Patrick Mylund Nielsen

Big Bad Congressmen Afraid of the Dark

08 Jul 2011

About a month ago, the SETI Institute's Allen Telescope Array, made famous by the movie Contact, was shut down due to lack of funding. The money necessary to keep the array online for another year amounted to $1 million, or the cost of around 12 Javelin missiles. As much as I loathe that, and wonder whatever happened to the American people's priorities, I can understand why it happened. There are doubts about whether the strength of the array is sufficient to capture any possible signals. (Nevermind the fact that we can't possibly pretend to know if it would eventually work or not.) It might not capture anything; there might not be anything out there, and even if there is, we would—we assume—not be able to brave the distances needed to make any use of that knowledge.

But now the U.S. Congress is contemplating reducing NASA's budget by $1.64 billion (8% of NASA's total budget), a move that would kill, among other things, the James Webb Space Telescope program. The James Webb Space Telescope is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which is arguably one of the chief glories of mankind. It is the tool with which we have gazed through time and space and watched as, time and time again, spots of darkness that were thought to be simply nothing turned out to house thousands of galaxies and hundreds of billions of stars; the marvel of engineering that through the past 20 years has taught us more about the origins of our universe and ourselves than anyone or anything else ever has — and now some people are saying it's not "worthwhile" to see more.

The congressmen and women who are attempting to cancel the James Webb Space Telescope are essentially saying that they do not want to know about our origins. They are calling what might become a much greater tool of science than the Hubble Space Telescope—which is already one of very few things that humans will remember a few millennia from now—an "acceptable loss". They are comfortable halting much of the progress in cosmology in order to reap a meager $1.64 billion, or approximately five days worth of sustaining the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To me, this is nothing less than cowardice. This project is not about finding life elsewhere, but about understanding the origin of time and space, and therefore ourselves. It is about not being content with living in ignorance, afraid of the dark, and about finding an answer to the oldest question we know: "Who are we?"

Are you American? Then write to your representative and try to stop what will surely be one of the more regressive acts of our "modern" civilization. If you do not agree, and if you do not act, then I can only ask: Why are you afraid of the dark?

Nothing is more fatal to the progress of the human mind than to presume that our views of science are ultimate, that our triumphs are complete, that there are no mysteries in nature, and that there are no new worlds to conquer.

— Humphry Davy

Update: It looks like the JWST will survive!