Category Archives: politics

On Goals / (I’m back)

Freeman Dyson’s piece on Steven Weinberg’s recently published collection of writings was a beautiful and informative exploration of science, history, and politics1,2. One quote, about the differing goals of the Russian and American space programs, struck me in particular. Perhaps I found it so intriguing because it highlights a an ever-present conflict in my own life: short-term vs. long-term goals. An excerpt:

“[American] unmanned missions to explore the planets and stars and galaxies have made us truly at home in the universe, while our manned missions after the Apollo program to land on the moon have been scientifically fruitless. Forty years after Apollo, the manned program is still stuck aimlessly in low orbit around the earth, while politicians debate what it should try to do next.

…In Russia you do not go into space to do science. You go into space because it is a part of human destiny… Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the schoolteacher who worked out the mathematics of interplanetary rocketry in the nineteenth century, said, “The earth is the cradle of the mind, but we cannot live forever in a cradle.” It may take us a few centuries to get to the planets, but we are on our way. We will keep going, no matter how long it takes.

If you think as Americans do, on a time scale of decades, then unmanned missions succeed and manned missions fail. The grandest unmanned missions, such as the Cassini mission now exploring the satellites of Saturn, take about one decade to build and another decade to fly. The grandest manned mission, the Apollo moon landing, ended after a decade and could not be sustained. The time scale of a decade is fundamentally right for unmanned missions and wrong for manned missions. If you think as Russians do, on a time scale of centuries, then the situation is reversed. Russian space science activities have failed to achieve much because they did not concentrate their attention on immediate scientific objectives. Russian manned mission activities, driven not by science but by a belief in human destiny, keep moving quietly forward. There is room for both cultures in our future. Space is big enough for both.” (my emphasis)

Here’s to moving quietly forward.

1. Dyson, F. (2010) What Price Glory?, The New York Review of Books LVII-10: 8-12
2. Weinberg, Steven. Lake Views: This World and the Universe, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.

On Presidents and Science

I’m not the first by far to point this out, but I’m so happy that Barack Obama has been elected that I had to do something to mark the occasion. In fact I was totally oblivious to this imagistic event until Jessica excitedly picked up the magazine from my desk and proclaimed: “You have it!” Below are the front and back cover images from the September 25th issue of Nature magazine. It’s not clear if this move was in any way intentional on the publisher’s part, but it’s pretty hilarious.