Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Apparently, people are again talking about saving the Hubble Space Telescope again. It looks like it might actually happen as well. The NASA administrator, sean O'Keefe is making a call for proposals today at the summer AAS.

Even though this may be marginally good news, I have the feeling that future of science in general is pretty sucky. Yeah, there will continue to be cool discoveries made with this telescope or that particle collider. People will continue to make new medical advances, possibly even eliminating some of the most serious diseases. Yet, what to me is the heart of science, people asking questions about the world around them, is moving away from our public conception of science.

I'm much more ambivalent about Hubble than I used to be. I used to be wholly impressed with Hubble. Never have we been able to witness so many new phenomena with one instrument. The range of humanity's understanding of the universe has increased by several orders of magnitude since the launch of Hubble. (Go back and read an astronomy text book from the mid-eighties and compare it to one from now. It's not just that the pictures are prettier today. We had stuff wrong, and we never imagined many of the things that are out there, and it hasn't even been 20 years.)

Unfortunately, now I see a slightly different world. Why does Hubble exist? Well, one, it exists because we are able to build it and the people building it knew that we would get back great results. But, two, it was built because it's cool, and the people in charge of the project knew that in order for science (astronomy in this case) to continue to receive funding we need to be able to bring back a constant stream of cool pictures and new results that have less and less bearing on daily life.

It happens everywhere now in astronomy. We build big telescopes and big instruments, but not small ones. We're addicted to the the big score, but we don't worry about filling in the knowledge around it. We don't worry about really communicating science to people who aren't professional scientists. We just keep building the next Hubble.

I've never liked GW Bush, but my feelings turned to complete disgust on the day that he announced his little Mars adventure. I've always wanted to go to Mars. I think it's an absolute shame that humans haven't been out of Earth orbit for some 30 years now. I used to think that it would be someone my age that would be the first person to walk on Mars. I've been reduced to telling the elementary school kids I teach that someone from their generation would be the first person to walk on Mars. With Bush's announcement, I was no longer lying. The dream was becoming reality.

Yeah, but the money for Mars was coming straight from Hubble.

So now I have to choose between the old Hubble and the new Hubble, while I have to completely disregard anything less than the old Hubble. I'm sick of it. We prioritize tax cuts. We prioritize war. But we have to choose between Hubble and Mars, neither of which cost anywhere near the other big ticket items.

Why is this the case? Well, I could blame it on the system, but generally I blame it on the astronomers. I'll cotninue my post on this tomorrow.



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