|NSO's two main telescopes at Sunspot, New Mexico.|
The NSO facility here at Sunspot long ago transitioned from an Air Force facility to a National Science Foundation lab, but it's two-fold mandate remains the same: predict what the Sun is going to do and explain why. The conference I'm attending is focused on connecting those two missions. But more broadly, this gets at an interesting concept in basic science, namely why do we do basic science?
One answer which we generally sell to the public is that we do science in order to produce tangible benefits - cure cancer, make faster computers, reduce pollution, etc. The other answer is that we are exploring the natural world and this is the one that researchers prefer when talking to other researchers. As far as I know nobody is opposed to either of those motivations, but there is a, of course, a question of balance.
In solar physics that balance is particularly sensitive. There is a lot of funding available for space weather monitoring from an operational standpoint. Commercial and military satellite operators, power grid controllers, those that rely heavily on GPS, and the manned space program need accurate and timely predictions about space weather. As with many complex systems sometimes it's easier and even more accurate to simply fit phenomenological models to the data rather than try to build physics-based models. In the long run, understanding the physics will provide the most accurate forecasts, but often there's a lot more short-term payoff by simply looking for patterns in the data without trying to understand them.
So this week we're trying to bridge the gap a little bit in solar physics at a place that embodies the balance. And it doesn't hurt that it's a beautiful place to visit.
|View of White Sands National Monument from Sunspot.|