Travel, Politics, and other Randomness

Posted By Pamela on Oct 10, 2007 | 6 comments

arecibo_f.jpgThis year I’m traveling more than I think I have ever traveled before. Thursday I’m flying down to Texas to attend AstroFest, which is being hosted by the Swinburne University of Technology and their program Swinburne Astronomy Online. Friday morning I’ll be giving a talk on the Improbable Universe (which I’m going to try and record myself practicing tomorrow using a great new mic one of you wonderful readers – whose going to get a thank you card once I get back) sent me). On Saturday I’ll be giving a workshop on who to put astronomical images on a standard system (expect to see a whole discussion on that popping up here too). Today, I’m just being sleep deprived. (*Whine about why below.)

But, in my sleepiness, I poked through my press releases. One of the things that most caught my attention was congressional testimony and a bill that is in progress concerning the Arecibo radio telescope. The giant scope on Puerto Rico island has starred in films ranging from James Bond to Contact. It is currently slated to be shut down or at least have its usage greatly reduced in 2011. I think it is safe to say no one wants to shut down Arecibo, but, well, it’s old. The scientific community has a very limited budget and if we, as a community, want to build new things, we occasionally have to give up some of our old toys. But – there is a big “Contribute” button on the Arecibo page, and folks are working hard to try and keep this old mission going. Arecibo is still scientifically useful, and it is used as part of the “Big Ear” to detect far off space mission that are sending signals back to Earth. It is also used as an active radar system, and it can send out radio signals to asteroids and other solar system objects to measure. Not a lot of radio telescopes offer the same power and sensitivity.

But we have new questions that Arecibo can’t answer. We have new questions that require new telescopes.

Arecibo isn’t the only telescope that is problematic.

And there is also Hubble … It is up, it is functioning, if it gets refurbished (as planned) by the Space Shuttle, it could last a good long time. But, it is old, and it is scheduled to be shut down perhaps as early as 2010. It is a good telescope, it is doing a good job, and it is getting great science. But we want to build a giant orbiting infrared telescope that can tell us about the beginning of the universe and help us find hot Jupiters. The Space Telescope Science Institute was so awkwardly named so it could take on the control of the new James Webb Space Telescope when it goes on orbit. We, as a community, can’t under current budgets afford both Hubble and Webb.

Choices. It is hard. New questions need new telescopes, but how do you purposely destroy a working instrument?

And that’s what is required if we turn of Hubble or Arecibo. Arecibo would need to be dismantled so the area it now occupies can be returned to its natural state. This means, no more telescope. Hubble will need to either be boosted to a higher orbit or brought down to Earth in a destructive way – in both cases it will no longer work.

There are those that would argue that we need to increase our science budget to allow these old telescopes to keep doing good science while we also build new telescopes to answer questions that we can’t answer with our old equipment. I agree that the science budget should be increased, but … but we can’t keep old things going forever. Sometimes, it is time to move on to newer things.

It is hard and I don’t envy the job of the poor folks who had to testify before congress. Arecibo is beautiful and famous. There are people who are going to want to keep it going just because it is sexy. How do scientists who in their heart probably want to keep Arecibo going explain both why keeping it going would be productive, but why it would be better to close it down and build new facilities. The paper they wrote is as dry but well done as can be achieved. But it still isn’t easy on the heart.

*(This semester I’m teaching a 9am class, and I have one 9am meeting. That means three days out of 7 I’m forced out of bed at 7:30am or earlier (depending on what I need to do before class or meeting). This really isn’t good for my bio-rhythm. I show up to class with a 32 ounce coffee, and am highly grateful that I only give the lecture part of the class half the time (it is a joint physics-chemistry class for elementary ed majors). Last week one colleague popped into the lab shut our door because hist students were about to make a lot of loud noise. He told me latter that the utter look of despair on my face made him not recognize me at first. On Monday another colleague looked in as he walked down the hallway and started shaking violently with laughter because me and my coffee just didn’t have our “game face on.” Two early morning meetings into my week I’m just tired.)


  1. As far as I understand it, the US National Science Foundation had to cut back $30 million from the ground-based astronomy budget. That meant cutting off at least two big projects out of those they have going – Greenbank, VLA, VLBA and Arecibo. Part of the motivation is to provide money for ALMA which is now under construction. No doubt there is some astro-politics involved in the decision too.

    I agree that there comes a time when it no longer makes sense to keep funding an existing project because it is no longer producing first-rate science. However, Arecibo is still doing great work and is still the largest single-dish radio telescope on the planet. The chairman of the review committee, Roger Blanford, even stated that “All of these telescopes are productive… All of them are good for another decade or so to do front-ranked science.”

    In the end it comes down to how much money there is to spread around and the US seems (from an outside perspective) to be cutting back on science funding. That is a great pity. Especially when you realise that it is perhaps a hundred thousand times less than the cost of a war.

  2. I sympathize! I’m also not a morning person.

    For a moment, when I saw the picture next to your travel paragraph, I thought you were going to say you were going to be at Arecibo soon, and I was going to ask you to say hi to my friend Dave. 🙂 He’s down there for a year (he usually teaches in California) and says I should come visit. I guess this may be my last chance!

  3. Please post the Improbable Universe recording when it’s done. That sounds interesing..

  4. Why does science always have to depend on money?
    I wonder what would a group of people in an alternate universe (where those telescopes weren’t destroyed) would see with these telescopes. Are we going to miss a lot of data? We may never know.

  5. Dear Pamela, great work your doing I love your podcast and admire your dedication, but sometimes you got to think on your resting need in order to keep productive and… happy. The more “work” you do the more it will appear from here or from there. Is never ending. I know sometimes you have simple to face hard moments in our professional life. Keep your agenda under surveillance, and if you need to, impose Pamela´s religious time in it.

    Keep presenting us with your post I love to hear!

    (Sorry for my English I’m still learning how to get Vista doing the thing I need)

  6. As you may or may not know, I have been in the “De-orbit Hubble” camp for the last couple of years. I’ve seen estimates that say that for the price of keeping Hubble going, we could build a newer, larger space telescope. Insofar as visible wavelengths are concerned, adaptive optics have given ground-based scopes on Earth better resolution than Hubble. So, I do think that Hubble’s money should be re-directed.

    Arecibo…I’m not so sure about. I’m more familiar with what is coming down the pipe in wavelengths shorter than radio so I don’t think I can make an informed judgement with regard to Arecibo. But you’re right – sometimes you need to put the old toys away to get the new ones.

    On the other hand, unfortunately, it also says something about our priorities that we need to make these types of choices in the face of the activities of the current political climate. I can only hope that China or India, like Russia did 50 years ago, jolt us into realizing again what is truly important and we start again investing in the future of knowledge instead of building the useless paper walls that are the political fashion nowadays.

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