Too Com­pli­cated to Crit­i­cise?

Science Illustrated - - EDITORIAL - An­thony Ford­ham aford­ham@next­media.com.au

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?

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