About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Podcast Teaser: Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the need for a space program

Our next podcast will feature as guest Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist by training, and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. His latest book is “The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet.” We will touch on a variety of issues with Dr. Tyson, including the surprisingly controversial decision to downgrade Pluto from planet to Kuiper Belt Object (and you thought definitions of concepts don’t have practical consequences).
But perhaps the most interesting current debate to have in light of recent political decisions is whether we need a space program at all, and if so, with what priorities. Many scientists (and most people in the skeptic community) simply assume that funding outlets like NASA are a good idea, that space exploration is justified by a combination of scientific results and technological spinoffs, to which some add inspiration for the young as a further bonus.
Indeed, a similar question could be raised concerning much basic science: do we need, as Sarah Palin (in)famously asked recently, to do research on “pet projects” concerning fruit flies? Why should this be a societal priority, especially in times of economic crisis when we have practical problems that science should be addressing instead, from curing cancer to arresting climate change? (Yes, we at Rationally Speaking believe that human-caused climate change is both real and dangerous.)
Much scientific research in the US is in fact paid with public money, and the amount is certainly not negligible. It seems fair, therefore, to ask scientists to justify these expenses not just in terms of their personal curiosity, but as a matter of tangible and intangible benefits to society at large. Can Dr. Tyson do that for the space program? Should we go back to the Moon and establish a permanent base? Is it worth the expense and likely risk to human life to attempt a mission to Mars? What is a space station for, anyway?


  1. I am so looking forward to the podcast. Thank you.

  2. Hello All,

    We recently had Dr. Tyson on my own podcast (Science... sort of) and there wasn't nearly enough time to delve into all the things I wanted to talk about so I'm very excited to hear more good conversation.

    I think the argument for permanent colonization of space is a pretty simple one. If we would like our species to survive we should keep it in multiple places, just like I have multiple copies of important documents and backup my hard drive to a separate location regularly. It seems like the more places we as a species are the more protected we are from localized disasters. A planet killer asteroid doesn't kill us all if we're on multiple planets.

    As far as the risk to human life, I think exploration is fraught with risk when you're on the cutting edge and there are people who commit to those endeavors even at great risk to themselves. If it's an informed decision on the part of the participants I see no ethical issue with the obvious risk of space travel. We let people compete at the Olympics where they get very hurt and sometimes die. If anything it makes it more exciting to be a part of and to watch (whether that's a good thing or not is another issue). Maybe a risk to life and limb is the kind of sexiness the space program needs to rekindle public interest.

    Keep up the great work, and thanks again to Dr. Tyson for his time.


  3. We certainly need a space program. After the Christians get everyone here converted, and assuming the Rapture hasn't yet taken place, they'll need to get out there and begin saving the Vulcans, the Tellerites, the Andorians, etc.

    Reclaim the universe for Christ!

  4. I'm attending a discussion Tyson is hosting at the AMNH next Monday night on the future of manned space exploration. Looking forward to it.

  5. I was amazed at the Pluto uproar that occured at the time of the change in designation. Recently I watched Dr. Tyson explain the whole situation on an episode of NOVA and I was sort of re-amazed as he told of the vitriolic response he got for placing Pluto in the lower reaches of the planetarium display. Why do average citizens and state legislatures care if that rock is called a planet, a dwarf planet, a miniature planet, a planetoid, or a Kuyper Belt Object? They still have to get up tomorrow and put their pants on one leg at a time. Their life is not going to change. Jeeesh people, get a life.

    As for 'Man In Space', I used to be all gung-ho for it. The moon may be a harsh mistress but damn, it's all so exciting. However, a couple of years ago I began reading Bob Park's newsletter. He has made a case for robotic exploration rather than manned expeditions and I have finally been persuaded by his reasoning. Human astronauts may be sexy but we can do 10 times as much science for the same amount of money by using machines. We are also less likely to contaminate other worlds with our bacteria, viruses, and other hitchhikers. But then, I'm prone to being swayed by rational and economic arguments and there is a huge assemblage of Americans out there who are more likely to be swayed by emotion. Sexy is going to win.

  6. Good luck saving the Vulcans!

    Anyway for the time being, we should focus more on robotic exploration. We get more bang for the buck and better science.

  7. While I would like to see a manned mission to Mars in my lifetime (I'm only 40), recently I have leaned against making it a priority to do such a thing.

    Like some of the other commenters above, robotic missions can accomplish a lot more with less risk. Meanwhile, as the private sector gets more involved, the technology will improve down the road so that we could make it safer and less expensive to send humans to Mars than embarking on an expensive mission now.

  8. "It seems fair, therefore, to ask scientists to justify these expenses not just in terms of their personal curiosity, but as a matter of tangible and intangible benefits to society at large."

    I'd be curious to hear Pigliucci's opinion on the role of pure research in society. Is the quest for knowledge, without any consideration of technological applications, worth a substantial investment? If so, under what justification?

  9. I think the risking of life on space missions should be a rather small worry. I think many astronauts would accept an even greater amount of risk than what is present now. I certainly would rather risk/give my life exploring space than in (the foolishness of) war. Thats not to say we should not admire or pay due respects to the loss or risking of life in either campaign.

    I agree with the comments above that more progress may be able to be made with robot missions due to costs, but I do not believe that avoiding risk to lives should be the prime motivator. Now, obviously there comes a limit . . . we should not fly people on suicide missions to Mars or Jupiter.

    Lastly, I think we need to do a better job, first perhaps, organizing ourselves here on earth so that we can in turn spend more time and resources on exploring space. Stop starting wars would be a good first step. Of course an arms and space race between us and say China may be the best thing for space exploration, as has been shown.

    Looking forward to the Tyson/Pigliucci showdown.

  10. I had the honor of meeting Dr. Tyson at a meeting in NYC at the end of 2008. We discussed a few items of interest but I had to ask him about the great Pluto controversy. He said he was writing a book on his experience, "The Pluto Files." PBS has also covered this brouhaha. I found Dr. Tyson to be a very funny, witty, intelligent and kind man who more than deserves all of the praise, recognition and honors he has received. I truly believe he is our generation's Carl Sagan. I look forward to the podcast.

    I read a message on the United Federation of Planets blog that stated that all Christian emissaries from Earth would be quarantined until their "God Virus" had been treated and they no longer represented a threat to the Rational Thinking population of the Federation.

    Peace & Long Life!


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