In a wide-ranging interview on the publication of his latest book, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told me why we haven’t been back to the Moon; why asteroids are a bigger threat than hostile E.T.s; and why it’s likely to be another two decades before we put a human on Mars.
In “Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military,” Tyson and Avis Lang chronicle the often-complicit relationship between physics, astronomy, astrophysics and the development of military and defense technology. Their seemingly disparate quest for the latest technology has long resulted in an often extraordinarily fruitful, if not uneasy marriage. And although the technology can flow both ways, astronomical tech is more likely to be picked up and funded by defense researchers than the other way around.
Such complicity is nothing new.
As far back as ancient Greece, astronomers and warfighters have often made strange bedfellows. Greek mathematician Archimedes was dreaming up a way to use the Sun to attack enemy Roman ships in Syracuse harbor as early as 213 A.D.
As the authors of this exquisitely-researched new work note, astrophysicists and military planners care about many of the same things: multi-spectral detection, ranging, tracking, imaging, high ground, nuclear fusion, and access to space.
“Astrophysicists don’t make weapons, but defense and astrophysics have highly overlapping interests,” Tyson, the Director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, told me by phone.
Going back hundreds and thousands of years, the formation of empires required someone with knowledge of navigation, says Tyson. Someone needed to understand the Sun, Moon and stars and how they gave you information as to where you were on Earth, he says.
Ultimately, such exploration led us to explore our solar system robotically as well as with human astronauts. In fact, next year marks Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary. But humans haven’t set foot there since 1972.
As for why?
Currently, Tyson says, there’s no geopolitical motivation to send humans back to the Moon. In 1969, he says, we were in a war and when you are at war money flows like rivers.
All the people who presumed that because we were on the Moon by 1969, then we would subsequently be on Mars by 1980 had no understanding of why we went to the Moon in the first place, says Tyson.
As for Mars?
If China puts military bases on Mars, then we’d be on Mars in ten months , Tyson says somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “One month to fund, build and design our spacecraft and 9 months to get there,” said Tyson. “But until then it’s a science fiction topic.”
How likely is it that we will ever need planetary defense to defend from hostile E.T.s?
Before we protect against potentially hostile extraterrestrials, Tyson says, we should at least protect against asteroids. From that exercise, we may learn how to protect against evil E.T., he says.
“But we hope that E.T. does not treat us the way we know we treat one another ,” said Tyson.
And although Tyson says he knows of no one in the defense sector currently thinking about how to defend against an extraterrestrial attack, he says that’s probably because no would have a clue about their hypothetical super-advanced weaponry.
As “Accessory to War” continually reminds us, the garnering of scientific knowledge and technology is very much a multi-generational endeavor. For despite great strides in technology over the last century, we are still asking some pretty fundamental questions about the universe.
One of the big astrophysical questions of the early 20th century was how do stars work at all?
In another case of scientific overlap, World War II’s Manhattan Project to build a nuclear weapon also helped astrophysicists better understand stellar processes. Tyson says such research proved to be fundamental to our understanding of hydrogen fusion in stars.
“Hydrogen fusion is what goes on inside of H bombs,” said Tyson. “The difference is that the Sun controls its hydrogen fusion; the H bomb does not.”
By the late 1950s, largely due to data gleaned from nuclear tests, the authors write that astrophysicists were finally getting a handle on “what subatomic particles and atomic nuclei do when they collide…”.
Due to an incredible number of atom bomb tests in the Bikini Island coupled with observations of distant supernova spectra, researchers were able to identify californium-254 as a likely byproduct of stellar supernovae. In no way are the authors arguing for nuclear tests to prove astrophysical theory, but they astutely point out that even data gleaned from such highly-destructive tests can sometimes be used for science.
Ultimately, it’s a bit sad that astronomy had to arrive here on the shoulders of defense endeavors that often threatened our very existence. Total global annual military spending is nearly $1.7 trillion, the authors note. As they point out, a year’s worth of that kind of military spending could easily fund every astrophysicist in the world for the next half millennium.
And although that kind of sea-change in spending is never going to happen, in this age of the three-minute read, “Accessory to War” is precisely the kind of hefty historical, technological, and scientific tome that should be widely read and discussed.
For despite a new generation of astrobiological bean counters who seem to think life is ubiquitous, the larger truths about astronomy and its related disciplines continue to reveal how unique this Earth actually is.