Monday, August 09, 2004

Lines Are Pretty, But Not Billions of Dollars Pretty

Mike recently posted about the wonder of Saturn’s rings and how their pictures shake his libertarian foundation. They are nice and it is inspiring that we have those pictures but it also illustrates how pretty things can distract even the keenest of minds.

The pictures of Saturn’s rings costed billions of dollars, billions that could have been spent on something else and offered more than a nice-looking distraction. It also took years for the probe to reach that far; the people that monitored the probe could have done something more productive. Give me some paint and a brush and I could have a similar picture in far less time with far less money.

If Mike really wants genuine Saturn pictures, he and everyone that shares his desire should pay for it like they pay for movies. While it would be expensive, the competition between firms would lower the cost. Centuries ago, painters would travel to the frontier and reproduce images of the natural landscape which they would sell to wealthy patrons. Now those pictures are available at every discount decorating store in the country. With current technology, however, that kind of firm probably won’t exist, saying those images just aren’t worth it. I like those pictures too, but not for that price.


Erin said...

I renounce you as a Science Fiction geek!

Anonymous said...

While all those billions of dollars could have gone somewhere else they probably would have gone to the already overly inflated military budget. Keep the pretty pictures funding where it is, and take a fraction of the money we spend on defense and the military and put that towards something else. Education, food, social security, health care. There's more than enough money to put sizable amounts to all of those things and still have plenty left over to nuke the entire world several times over or simply grind our enemies to dust beneath our oppressive Orwellian boot!

Anonymous said...

I challenge the assertion that those billions of dollars would have been spent on something more useful. Anonymous said it well: the billions of dollars we spent on pure scientific endeavour probably would have gone to bloated defense programs, or something else you libertarian-types would have found equally objectionable.

Also, the people that work at NASA do so because they enjoy it and find their work useful. If you were to suggest that they spend their time on something productive, they'd probably turn the whole of their nerd rage on you. Probably by bitch-slapping you while you weren't paying attention. (Hey, they are scientists, after all). Besides, a probe from a private company wouldn't be able to get there any faster. Then it would be employees at a company that would be "wasting" their time monitoring a probe.

And it is true that the images produced are breathtakingly spectacular. But the real point of the probe and the images is not an artistic tour of the universe, but a data-gathering one. In addition to the cameras, there is (billions of dollars worth of) analytical equipment. Saturn's rings pose a mechanistic challenge to astronomers. Chemists drool over the lightning patterns and composition of the atmosphere. Physicists get to study the largest nonlinear dynamical system in the Solar System, without resorting to theory.

It isn't the lack of relevance or lack of technology that keeps the private sector out of space science, it's the complete lack of revenue. Science and knowledge for science and knowledge's sake is not, and as far as I know, never has been profitable. Honestly, how would you plan to profit from uncovering the origins of the solar system? It's not like it's a proprietary process, or something which you could do yourself for cash.

I don't know much about your artistic talent, so I'm going to concede that you could produce a similar picture for less investment of capital and time. Your picture (however aesthetic) would still have none of the informational value of the picture of Saturn's rings.

So if NASA was disbanded, not only would the public lose the splendor and grandeur of the universe, but scientists looking to explain the answers to scientist-type questions like "how did life originate" would be completely at a loss.

Lines are pretty, but data, now that's beautiful.

Billions of dollars beautiful.