As we await more tantalizing images and results from NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover it is important to ponder the real aim of research, even research that at times seems pointless and wasteful in light of other pressing concerns. Here’s a recap of an exchange from an earlier time regarding a possible exploration mission to the red planet.
In 1970, a Zambia-based nun named Sister Mary Jucunda wrote to Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, then-associate director of science at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in response to his ongoing research into a piloted mission to Mars. Specifically, she asked how he could suggest spending billions of dollars on such a project at a time when so many children were starving on Earth.
Dr. Stuhlinger wrote back, in part saying:
…… I know that you do not expect an answer such as “Oh, I did not know that there are children dying from hunger, but from now on I will desist from any kind of space research until mankind has solved that problem!” In fact, I have known of famined children long before I knew that a voyage to the planet Mars is technically feasible. However, I believe, like many of my friends, that travelling to the Moon and eventually to Mars and to other planets is a venture which we should undertake now, and I even believe that this project, in the long run, will contribute more to the solution of these grave problems we are facing here on Earth than many other potential projects of help which are debated and discussed year after year, and which are so extremely slow in yielding tangible results.
More on this (highly recommended) here.
Also because space exploration is Serious Science and inherently worthy of admiration, even if the practical benefits are not immediately apparent, whereas the social sciences are evil fluffy bastions of liberal propaganda and must be stopped.
More seriously though, I like this guy’s point, but the Mars landing (and the discovery of the Higgs-Boson, for that matter) keep reminding me of how differently baseline research (for lack of a better phrase for inquiry to develop the academic field, without immediate real-world application) in hard sciences vs social science is often viewed.