COVER STORY

Musings of the Spheres

Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson preaches a galactic gospel meant to awaken our humanity. Will we listen?

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2010
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Venus Is Burning

A reasonable person might ask: Given all the problems on Earth — war, hunger, poverty, disease, unemployment, et cetera — why should the federal government spend billions of dollars in space?

As a public scientist, Tyson hears the question a lot, and it tends to raise his atmospheric pressure.

“I would just ask you: How much do you think we’re spending up there? Here’s your tax dollar. How much? Ten cents on the dollar? Five cents? The answer is one half of one cent. That funds the space stations, the space shuttles, all the NASA centers, all the launches, the Hubble Space Telescope, the rovers on Mars. All of it. Half a penny. “So the question isn’t, Why are we spending money up there and not down here? The question is, If we pumped that half a cent back into the 99.5 percent of the budget, would the country be fundamentally different in the ways you want? Do you believe that?

“NASA should be counted as a force of nature. There is no greater stimulus of the public’s interest in science and technology than the ambitions that NASA places in front of the country.”

Sure, but why not put more of NASA’s money toward studying our own planet? Monitoring for earthquakes, volcanoes, climate change, that sort of thing?

“I don’t believe you can fully understand Earth if that’s the only planet you are studying. Global climate change did not become a subject until scientists studied the effects of the K-T boundary impact on Earth’s ecosystem that took out the dinosaurs. Sixty-five million years ago, the dinosaurs went away rather abruptly. There’s an asteroid impact crater off the Yucatan peninsula, 200 kilometers wide, associated with that event. It’s under the Gulf of Mexico, and was found by petroleum geologists in 1981. No one was thinking about local events affecting global climate at the time. So here you have an asteroid from space hitting Earth as the first occasion for anyone to think about global climate change.

“The point is, discovery doesn’t come from studying the one object. Give me 10 other objects, and compare and contrast them, and then I’ll know what this one is. Our understanding of global greenhouse comes from Venus. Venus has runaway greenhouse. It’s 900 degrees on Venus. Something bad happened on Venus.

“So it is naive and bordering on dangerous to believe that you only have to study Earth if you want to understand Earth and solve its problems. I would even call it irresponsible.”

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