April 22, 2019

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Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Surprising Alliance Between Astrophysicists and the Military

Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Surprising Alliance Between Astrophysicists and the Military
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The energy source of stars was a mystery until the 1930s and 1940s, when we applied our knowledge of stars and stellar evolution. Quantum physics had just been discovered in the 1920s, and we concluded that there’s thermonuclear fusion going on in the center of stars. It’s converting hydrogen into helium. That is exactly what an H-bomb does. So the military hired astrophysicists and gave them the most powerful computer in the world and said, “Have at it; go calculate your star-energy phenomenon.” On that same computer, there were others calculating the energy yields of nuclear weapons. In the coffee lounge, they were comparing notes about what’s more effective and what’s more potent. So we had a shared interest in understanding how energy is created in stars, directly feeding an interest in what kind of H-bomb we were going to make during the Cold War.

On the other side of that, you have Project Keyhole, where the military launched a series of telescopes into space that had very high precision mirrors and lenses that looked down at Earth. When that project was declassified, we said: “That’s a good thing to do, but let’s point the telescope upward. Can we have one of those?” Thus the Hubble Space Telescope was born. Hubble was already conceived before the astrophysicists used it and had access to it.

Astrophysicists are curiously complicit, because, as a community, we are overwhelmingly liberal and antiwar. For a lot of us, our sense of conflict was shaped during the Vietnam War. Maybe that’s not surprising. But we have this curious complicity, because if there’s something good that came out of the military, we’ll use it. If we develop something the military wants, they’ll use it. There’s not an obvious way to stop that even if you wanted to.

What would it look like if, instead of an annual $700 billion defense budget, we had a Department of Astrophysics with an annual $700 billion budget?

If you take money away from the military and give it to science, there will be some expectation that the scientist will contribute to our security in ways that more ships or more soldiers would not. What I foresee, if you just shifted that budget, is there will be a whole contingent of scientists of all stripes working on pure defense. We would say: “They’ve got this missile weapons system. Let’s build a shield that is impervious to it.” This was the spirit of the Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s, even though we knew it would not work as specified and as funded, and many noted scientists wrote letters to the Reagan White House stating this. But the fact remains that goal was noble: to create a system of defenses that render our weapons obsolete. And you don’t do that with how many troops you’ve deployed. You do that with innovative scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. So I would see some fraction of that budget devoted to the science and technology of becoming impervious.

By the way, impervious to weapons, impervious to viruses and to cyberattacks. This would be geek central, right? It’s not how many push-ups they did; it’s how fast they could code. That would be the new measure of the modern military. And then, I would put the rest of the funding toward things like exploring if there is life on Europa [one of Jupiter’s moons]. Send some mission that will melt through the ice. I wouldn’t put it all into pure science. I would put it into other things that would spawn science. I would start mining asteroids. Birth an industry that would earn more money than the money you’re investing. How do you do that? You turn the solar system into our backyard. I’d search for life. I’d go there with multiple spacecraft. I’d even send people. Because the people who come back, they’d have stories to tell, and they would inspire an entire generation of explorers. If we learn how to mine asteroids, we could remove one of the recurring reasons we have wars on Earth. In space, there is no limit to the resources.

Except for petroleum, right?

Oh, no, no, no, no, no. That’s the wrong statement. It’s not that petroleum is petroleum; it’s that petroleum is energy. In space, there’s no limit to your access to energy. That’s what you want. Once I get all my energy 22 other ways, who gives a rat’s ass about petroleum? You have to step back from what you think is a strategic resource.

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