Astronomy and the War Machine

My pal Will Saunders, with whom I spent many happy hours collecting IRAS galaxy redshifts, is one of the guys who wrote “No War” on the Sydney Opera House in huge red letters, and was sent to jail for it. I am proud to know someone with such clear and strong convictions. He is also a vegan. None of this half-baked vegetarian stuff. Makes me feel indecisive. I used to refer to myself as a “part time vegetarian”, and explain to people that although I think the Iraq war is stupid, morally wrong, and frightening, I am not a pacifist. Well, everybody is or should be concerned with such issues as citizens; but they also intersect with our scientific lives. Astronomy is entangled with the war machine more than we like to think.

These issues have been at the back of my mind since Friday. I have been peddling my wares – a seminar combining UKIDSS and AstroGrid – around the State of California. So far I have strutted my stuff at Caltech, SLAC, Berkeley, and Livermore, with Santa Barbara and UCLA booked for the next few weeks. Friday was my gig at the Lawrence Livermore Lab . This was a different experience. It being primarily a weapons lab, and me being a suspicious foreigner (all foreigners are suspicious), I couldn’t take my own laptop on site. I had to email the talk, where it was put on Wim De Vries’ laptop. But I couldn’t even touch Wim’s Mac. I had to do all that “next slide please” malarkey. I just thought it was a bit of a hoot, but some of the scientists who work there grumbled about having to go through these hoops when we weren’t within a thousand yards of anything secret. The pure science side of Livermore has been squeezed in recent years, but in the pub afterwards there was much talk about Steven Chu’s all-hands speech, referring to science at DOE labs as the “jewel in the crown”. Everybody of course has picked up on the new Administration committing to “double federal funding for basic research over ten years”. You can can see that phrase for yourself on this White House web page. Some lab scientists seemed to think that this would revive basic science at big labs, while what they saw as giant make-work projects (like NIF and LIFE) would get sliced back. Hmmm. Time will tell.

But why are there astronomers at all at LLNL ? My starting point is that the Government ain’t stupid. They genuinely believe that funding basic research is not just good for the economy, but also good for defense; and that mingling the researchers is also somehow healthy. They don’t need convincing that basic research is worth money; its only a question of how much. PP and Astro have been squeezed in recent years, but we get hugely more than our predecessors before the Second World War. Our fortunes were transformed by the Bomb, and by Radar. The Government discovered that scientists were smart and useful and could get things done; and the scientists discovered how Government worked, and which strings to tug on in the corridors of power.

Big scientific advances need new technology, and the new technology is horribly often a spin-off from the technology of killing. Where would astronomy be without rockets, and what would have happened without the V2 ? Where would X-ray astronomy be without pointable spacecraft, and who do you think invented three-axis stabilisation ? It was invented at Lincoln Labs and then applied down the road at MIT for SAS-3, not the other way round. Where did those Infrared arrays come from ? I don’t think Rockwell make their living off astronomy.  Ditto Adaptive Optics. We are playing catch-up. OK so we can claim that a Particle Physics lab invented the World Wide Web and gave it to the world; but who paid for the development of the Internet to make that possible ? DARPA of course.

I met Peter Eggleton at LLNL. He bought me a beer to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Cambridge University. Nice chap. For him, a good reason for working at LLNL is access to one of the most stupendously powerful computers on the planet, the TeraCluster 2000. Of course its not just the Big Iron. The code concerned, the bizarrely named Djehuty, contains major chunks of stuff that have been … how shall we put it … repurposed.

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2 Responses to Astronomy and the War Machine

  1. art-shkola says:

    God’s truth, quite with you agree!

  2. Tony says:

    Swords into ploughshares will always work the other way.

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