly. Still, that random reward schedule is enough to reinforce and elaborate whatever idiosyncratic pecking behavior the pigeon happens to use. Herrnstein labeled this type of pecking behavior “superstitious” by analogy with human superstition.

  18. I saved this little anecdote years ago.(and neglected to note it’s source):

    The Nobel prizewinning physicist Niels Bohr kept a horseshoe nailed to the wall above his desk and, when asked whether he believed it would bring him luck, replied: “Not at all. I am scarcely likely to believe in such nonsense. However, I am told that a horseshoe will bring you luck whether you believe in it or not.”

  19. I wish my ballet friends “merde” or “break a leg” before they perform, but I consider it more of a social ritual to calm their nerves. The effect is psychological, not supernatural.

  20. I think Oh should have kept quiet about this ridiculous `tradition`, as his business is surely to promote science and the scientific world view, not to promulgate superstition.

    I must admit that I am completely free of superstitious belief and behaviour and always have been, so I guess it is hard for me to relate to those who exhibit such. However, if Oh et al really believe that a connection exists between executing their ritual and the probability of a successful mission, this is an appalling example of compartmentalised thinking in scientists. If however they recognise that it is just an aid to coping in a high stress situation, or simply a habit, then they ought to keep it to themselves and not give succour to those who hold a more irrational perspective on such things.

  21. No. You don’t condone people REALLY BELIEVING that these superstitions have affect.

    Where as an accomidationist would condone the unwarranted belief of a believer.

  22. My lucky number is 160,000,000. As luck would have it that is exactly what’ll be in the pot for the next Euromillions lottery!

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