Dear Congress: Beyond Einstein, Wtf

This is a copy of a letter I wrote to various congressthings. I reproduce it here because I didn’t write a blog post this weekend, and because you probably won’t be able to tell the difference between this and a blog post anyway. Enjoy.

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Dear [Whoever],

I am writing about the recent effective dismantling of NASA’s Beyond Einstein program, and in general the massive slashing of science research within NASA’s budget in the last few years. This is an issue which has received almost no popular attention, and which I suspect Congress has not had the chance to seriously consider. However, I feel that preserving these science programs, and Beyond Einstein in specific, is in the long term of great importance to America.

Beyond Einstein1 is an umbrella program by which NASA is performing a series of flight experiments to gather information about four cosmological phenomena at the limit of human understanding: black holes, gravitational waves, dark energy, and cosmic inflation. All four of these things are an accepted part of modern science, but their exact workings are very poorly understood. Data about their operation would be invaluable to physicists, who must develop theories to explain these things even though they are astronomical phenomena and cannot be observed in a lab.

Unfortunately, though, NASA has in the last few years been de-emphasizing science in its funding, and one of the many worthy programs that may not survive this shift in priorities is Beyond Einstein. The following is a quote from Steinn SigurĂ°sson, a physicist who provides a stark account2 of an NRC meeting where the future direction of the Beyond Einstein missions was discussed:

At the request of the DoE, the NRC is doing a priority ranking, a funding wedge is opening in 2009, one mission can get a startup, the others, not so much.

Realistically, a second mission will probably be named as a ranked priority, then the rest will get bounced to the decadal survey that will start in a couple of years, and we start all over again. If there is any funding for new starts again (we’re looking at maybe 2022-2025 at current budget profiles).

No one is going to win this, only lose. It should never have come to this.

The stakes are high; literally thousands of scientists are looking at the core science activity they have chosen to work in being annihilated for 10-20 years, a lot of junior people could be dumped from science, a lot of senior people could look at having the field they worked to build being shut down.

It is an indescribabl[e] waste, for what is a surprisingly small amount of money on the scale of the US economy. The funding gap that is squeezing the Beyond Einstein Program out of existence is about 2-300 million dollars per year – that, over ~ 15 years is what it would take to do 3-5 of the missions in quick overlapping succession.

I would like to call attention to something that may not be obvious in this quote. Because physics experiments, like a NASA probe or a particle collider, are such concrete things, it is easy to lose sight of exactly how much accumulated effort goes into them. Cancelling or going forward with an experiment like this seems like a simple decision: either you build it and you have one, or you don’t. It is easy to forget the fact that the experiment is not just a manufactured physical object, but an entire section of the scientific community who are working on the experiment and dependent on it going forward. Besides just the people designing the probe, just one of these experiments inevitably leads to years of papers and advancements just analyzing the collected results; canceling the experiment means shutting all of that down.

Meanwhile, going forward with just one of the projects is not much of a compromise, since Beyond Einstein is a survey, not a single experiment; some of the Beyond Einstein experiments are on drastically different subjects, and so deciding to perform only one of the experiments means telling physical science it will be given the opportunity to move forward on some subjects, but not others.

It is easy to shrug off the sciences, especially edge science like Beyond Einstein represents, as optional or inessential. However foundational scientific research like this is, in the long term, what drives real scientific and technological progress. Since Beyond Einstein covers the least well-understood aspects of physics, it has the real opportunity to spark serious advancements in scientific theory. By limiting its scope, we risk missing that opportunity.

It is my hope that when the new budget comes up for consideration over the next few months, the Congress will act to ensure the Beyond Einstein program receives adequate funding to complete its mission. The current NASA budget request as I understand it does not serve this goal, instead choosing to focus its funding efforts largely on new manned spaceflight programs. While expanding manned space exploration is a worthy goal for NASA, this goal should not be pursued at the expense of NASA’s ability to do science.

Thank you for your efforts,

[mcc]

1. http://scienceandreason.blogspot.com/2006/11/beyond-einstein.html
2. http://scienceblogs.com/catdynamics/2007/04/beyond_einstein_iv_showdown_in.php

One Response to “Dear Congress: Beyond Einstein, Wtf”

  1. karl Says:

    it should be supported by the local government for its benefit is very helpful for the entire humanity and since
    this is so, there should be no denial about this matter.

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