Monday, March 7, 2011

The selfish scientist

We are nearing the end of an era. After 30 years, the shuttle program is at an end. Discovery made its last flight and soon Endeavor and Atlantis will make their flights. STS 133, 134 and 135 will mark the end of a remarkable and revolutionary space program. And I shall mourn its loss.

The shuttle missions, and manned exploration in general have brought about a number of advancements. The ISS would not have been possible without the shuttle missions. But while I do mourn for the fact that we've suffered a technical throwback, I'm sad for other reasons.

When I was a kid; every second person had a stock response to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" - invariably it was "astronaut" or "fighter pilot". Not many knew what hard work went into either - but they thought it was cool. That was reason enough.

Satellites orbiting earth help with communications, remote sensing and have brought about a revolution in the way we view our world. Measurements that could never have been taken in the past can be taken with ease because of remote sensing satellites. Satellites have made technologies such as GPS possible. While not space exploration per se, it is an industry that evolved with it.

Science is often considered a noble and higher human pursuit. It often leads to the betterment of the human condition, but often - that is not why scientists do science. They do it because it's a reward in itself. A number of scientific discoveries are completely useless. They fulfil nothing more than a desire to know about how the world exists. I can't think of many reasons why knowing the minerals that make up a random main sequence star in a distant cluster is useful. The Hubble space telescope has taken pictures of the cosmos that have revealed a lot about our place in this universe. It has also generated a lot of pretty pictures of the stars, which now adorn many a room.

I will probably receive a lot of flak for this, but I think that the fulfilment of human curiosity is reason enough to do science. Just as we do movies. They both fulfil needs that rise beyond the ordinary base desires of humanity. They both work to extinguish our boredom; something that we got along with out higher mental faculties.

Those who do science often have to deny this because admitting to the fact that returns are never guaranteed in science is taboo. And it doesn't help while asking for funds either. Of course I'm not claiming that science is useless. It has, in fact contributed to humanity's progress more than probably any other field. I'm just claiming that once shouldn't and can't expect scientific research to produce material that will help humanity.

And space exploration is one such science where results are not guaranted. I can't and wont say that space exploration is intrinsically useful. I don't think that landing man on the moon accomplished much. But I'll be darned if it wasn't cool. And I'm sure it was a catalyst to a number of people getting into science.

Not many people will admit to this, but I say scientists are not social workers. That's not to say they don't care about the world, but they're not always working *to* make the world a better place. Of course; there are medical researchers - vaccines have saved thousands, maybe millions of lives, but even in medicine there exists research for which there isn't any immediate apparent use. We can hope that eventually uses are found for scientific applications, but even this is not guaranteed.

I believe that this quote from the great Richard Feynman sums it up best - "Physics is like sex. It might have some results, but it's not why we do it". I suppose I have done a terrible job to advocate science, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way.

I can say this though. Doing science doesn't guarante results, but not doing it will impede progress.

Meanwhile I hope that enough people want to know more about the universe that the space program remains strong. And as for anyone claiming that we "waste" money on space, I will bring attention to the spending on space (in the US).

Obama's 2011 budget proposal has the US government spending (in 2011) ~31.44 billion dollars on science, of which we will spend 12.78 billion dollars on space research. Contrast that to the defense budget - 738 billion dollars. A significant portion of that money goes towards researching better guns and bombs. To kill people. I'm not going to debate the ethics of the obnoxious spending (in this note), but I will say that I am of the opinion that this kind of spending is odius.

(Source: )

I do hope that the end of the space shuttle doesn't mean the end of manned space exploration. And I hope that we have effective re-entry vehicles for future missions. The shuttle was unique in it's design approach, and a few unfortunate accidents due to human error should not mean the end of the program, but having reached its inevitable end one can only hope that it's replaced by a worthy successor.

Irrespective of your views on whether this is a positive thing, I don't think there can be disagreement on the fact that this is indeed a landmark time.

I would also invite you to checkout the following radio program (BBC World Radio: Have your say) on which I was featured, which contains some interesting viewpoints on space exploration.

BBC World Have Your Say - Space by avic

Of course, not everyone has the same opinion - I would love to hear what you have to say about it.