Cryogenic Testing the James Webb Telescope Mirrors

À la three posts ago (“Tithing for Metaphysics,” 23 July 2010), I was only using the James Webb Space Telescope as a pretext for a tirade on the political economy of big science and discovery being as much a product of labor and capital — just rarified forms — as other endeavors. The James Webb Space Telescope is starting to come together now and this unusual picture from NASA is getting a lot of play. Here are six out of the eighteen mirrors that will together comprise the main reflector of the telescope about to go into cryogenic testing at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Cryogenic testing of 6 James Webb Space Telescope mirrors, Marshall Space Flight Center, November 2010

It’s worth noting here that science inadvertently results in a lot of images that could be considered as art — the various images generated by particle accelerators being a favorite here. It’s also worth noting that an independent review panel recently concluded that the project will go $1.5 billion over budget and run a year behind schedule, unless NASA comes up with $500 million more to get it back on schedule (Gupta, Sujata, “Over-Budget Telescope Threatens Other Projects,” New Scientist, 16 November 2010). That’s another $14.50 per taxpayer, bring our total contributions up to $47.40 each — a small price to pay for photographs of infinity.

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Tithing for Metaphysics

Artist's conception of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA, 2009

In 2014 a consortium of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency will launch the James Webb Space Telescope into a solar orbit at the L2 point, permanently in the shadow of the Earth.

According to the Wikipedia article, the primary objectives of the James Webb Space Telescope are four:

  1. to search for light from the first stars and galaxies which formed in the Universe after the Big Bang,
  2. to study the formation and evolution of galaxies,
  3. to understand the formation of stars and planetary systems and
  4. to study planetary systems and the origins of life.

The expected ten year mission life will cost the consortium an estimated $4.5 billion, or about $32.60 per U.S. taxpayer. At this late stage it’s just an accepted commonplace that the government funds large science projects, but how strange it is that the pursuit of such sibylline truths as the origin of the universe and the formation and evolution of galaxies should be deemed worthy of the expenditure of billions of dollars of the public money (also strange that the perspective of biology has expanded to the point where a telescope would be considered a device essential for the study of the origin of life).

And of course these space telescopes are but a small piece of a giant system of university faculty, journal publishing, government agency bureaucracy, government contracting (Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems is the prime contractor for the James Webb Space Telescope), far-flung observatories atop mountains in exotic locales, laboratories cum cavern and valley-spanning machines (cyclotrons, synchrotrons, tokamaks, scintillators, laser interferometers). Somehow the truths offered by cosmology have been determined to be of such import as to command budgets into the tens of billions drawn from the coffers of the whole society. And it’s worth noting that as many of these projects are carried out by intergovernmental consortiums, they are not only national projects, but civilizational and sometimes global efforts.

What bizarre conception of the truth have we worked ourselves around to that the most advanced machinery that the species is capable of constructing are necessary for these expeditions? In a certain sense, there is something striking about religion, in that theogony seems like the kind of thing that should be without costs.

Giuseppe Bezzuoli, Galileo's Inclined Plane Experiment, detail, Natural History Museum, Florence (1841)

But more realistically, truth is a product of the expenditure of labor. When our system of the world was young, and much of nature was laying about as yet undiscovered, little labor was required for new insights. Mere reflection could in many cases suffice. As our system has matured, greater labors have been required (the decreasing marginal utility of verum quaerere). Apparatus became necessary — simple at first, but of growing complexity. Galileo — the great yeoman of the truth — could sire science with little more than an inclined plane. But the contrivances needed to trick out the next most obscure natural effects, to bring the investigation under sufficient control for observations to be made, to limit the range of effects to just those under scrutiny, to achieve consistency in repetition, the energy and materials necessary to proceed to ever more exotic realms of effects, all of these things have undergone similar developments as the rest of our labors: massive injections of capital replacing labor, but also extending our activity into realms that would previously have been impossible, no matter the amount of labor available.

In our era, production of new and novel truth has become perhaps the single most capital intensive — both durable and financial — endeavor in which we engage.

To Understand Everything without Moving

For physicists to complete the entire task of physics without ever having set out from Earth to explore the universe — and the ratio of comprehension to capability here isn’t even close — would be like the old ideal of the rationalist philosopher who might deduce the entire system of the world from a sturdy chair in his study, or like Emily Dickinson who might feel a whole life through her Amherst window.  On the other hand, should it be possible, it will be a minor demonstration of the homogeny of the universe: it will have turned out that any given place was as good as any other for the task of comprehending the entirety of the thing.

Two Recluses on Cosmos and Psyche

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.

~ Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (1788)

The Brain — is wider than the Sky—
For — put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside—

~ Emily Dickinson, 632

The Grand Historical Narrative of Postmodernism

When people think of postmodernism in philosophy, they usually have in mind a pretty specific list of thinkers such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard and a number of lesser lights among the French post-structuralists. But I am thinking of an alternate trajectory where the key figures would be Oswald Spengler and Martin Heidegger (Heidegger is at least a bridge figure in any version of postmodernism). In the grand historical narrative spun by these two, there is a founding period of the Western intellectual tradition where a series of conceptualizations dramatically circumscribed the realm of possible future development, determined the course of the developments that would occur and cut us off from other potential futures. For Heidegger it was the impressing of ουσια with the form of λογος in the metaphysics of Aristotle. The remainder of the Western tradition has unfolded within the confines of this original conception.

