The Problem With Diminishing Returns In Astronomy

Quantum_ComputerDo you think that there are diminishing returns in the field of Astronomy right now?  Do you agree there are more and more people that are turning away from participating in this exciting field because it’s just too difficult?

Here’s an interesting article from not too long ago that looks at the different ways we can view this problem:

Perhaps the most striking discovery, however, is the nondiscovery of life elsewhere in the solar system. In all of the many worlds in our solar system, we have found not a shred of evidence for extraterrestrial life, even though much of the stuff of life (organic molecules, chemicals, and water) are there. It is too early to draw conclusions. We haven’t done enough looking. But we wonder whether our earthly existence is unique, and what special responsibility is implied.

The exploration of the solar system–the lessons, the data, the information, the knowledge gained–has been an enterprise not just for a few scientists or for one nation, but for our whole planet and for all humankind. It is natural to consider it as an earthly activity.

Its conduct, as well as its motivation, has become increasingly international. The Soviets carried out landings on Venus, while the Americans made two successful ones on Mars. The United States has landed people on the Moon and returned samples; the Soviet Union landed automatic vehicles there and returned samples robotically. The U.S. explored the outer planets; Japan, Europe, and the U.S.S.R. explored Halley’s comet. Now the world has changed, and current missions are less and less national and more and more international. The next Mars landings are an international mission: Mars 94/96 will be led by Russians but with heavy involvement of Europeans. The U.S. Cassini mission to Saturn will have as its centerpiece an atmospheric probe to Titan, Huyghens, built by the Europeans. And advanced thinking about sending humans to Mars almost always has the missions being conducted internationally. The costs, the resources, the technical expertise, and the benefits are too great for one nation alone.

Space benefits are inherently global. We have mentioned space science and exploration, but we must also cite meteorology, communications, remote sensing and land-use, search-and-rescue, and navigation satellites. Their implementation and benefit are global–but their application can reach to the region, nation, community, and even individual level. The technology exists today to track individual land vehicles from space or to pinpoint the best location for a village to build a wall.

The global aspect of space has one other increasingly important application. Space, in some ways uniquely, provides an educational motivation for high achievement. The creative application of science and technology and the inspiration of space exploration have been associated with education since the beginning of the space age. This is not true just in the leading spacefaring nations. In the Planetary Society’s H. Dudley Wright International Student Contest, “Together to Mars,” thousands of entries came from around the world, and twenty winners hailed from such countries as Argentina, Malaysia, Hungary, Israel, Columbia, and Portugal. The society also has a joint program with the United Nations and the European Space Agency for workshops in developing nations whose educators are enthusiastic about space science and planetary exploration in the curriculum in these nations.

Dealing with “brain drain” is a major challenge in many countries–young people are turning away from creative enterprises of high achievement because of lack of opportunity. Some bright young people interested in science and technology go to major industrialized countries to seek opportunity, but others are “turned off” by the lack of opportunity and follow less productive paths to simply make quick money. In the past, weapons technology was an area of opportunity in the U.S. and U.S.S.R. for creative engineering. Happily, the end of the Cold War is now reducing the demand for new weapons. But the need for creative outlets for the human imagination is still there–and the opportunity for it to be exercised peacefully is now greater. Space work is not the only opportunity, but it is one of the best and certainly one of the most motivating.

Our present challenge is to work together globally on these space projects to produce the best results and employ the most talent. Three areas that might provide a focus, and which certainly have a need, provide examples of where new international efforts might be mounted. In the Planetary Society’s presentation to the Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space at the United Nations, we suggested three specific examples of programs that could be emphasized:”

Friedman, Louis. “Spaceflight and global unification: the benefits of space exploration.” National Forum 72.3 (1992): 38+.

Supposedly the improvement in computing should be helping us break through barriers in technology much faster, however we think that things have stalled.  The way that we will get through this speed bump is through the advent of quantum computing.

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