Society

A Scientist's Gratitude

A cloud of interstellar gas and dust collapses and a star is born. At its core temperatures rise, a nuclear furnace ignites, and a rotating dusty disk forms surrounding the newborn star. According to current understanding, as material continues to fall onto the disk magnetic fields blast it back out along the disk's axis of rotation, forming a pair of high speed jets. i i

A cloud of interstellar gas and dust collapses and a star is born. At its core temperatures rise, a nuclear furnace ignites, and a rotating dusty disk forms surrounding the newborn star. According to current understanding, as material continues to fall onto the disk magnetic fields blast it back out along the disk's axis of rotation, forming a pair of high speed jets. J. Hester (ASU)/WFPC2 Team, NASA hide caption

itoggle caption J. Hester (ASU)/WFPC2 Team, NASA
A cloud of interstellar gas and dust collapses and a star is born. At its core temperatures rise, a nuclear furnace ignites, and a rotating dusty disk forms surrounding the newborn star. According to current understanding, as material continues to fall onto the disk magnetic fields blast it back out along the disk's axis of rotation, forming a pair of high speed jets.

A cloud of interstellar gas and dust collapses and a star is born. At its core temperatures rise, a nuclear furnace ignites, and a rotating dusty disk forms surrounding the newborn star. According to current understanding, as material continues to fall onto the disk magnetic fields blast it back out along the disk's axis of rotation, forming a pair of high speed jets.

J. Hester (ASU)/WFPC2 Team, NASA

Science demands treasure, lots and lots of treasure. Overwhelmingly, that treasure is yours. It's your wealth in the form of hard-won wages collected as taxes and then distributed through agencies like the National Science Foundation to a network of researchers studying everything from microbes to black holes. As one of those scientists, I feel its imperative to tell you something of the utmost importance.

Thank You.

Across history and, in our own era, not all societies have been equally willing to pony up the cash to support a vibrant scientific enterprise. While it's clear that rich nations have more discretionary funds to spend on building science infrastructures, that alone does not tell the whole story. Why, for example, does the Czech Republic spend 1.54 percent of its GDP on science research while the Slovak Republic only spends 0.46 percent? Why did Mexico end up with an incredible active astronomical community while Venezuela, for example, did not? The United States, by the way, spends 2.68 percent of its GDP on research, which is high, but not as high as others such as South Korea (3.47 percent) or Israel (4.68 percent).

Of course the choice to devote some portion of a nation's treasure on science must have something to do with national self-interest. Fund new science and you will develop new technologies. New technologies mean new business and new sources of revenue (as well as power). But that alone does fully not explain why a culture chooses to channel funds to study more fundamental "blue sky" questions such as the origin of life, the behavior of songbirds, the nature of quantum physics or the birth of stars.

When cultures do make the choice to support research into the most basic kinds of questions, the results can reach beyond the lab (or the observatory) to enrich everyone.

Last week the Space Telescope Science Institute (the folks behind the Hubble Space Telescope) sent out a press release focusing on new results from a research team I am part of. The work involved making multiple images of star-forming regions where newborn suns blast light-year long jets of gas into space. The project was designed to help us understand the dynamics of the jets, which are a complicated mix of hypersonic plasma and magnetic fields driving through the surrounding material at over 200,000 mph. Understanding the jets is also a critical step in understanding the assembly of new stars. Almost all young stars with masses close to that of the sun will form these jets. Understanding how the jets form will, therefore, help us understand how nature puts stars (and planets) together.

When the dust on the work (mostly team leader Pat Hartigan's) had settled, the images where strung together and they became mind-blowing movies.

I posted some of these real-life astro films over at The Picture Show last Thursday. For two days the images were one of the most-viewed things on NPR's Web site. Throngs of people from all over the world have now seen the graceful glory of these jets spreading across billions of miles. When we wrote the proposal to use HST to get these images, my collaborators and I never imagined the fruit of our efforts would diffuse so broadly and touch so many people. It was both sobering and delightful.

And what was the cost of this effort? Most proposals to use the HST come in at a $100,000 or so. (The bulk of the funding goes to pay for the young researchers who assist in these projects). One can also add in the cost of operating the HST for the short time we used it (the annual budget for HST operations is about $40 million). Taken together, you still end up with a number in the hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars range. Yes, this is a minute sliver of a shred of a fraction of the national budget. It does, however, represent funds that could be spent somewhere else. It is still real money, real treasure.

And that is why, on behalf of the research team, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to you for funding this since it was, after all, your money to begin with.

  • Thank you, in the first place, for your efforts supporting family, loved ones, hearth and home as well as creating the wealth of the nation.
  • Thank you for your willingness to let those funds be distributed to support something other than the immediate and obvious concerns of national defense and the nation's infrastructure.
  • Thank you for seeing that science, in all its forms, enriches the nation just as it requires its riches.

I have an obvious bias in thinking that science is important and good and worth pursuing. But looking across history, it's clear that that science and discovery have been an essential, universal component of those cultures we now esteem as being important, good and worth emulating: Hellenistic Greece, China of the Song Dynasty; Europe in the Renaissance. I am, indeed, thankful to live in a culture whose citizens can make the rightful claim to stand in that lineage.


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