A point made by Spengler in The Decline of the West but similarly prominently by Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence is that such an original conceptualization has only a limited potential. It is a potential of sufficient abundance as to play out over the course of millennia. Nevertheless, some time in the midst of the Long Nineteenth Century the Western tradition hit its pinnacle and has now entered, in Spengler’s terms, the autumn of its life. Either at some point in the recent past, or at some point in the imminent future the West will have exhausted itself. The parlor game is in arguing for various watershed events: the death of god, the First World War, “on or about December 1910” (Virgina Woolf).

In its negative mode, postmodernism is that attempt to clear away the debris of the wreckage of the West (Heidegger’s Destruktion or Abbau, Derrida’s deconstruction). In its affirmative mode, it is the attempt to get behind that original conceptualization, revisit that original openness to that unbounded potentiality of ουσια and to refound the Western intellectual tradition — or something more cosmopolitan still — on that basis. Hence the interest in Heidegger with the pre-Socratics, with Parmenides and Heraclitus.

I have lived in sympathy with similar such ideas for some time now in that my trajectory out of natural science into philosophy started with my first encounter with Thomas Kuhn in the May 1991 issue of Scientific American (Horgan, John, “Profile: Reluctant Revolutionary“). In Kuhn I was introduced to the notion of a domain formed by an original act of genus insight (a paradigm), but with only a limited potential, eventually to be exhausted and superseded by subsequent reconceptualization of the field.

I suspect that one of the causes of the structure of scientific inquiry as Kuhn describes is that the object of scientific inquiry is, at least phenomenologically, a moving target. A theory is derived within a certain horizon of experience, but just as quickly as a theory is promulgated, human experience moves on. The scope of human experience expands as our capabilities — for perception, for measure, for experiencing extremes of the natural world — increase. Consider that when Albert Einstein published the special and general theories of relativity people had no idea that stars were clumped into galaxies. They thought that the milky way was just one slightly more dense region of stars in a universe that consisted of an essentially homogenous, endless expanse of stars. They had identified some unusual, diffuse light patches that were referred to as nebula, but they had not realized that these nebulae were each entire galaxies of their own, tremendously distant, and that the local cluster striping our sky was the galaxy containing our sun, as viewed from the inside. And no one realized that the universe was expanding. They imagined that the spread of starts was static. Einstein — in what he later called the greatest error of his professional life — contrived his equations of relativity to so predict a static universe, whereas they had originally predicted one either expanding or contracting.

Notice that if one were to accept these ideas above, the intellectual scheme with which we would be faced would be one of cycles within cycles of superior and subordinate ideas, e.g. the Newtonian and Einsteinian and quantum mechanical scientific revolutions all take place within the horizon of ουσια qua λογος.

This is a romantic series of ideas, that a primordial act of genius is capable of radically redirecting the course of history. Of course postmodernists reject such totalizing abstractions as “Western civilization,” “the Western intellectual tradition,” and “the West” as well as the practice of constructing such grand historical narratives as the one I have sketched above. But there it is. I think that postmodernist thought is riddled with tensions, especially between its macro structure and micro tactics.

The Supernovae in Your Coffee Cup

The Supernovae in Your Coffee Cup

I loved the film π. I consider it a hugely flawed film, but what I loved about it was the way that it worked in subtle allusions to the underlying concepts motivating the film. The main character walked through a park and they point the camera skyward to show the denude winter branches of the trees, an example of fractal symmetry. One of the images that they showed a number of times throughout the film was that of a cup of coffee. Whenever someone ended up in a diner, we got a tight-in shot of them dumping the cream into their coffee and the blooms of turbulent fluid redounding from the depths. It’s a perfect example of turbulence, a phenomenon that utterly defies computation. Since π I’ve never looked at a cup of coffee the same. Every time I pour cream into my coffee it’s a little ritual where for just a second I consider the boundlessness complexity of the world, as close as the cup in my hand.

I was amused to see a recent article in New Scientist invoke the image of the cup of coffee in reference to the problem of turbulent fluids in supernovae (Clark, Stuart, “How to Make Yourself a Star,” vol. 200, no. 2679, 25 October 2008, pp. 38-41):

As the dense inner material is flung through the less dense outer layers of a star, it creates turbulence and mixes everything up. Traditional computer simulations do not model turbulence well.

“Our theoretical understanding of turbulence is incomplete,” says astrophysicist Alexei Khokhlov of the University of Chicago. In other words, you cannot write down a set of equations describing the state of a turbulent system at any given time and then use them to predict what it will look like next. Instead, you have to employ a brute-force approach, using sheer computer muscle.

To seen the scale of this problem, take your morning cup of coffee and stir in some milk. You are using turbulence to mix the two fluids. To determine how they mix, physicists mentally split the cup into boxes and assign numbers to represent the properties inside each box, such as the temperature and density of the fluid. A computer can then calculate how each box interacts with its neighbors during one brief instant of time and then re-evaluate those numbers. Once it has done this for every box, it starts again for the next slice of time and so on.

To do this massive computation perfectly, each box should be tiny and contain just one fluid particle, but before you can get anywhere near this sort of precision, the numbers become mind-bogglingly large. Scientists talk of degrees of freedom as a measure of both the numbers of particles in a system and the number of ways each particle can interact with those around it. A single cup of coffee possesses a staggering 1040 degrees of freedom — far more than you can model on today’s computers. “Maybe in 10 years we will be able to fully model a cup of coffee,” says Khokhlov.

Until then the computation will always be approximate, and thus prone to errors, because small-scale physical interactions are not being taken into account. … If it is going to take 10 years to fully model a cup of coffee, how long until we can model an entire star?

“Never,” Khokhlov says. “Not until someone comes up with a cleaver theory that does not depend on what is happening on the small scale.” The only hope is to continue to investigate turbulence to learn how to better approximate its behavior.