Handing the Universe Over to Europe

Back in the day (ten years ago), I served on a NASA panel charged with developing a long-term roadmap for NASA’s astrophysics missions. At the time there were complaints from Congress and the Office of Management and the Budget that NASA was asking for lots of things, but without any overarching strategy. Whether that was true or not, we recognized the need to make hard choices and put forward a coherent plan. The result was the Beyond Einstein roadmap. We were ambitious, but reasonable, we thought, and the feedback we received from Congress and elsewhere was generally quite positive.

Hahahahaha. In the end, almost nothing that we proposed is actually being carried out. Our roadmap had different ingredients (to mix a metaphor): two large “facility-class” missions comparable to NASA’s Great Observatories, three more moderate “Einstein Probes” to study dark energy, inflation, and black holes, and more speculative “Vision missions” for further down the road. The Einstein Probes have long since fallen by the wayside, although the dark-energy mission might find life via one of the telescopes donated to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office. If we don’t have the willpower/resources to do the moderate-sized missions, you might suspect that the facility-class missions are even more hopeless, and you’d be right.

But never fear! Word out of Europe (although still not official, apparently) is that the ESA has prioritized missions to study the “hot and energetic universe” and the “gravitational universe.” These map pretty well onto Constellation-X and LISA, the two facility-class missions we recommended pursuing in Beyond Einstein. The former would have been an X-ray telescope, while the latter would be a gravitational-wave observatory. Unfortunately the likely launch date for an ESA gravitational-wave mission isn’t until 2034, which is like forever. Fortunately, China has expressed interest in such a project, which might move things along.

For anyone following the news of last year’s Higgs discovery, it’s a familiar story. Here in the US we had a big particle accelerator planned, the SSC, which was canceled in 1993. That allowed CERN time and money to build the LHC, which eventually found the Higgs (and who knows what else it will find in the future). The US makes big plans, loses nerve, and Europe (or someone else) picks up the pieces.

Personally, I could not possibly care less which country gets the credit for scientific discoveries. If we someday map out the spacetime geometry around a black hole using data from a gravitational-wave observatory, whether it was launched by Europe or the US or China or India or Dubai matters to me not one whit. But I do want to see it launched by somebody. And the health of global science is certainly better off when the US is an active and energetic participant — the more resources and more competition we see in the field, the more benefits for everybody. Let’s hope we find a way for US science to shift back into high gear, so that we are players rather than merely spectators in this amazing game.

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15 Responses to Handing the Universe Over to Europe

  1. Z says:

    The funding situation is unlikely to get better anytime soon without strong political will and a reorganization of priorities (e.g. military spending, tax increases). Basic science and astronomy just is a very hard sell in a depressed economy. There are structural issues with the US’s political system, culture (“science is for nerds; only applied science has any value” etc) and no-nothingism. All the talk right now is about cutting spending, not increasing it.

    Long-term, what’s likely to happen is the US will become a larger version of the UK, which years ago, gutted its basic science spending in many areas to catastrophic results.

    The future lies in the east, with China, India and SEA. It’s also only a matter of time (~40 years) before their GDP per capita matches the west. Their total basic research spending will probably exceed that of Europe and the US by one order of magnitude by 2050 due to their enormous populations.

  2. Jens says:

    I feel your pain.

    Full disclosure: Back in the day, the US always had, had (!) to be no. 1 in everything, and in fact you pretty much were. Being a European, this did tend to grate on me a bit. Not so much that you were no.1 and did (and still do) wonderful stuff, but the way you always seemed to have a need to shout this “status” to the corners of the world.

    Anyway, I’ve made my peace with that. It heartened me whenever Europe made a contribution, and it still does, but now-a-days I’m mostly just interested in the new knowledge, and not so much where it comes from. Mostly.

  3. Danaidh says:

    Perhaps private entities such as SpaceX can be enticed to participate. Bureaucratic inertia along with anti-science sentiments (for various reasons) are common in the U.S. But business research such as Bell Labs, IBM and Texas Instruments have pioneered basic research AND found practical applications too.

  4. Jens says:

    I forgot to say that while your last paragraph is noble and more-or-less how I feel, it doesn’t square well with the title of your blog-post.

  5. paul hughes says:

    You might have missed it but the current NASA administrator did say that the President charged him with three things: “One, he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math; he wanted me to expand our international relationships; and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science and engineering — science, math and engineering.”

    You might assume that he meant this in addition to whatever actual “scientific” duties the agency might have, but that would just be an assumption.

    If you are concerned about science in the United States you might look at the greater cultural context and what has led to it.

  6. phil h says:

    Sean, as an early universe cosmologist would you not prefer to see something like EPIC, CORE or PRISM fly?
    Also do you think LISA would have any chance to detect primordial gravity waves or just astro physical ones?

  7. Sean Carroll says:

    As a scientist, I want whatever will do the best science, not just what touches on my own area. LISA has very little chance of detecting primordial gravitational waves, but the science payoff would be enormous.

  8. Ulf Dahlén says:

    I quite like collaboration efforts like LHC and CERN and seeing USA participate instead of dominate. It’s not the end of world just because USA isn’t first/best/biggest in everything.

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  10. Jerry Lisantti says:

    I’m curious about what are the sentiments of senior US grad students, and post-docs on their futures in physics in the US.

  11. DEL says:

    To ‘paul hughes’:

    You cite NASA Administrator saying the President charged him “to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science and engineering — science, math and engineering.”

    Did he really say that? Did the President really charged him with that? If so–and I doubt it–let me refer them to the following source:

    James Fallows, “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel,” The Atlantic, Oct. 23, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/11/innovations-list/309536/

    Based upon that respectable source, I challenge anyone to point to any of these breakthroughs that originated in the Islamic world.

    Actually, Islamic contribution to “science, math and engineering” is highly overrated, their most important one being preserving and transmitting the ancient Greek and Roman achievements during Christendom’s Dark Ages. But in the 800 years since then the Islamic world itself has been in a scientific and technological dark age.

    And feeling good about their historic contribution won’t do them any good, as resting on one’s laurels never does.

  12. Meh says:

    If your stance is that Muslims have never contributed anything, then you should consider that a cultural investment in science tends to help rid a society of fundamentalism; though it is of course not 100%, there are definitely positive results.

    Take America as an example. The rise of science in popular culture has dampened a lot of extremism in our country. We’re still a bunch of assholes, but we’ve toned down our ideology to fit a more practical frame of reality.

    I think the intent of reaching out to the Muslim world is to find an antidote to their extremism just as science has healed western civilization’s psychopathy.

  13. Nicolas Brachet says:

    It’s true that Nasa had to cancel big projects, but it is largely due to the JWST cost overruns.

    The JWST will be an awesome instrument, but wouldn’t it have been better to have a more simple design and have LISA too?

    From what I understand, LISA would have been much more revolutionary than the JWST, because it would have allowed a brand new type of observation ( gravitational waves ) with an outstanding resolution. JWST will only improve the capabilities of Hubble by an order of magnitude while LISA would have been a huge jump into unknown territory, with maybe even the possibility of observing the inflation.

    It is a big disappointment to me that it was not built.

  14. Congratulations with your prize from the UK national academy, The Royal Society 🙂

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