Brain the size of a planet

14 July 2015 By Richard Beales

July 14 has been a good day for basic science. The journey of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto reached the closest point to its dwarf planet target. Meanwhile, European researchers have by their account proven a 50-year-old theory about matter, identifying – essentially by accident – a subatomic particle made up of five quarks.

Such things don’t come cheap. The tab for the New Horizons mission, at about $700 million over 10 years, looks modest compared with NASA’s whole budget at north of $18 billion. The annual expenses of the CERN research organization – where the Large Hadron Collider just revealed the pentaquark and previously helped scientists find the much-hyped Higgs boson – are about $1.2 billion a year.

Critics of the U.S. space agency’s funding weren’t in evidence on Tuesday, but there are people who want research funded by the private sector rather than taxpayers. It’s true that the relatively open-ended efforts at, say, Google – perhaps the nearest current equivalent of the famed Bell Laboratories in their heyday – offer some analogous potential rewards. The Silicon Valley giant spent $10 billion on research and development in 2014.

Yet government-funded science goes beyond what companies generally can do. The Pluto spacecraft, for example, was launched in early 2006. An investment involving a decade of travel time alone would be next to impossible to justify in the corporate sphere. CERN’s LHC first started up in 2008, nearly a quarter of a century after the first official airing of the plan.

Few would argue with the intellectual, inspirational and even political payoffs from the investment that took U.S. astronauts to the moon in 1969. The benefits often reach the real world, too, though the transfer can take years. NASA had a role in developing memory foam, for instance, among many technologies that now have applications way beyond space programs. Ministry of Supply provides a more recent example: the company, whose founders met at MIT and originally raised funds through Kickstarter, uses NASA fabric technology in its quest to re-invent the business shirt.

Even SpaceX, entrepreneur Elon Musk’s innovative private rocket company, benefits from a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. Setting aside the real-economy aspects, though, the public reaction to New Horizons and CERN’s work demonstrates that there’s an instinctive excitement about basic science – and an implicit recognition that it’s a public good worth paying for.


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