Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Do We Really Need This?
In troubled economic times, it's often hard to convince the government to fund space science. Heck, at least those much-studied fruit flies live on our planet. But there's one field of research that the public should be happy to support: keeping the Earth from being pummeled by asteroids. And there is no shortage of ideas for how to do this.As evidence of the seriousness of this situation, they cite the Tunguska event on the early 20th century - as likely meter strike that hit so far out in the middle of nowhere that we still have little actual data about it because getting to the region is darn near impossible.
Yes, the probability of a terrestrial strike by a large space object is unity (1), but when you compound that probability with how little of the earth's surface is actually densely populated and the numerous variables involved in determining the damage the object might cause (speed, mass, angle of descent, composition of the object, composition of the target area....) predicting disaster gets to be a bit much.
Then there are the imminent and huge earth-bound disasters also at probability - a major quake on the San Andreas fault - the Yellowstone super-volcano - just to name two that could change life as we know it. How much attention is paid to those?
So what is all this asteroid strike stuff about? Well, there are two factors. The first is the "cool" factor of what it would take to actually do the prevention. The list provided in the Wired piece:
- Direct nuclear explosions
- Nearby nuclear explosions
- Laser sublimation
- Electric propulsion
- Gravity tractor
- Solar sails
That is all really cool stuff. Not to mention the fact that if you examine the list closely, there is a theme. All of that is technology that would make human deep space exploration far more feasible. That's revelatory.
You see, space science is deep pocket science and we have always done deep pocket science through government funding - so, it sort of has to look like national or civil defense to justify the expenditure.
And there you have it. We try to generate fear of an event to get money - simple as that.
The problem, of course, it what motivates science. We should not "need" something to justify the expenditure for it. We don't need art, but we like it. We fund it because it is supposed, or at least it used, to help us be better people. Science is similar. Science is about general revelation and we are better becasue by exploring God's creation we learn more of God and of ourselves.
But then we live in a secular society. Science the thing that is supposed to remove our need for religion, will eventually kill itself. The need for utility from science will eventually eliminate the motivation for science. Then where will be?