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.

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Strategic Depth and Obama’s Rejuvenation of Global Arms Control

Steve Clemons in his summation of President Obama’s winning streak on nuclear issues invokes the notion of “strategic depth” (“Obama’s Nuclear Wizardry and the Iran Factor“, Politico, 13 April 2010). It’s not an uncommon term, but one rarely given much by way of explication. Fortunately Mr. Clemons isn’t just breaking it out to conceptually pad his article, in that he calls out an element of this week’s accomplishments that serves as an excellent illustration of the idea:

In a quick succession of deals focused on pre-empting a 21st-century nuclear nightmare, Obama has mended the foundation and infrastructure of a global nonproliferation regime that United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Vice President Dick Cheney and others of the pugnacious nationalist wing of the last administration worked hard to tear down.

And, by bringing together 47 key leaders, Obama is signaling to all stakeholders that a nuclear crisis with Iran and other potential breakout states would undermine the global commons.

Yet he is not vilifying Iran or its leaders. He is not making the same “axis of evil” mistake President George W. Bush did.

Instead, Obama is showing the benign and constructive side of U.S. power to other great states like India, China, Brazil and Russia. He is also inviting Iran to get in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and get back into a club that matters — where Iran could be respected for adopting a sensible course.

The Obama administration is restoring the non-proliferation norm to “a club that matters.” For the previous administration, either a state wanted to adopt a certain policy, or they didn’t; there was no context in which they may have preferred to do one thing over another, so there was no need to apply the nation’s diplomatic energies to construction any particular sort of international régime.

That was a strategically thin diplomacy. If it appears that the future of the international system is the gradual breakdown of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, if the system is lowly regarded, treated with apathy and abandonment on the part of the great powers, if declining compliance and the emergence of a number of new nuclear powers seems the likely future, then there is little to recommend compliance or membership. What incentive is there to join a system one anticipates failing in the near future?

But if the NPT seems the way of the future, if great energies are devoted to shoring up and extending the non-proliferation framework, compliance is the norm among the respectable states, if the nuclear powers are making headway toward their Article VI obligations, if the possibility of new nuclear powers seems increasingly remote, then that’s a strategic context in which an entirely different set of decisions will seem the best means to a country’s objectives of security, prestige, diplomatic latitude and so on.

Further, broadening the circle of compliance and advocacy takes some of the lime light off of the United States. This makes it much more palatable to recalcitrant elements. In the case of Iran, if faced with knuckling under to the hated United States, the answer will certainly be no. If asked to cow to a group of flunkeys subordinate to the United States, the prospects won’t be much improved. But joining the global consensus among nations is something they might do. It allows them to save face among their citizens and their international constituents should they chose to back away from their nuclear program.

By imbuing the present architecture with a sense of a bright future, increasing compliance and broad support, the Obama administration is bringing the weight of a whole international system to bare on Iran. This seems like a program with more potential than just the usual carrots and sticks.

Bread and Circus Versus Nuts and Bolts

The New York correspondent for the U.K Independent opines on the latest symbol of the decline of the United States and the means by which voters are kept distracted (Usborne, David, “Baseball and Bombs Get the Cash — Bridges Are Just Dull,” 6 August 2007):

You don’t have to visit this country for long to see how its transport infrastructure has deteriorated since the interstate system was built by Eisenhower in the Fifties.

Never taken that pot-holed ride from JFK to Manhattan? Fasten your seatbelts for more turbulence. Or covered your ears in the screeching tunnels of the city’s antiquated subways? As for a cross-country ride on Amtrak, good luck.

Money here tends to flow towards items that make the pulse race. That would be elections, wars and that other national passion, sports. If there was a World Cup for baseball – rather than the so-called World Series in October which involves only the US and Canada – then finding decent venues would barely be a problem. Name a big city that doesn’t have a brand new, state of the art stadium it wants to show off.

Actually, that would be New York. But that is about to change. Its two major baseball teams, the Yankees and the Mets, are in deadly competition right now and not just to land places in the World Series play-off games this autumn. It’s about which of them can get their spanking new stadium finished first.

That’s right, while the Brooklyn Bridge gathers rust (yes, it is on the critical care list), somehow this city is building not one but two baseball stadiums barely six miles from each other, one in the Bronx, the other in Queens. It doesn’t matter that the teams have perfectly good places to play for their fans already. They are not flashy enough.

Increasingly circus is not merely some free-standing distraction, but conjoined to the very decline it serves to dissemble.