Thursday, May 21, 2009

Public Opinion on Hubble

The Hubble Space Telescope is commonly credited with doing wonders for the popularity of astronomy in past few years. Hubble stunning images have changed the way people imagine the universe. Possibly Hubble's most famous image is its shot of the "pillars of creation", shown here.A recent national poll by Rassumsen Reports, however, shows that Hubble hasn't impressed your average American quite enough. Only 47% of Americans believe that Hubble has been worth the cost.

The problem, I think, is that we in astrophysics especially need to do a better job of explaining to the public how our research will impact their lives and their children's lives in practical ways. The impacts are there - understanding the universe through Hubble and other great observatories will develop technologies and understanding that engineers in 20 or 50 years will use to make our lives better - we just haven't done as good of a job as we might have hoped in showing that to people.


  1. I had lunch with on of the managers of JPL. (Can't remember his exact title, but a high level management position.)

    I asked him why the government spends literally billions and billions on space based missions questioning some of their scientific merit compared with many other places money could be spent in science. Furthermore, I pointed out how well cosmology/astrophysics seems to be funded compared to so many other areas.

    He said what we learn from science isn't the primary goal of the government. He said cosmologists, astrophysicists, and NASA push our technology and computing power as a country to levels none else can.

    People designing things like the Hubble are pushing the technology envelop more then almost anyone else.

    Now, I guess we need to do a better job of selling this message to the public. The good news is, though, the people who need to know, do know, which is why the funding is still so good.

    Do something that will either:
    a. Push the nation's computing power to its limits.
    b. Push the nation's technology to its limits.
    and you may find there is money for you.

    However, things like the Hubble do well to recruit new scientists.

  2. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, most of these advances in computing and technology are run using Linux. Also, NASA really likes Python.

  3. In essence, all basic research in physics and astronomy is technology development. When we send telescopes into orbit or run protons in circles at close to the speed of light, what the government is really paying us to do is to invent and develop new technologies and physical principles that will probably be of practical use in some completely different way in 10 to 50 years.

    One example comes from JILA (the research institute with which I am affiliated). JILA was founded in the late 1950's essentially to produce laboratory spectra of elements and chemicals so that those substances could be identified in astrophysical observations. While those measurements were quite useful to astronomers 50 years ago (and even still today), the field of spectroscopy today is the basis for much of the chemical and elemental analysis systems used in everything from detection of chemical weapons to analyzing bacteria and viruses. I'm sure that the astrophysicists that did spectra at JILA half a century ago had no plans to build a portable biohazard detector, but because of their work, some smart engineers now have built units that most people walk through in airport security.

    It pays to do research - it's just a delayed investment and John Q. Public often doesn't have the needed patience.

  4. The other tough sell in this field is that sometimes research doesn't have any useful results 50 years down the road, but it's almost impossible to predict which sub-fields will be home runs and which will strike out ahead of time. And most people prefer to invest in a sure thing with immediate rewards rather than make a long-term investment that has a high risk-high reward nature.


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