November 19, 2011

The Web of Science

Think of the spectacular imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope. I continue to marvel at all the wonders of the universe this single scientific instrument has revealed. And I think of the tiny number of humans who work at the Space Telescope Science Institute who’re responsible for this.
A few hundreds of men and women whose work reveals to all seven billion of us humans on this planet the true splendors of the universe far surpassing anything contained in any mythological tales. The world owes a great deal to the Hubble Space Telescope … for opening our eyes, for expanding our horizons, for showing and proving again and again that the zaniest predictions of theoretical astrophysics are commonplace occurrences out there in the cosmos. And Hubble has also revealed phenomena that have left the theorists stunned before they started to contemplate about it and could barely believe that such stuff was really happening.

But the success of Hubble is a story which wonderfully demonstrates the complex connectedness of all of science. It’s not merely the small team at the STSI who can be credited with its achievements. The Hubble Servicing Missions come to mind. The space shuttle was clearly indispensable for this. Hubble could have been launched without the shuttle but it could not have been serviced without it. So the shuttle program becomes a prerequisite. The gigantic technological marvel that was and is the space shuttle is one of the true triumphs of human ingenuity and engineering.
The debates about its cost effectiveness apart, it was a triumph that was a witness to the hard work of thousands of people. The shuttle was in many ways an epitome of many braches of science and engineering such as material sciences, aeronautics, etc.
The shuttle program itself was a successor of the historic achievements of the Apollo missions. Apollo certainly expanded the envelope of human capability in many engineering disciplines. The Saturn V rockets were extraordinary examples of engineering complexity that unmatched reliability. The lunar modules, the ascent engines, all those things never failed. Even the accident of Apollo 13 was converted into a gigantic triumph with incredibly innovative ingenuity. Perhaps a million people were involved with the Apollo project.
Apollo itself could only be conceived because of the advances across the scientific spectrum in the 19th and 20th centuries.
So the Hubble is like the top of a pyramid. The top can’t exist without the rest of bulky whole. This would also apply to other achievements too. Think of the Voyager missions whose legacy continues to this day with the extraordinary Voyager spacecrafts that work to this day.
Whereas telescopes let us marvel at the vastness of the universe and let us peer back into the early universe, particle accelerators help us look deep inside into the fundamental structure of nature.
The cutting edge Large Hadron Collider at CERN is again an engineering marvel that meshes a variety of high technology components. It has the world’s largest superconducting magnets and incredibly complex machinery to detect evanescent stuff such as the Higgs boson and other particles which might lurk in tiny nooks and crannies of the universe.
Perhaps we’ll detect the presence of extra dimensions with the help of the LHC …
Humans have not set foot on Mars yet. Clearly, it’s going to be decided based on cost considerations. Humans consume so much food that transporting what three or six of them might consume over a two-year time period to Mars becomes a logistical nightmare. So, appropriate decisions will be made based on what we can afford.
I’m reminded of Carl Sagan saying: ‘To make an apple pie, you must first invent the universe.’
That’s so true! Whether you want to make an apple pie or send a Hubble to space.
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