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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Serendipity of Exploration

The Dimming of Starlight

Chapter 2k


A supporter may respond that a crucial aspect of his case has not been presented adequately. All those benefits he proudly mentions are the results of having yielded earlier to the call of the heavens. When humans first explored, we did not know for certain that so many good consequences would repay our efforts; very often we had no inkling. The pursuit of scientific exploration pays because of the serendipity of science; that is, because of the unintended benefits that science yields. This realization, the supporter thinks, should make us share his faith in the future of exploration and believe with him in the continuous flow of treasure from our space ships, even when he cannot say what that treasure will be.

The critics, however, may doubt that the prior performance of the space program is enough warrant for that faith. Having gotten water out of a well before does not guarantee an inexhaustible supply. Even space activities near Earth, which are often beneficial because of the vantage point they provide, are beginning to experience problems of saturation. Geosynchronous orbit, for example, is becoming crowded with communication satellites that are beginning to interfere with each other. And space debris – mostly from the breakup of rockets – is becoming a hazard to operations in lower orbits.[1] Advances in technology will probably solve these problems, but we still can see that linear growth of benefits is not automatic.

Furthermore, he evidence for serendipity becomes more tenuous the farther we go away from Earth. Critics may wonder what link exists between a probe of Jupiter's atmosphere and the lot of those who breathe Earth’s atmosphere. Moreover, although the history of science offers some striking instances of serendipity – for example, the 19th century Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell’s research on electromagnetism made possible television and computers, two inventions which Maxwell himself could not have foreseen – anecdotes make for a very one-sided historical analysis, for little is ever said about the overwhelming majority of the research carried out during the 19th century. Did all of that science yield practical benefits, or only the most exceptional science, as Maxwell’s surely was?

Even if critics grant that there is a strong connection between exceptional science and serendipity, supporters still have to show that the research they propose will prove to be exceptional. Or else they have to show that serendipity is a feature of most science. If they cannot show either, their standard case will have the ironic consequence of exposing the heart of space exploration to the narrow-minded whims of cost-benefit analysis. That is hardly the stuff dreams are made of.[2]

Furthermore, as far as many social critics are concerned, there is another serious objection: if spinoffs are so valuable, does it not make more sense to spend the money directly in the relevant fields?


How could the supporters begin to address these objections? They need an argument to show that, because of its nature, scientific exploration makes serendipity somehow inevitable. Does such an argument exist? It does. I will provide it in the following chapter and defend it in the rest of the book.

[1]. Orbital Debris, NASA CP-2360.

[2]. Until now NASA has had a policy of bringing about technological breakthroughs with each new mission. Because of budgetary constraints that policy apparently will change. Many future missions will depend on a recycling of existing technology. It seems that the scientific exploration of space need not drive space technology substantially anymore. The impact of the esoteric technology used to explore Jupiter and Saturn on the general technology cannot be discounted, but estimating that impact precisely, or even approximately, is not an easy matter, as previous remarks indicate.

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