Too Complicated to Criticise?
One of the things we’re all about here at Science Illustrated is the support of “pure science”. This is research that gets done for the sake of it, for the sheer purpose of figuring out how the universe works - we don’t think there should always have to be a commercial angle, a possibility of making megabucks, to make a line of research worth pursuing.
And yet, it remains the most basic of criticisms. There are indeed children starving, so why are we pouring billions into growing silkworms in space?
Almost every aspect of science cops this at one point or another except, as far as I can tell, one. One major field seems to get nothing but positive press. Cosmology. Specifically, the really hardcore, out there (literally and figuratively) cutting-edge cosmology. We write about some of it this issue in our cover feature on black holes. We never seem to see mainstream media articles about how the cosmology budget should be slashed, or that the analysis of gravitational waves (and whether or not they really exist) should be abandoned and the money spent instead on orphans or whatever.
Personally, I suspect it’s because most of us don’t really understand what the “work” of cosmology really is. There’s this perception that cosmologists just sit in an office doing equations, or occasionally sit up really late at night using the big telescopes when no one more “important” needs them. And yet, we do spend real money on cosmology. The Hubble telescope (US$5 billion plus), the James Webb telescope (US$9.66 billion when and if it finally launches), even the Chandra X-ray Observatory launched back in 1999 cost US$1.65 billion - all these instruments are for cosmology.
And yet of all the pure science, cosmology is probably the least likely to show an immediate “return on investment” the way the paper-pushers wish everything would. Sure, learning about black holes is important, but where’s the money?
There is no money in a black hole. Or if there is, it ain’t coming out. Yet we seem happy to let cosmologists fool about with supercomputers to take their time deciding exactly what a black hole is. Of course you could mount an argument that the theory and increasingly sophisticated models of black holes have generated billions in entertainment revenues. The 2014 film Interstellar was able to claim “scientific accuracy” with a properly mind-bending depiction of light bending around a black hole.
That amazing imagery was only possible because cosmologists had spent the last 15 years or so figuring out exactly what a black hole - a thing that sucks in all light - could possibly “look” like.
Meanwhile, opposition to increasing the budget of ITER remains. You know ITER, I mention it ever other issue: the great experimental fusion reactor being built in Europe. A real machine (the most complex ever made) that could pave the way to cheap, clean, essentially unlimited power for the entire planet. It’s an example of pure science that has a really obvious goal and huge benefit.
So of course some people want it shut down, because it’s too expensive.
Meanwhile, cosmologists keep working away. Sure, they never get the budgets they really want, but then who does? But nobody ever states the obvious: no living human will ever see a black hole up close, or be affected by one in any significant way. So why bother?
Because the knowledge alone is worth the work and the expense, is why. And if you can stomach 10 billion dollars to find exoplanets and look at nebula, why not spend 500 billion securing the future of energy on this planet?