Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Space Age and other follies

Tom Wolfe op-eds about NASA:

Everybody, including Congress, was caught up in the adrenal rush of it all. But then, on the morning after, congressmen began to wonder about something that
hadn’t dawned on them since Kennedy’s oration. What was this single combat stuff — they didn’t use the actual term — really all about? It had been a battle for morale at home and image abroad. Fine, O.K., we won, but it had no tactical military meaning whatsoever. And it had cost a fortune, $150 billion or so. And this business of sending a man to Mars and whatnot? Just more of the same, when you got right down to it. How laudable ... how far-seeing ... but why don’t we just do a Scarlett O’Hara and think about it tomorrow?

My feelings about this trend are mixed. On the one hand, manned space flight is silly and NASA is better off dead, except for spin-offs like the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station where people can do experiments of nonzero scientific value. Many such experiments have nothing to do with astronomy -- e.g. it's desirable to do precision experiments on the superfluid transition in liquid helium in the absence of gravity to avoid pressure gradients between the top and bottom of the bucket. The superfluid transition is important because it's a straightforward, realizable sort of phase transition, and phase transitions are a central idea in physics. (Particle physics and astrophysics are full of hypothetical phase transitions, like the one in the early universe when the electroweak force split up into the electromagnetic and weak forces, which are hard to study directly.)

On the other hand, as we've found with the Large Hadron Collider etc., NASA is still a more attractive candidate for pork-barrel spending than physics. The increasing unpopularity of space flight has gone along with the increasing unpopularity of fundamental research; all of this has ultimately to do with the fading memory of the mushroom cloud, which was a great PR stunt for physicists, and the fact that there are no longer the Soviets to compete with. (The Chinese won't do because they're already a large part of the American scientific establishment.) It's not clear what the outlook for useless but intellectually important work is, without some kind of nationalistic motive driving it.

I blogged last year that it seemed outrageous to me that NASA's budget was comparable to the LHC's. I still believe it's outrageous, but maybe the best-case scenario for physicists is to ride the coattails of some vast, dumb militaristic craze. The alternative is to pretend that physics is going to help cure global warming, or something like that, but I doubt that the war on climate change will ever lead to the recklessness with regard to cost-benefit analysis that is perhaps necessary for physics to be as well supported as it used to be.

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