Magazine article The Spectator

Who Cares How Old We Are?

Magazine article The Spectator

Who Cares How Old We Are?

Article excerpt

The launch of the latest Discovery mission has been greeted with enormous excitement. We may be on the verge of discovering new black holes and billions more galaxies. There is talk about the possibility of determining the age of the universe and even catching a glimpse of its 'boundaries'.

Is it worth it? The original Hubble orbiting observatory cost 1.4 billion and the current upgrading of its components over 200 million. Admittedly, one cannot put a price on the sheer intellectual stimulus of probing the mysteries of the universe. But one should distinguish two separate kinds of exploration.

The first is limited to the solar system. Its modern phase started with Gagarin's flight into outer space and culminated with the American landing on the moon. These voyages of discovery paid considerable material dividends, benefiting particularly the development of advanced technologies. In any event, during the Cold War it was irrelevant to question the cost/value ratio of space travel. Prestige was everything.

But then there are the present deepspace explorations. Consider the question of establishing the age of the universe. There are theories that it is ten billion years old. This reminds us of the keeper of the National Science Museum who assured visitors that one of the skeletal exhibits was 3,000,022 years old, as it was 3,000,000 years old when he joined the staff 22 years previously. To put it bluntly: do we really care? What is the difference if the universe is ten or 20 billion years old?

What, moreover, are we supposed to find at the 'edge' of the universe? A boundary lost? An unsuspected Olympus? On these subjects, the human capacity for wonderment mingles with boundless scientific hubris. Those who are not over the moon when contemplating the fantastic photograph of a convoluted nebula - the mother of stars - risk being dismissed as philistines.

The classic justification for these pure science ventures is that one can never tell what useful by-product they may eventually yield. Of course, there is no certainty that they will yield anything. Scientists will object that anyway this is not a valid criterion as the real merit of these studies is the enrichment of human knowledge. Their pleas for keeping our minds open appear to them so self-evident that they will seldom accept contradiction. Yet, as in certain manifestations of contemporary art, this uncritical approach encourages disproportionate respect and the funding of some rather remote experiments. …

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