Observatory 1: Green Bank

I spent four days and nights at the Green Bank Observatory (GBO) in Green Bank, WV, July 11-15. A local astronomy club has hosted the Green Bank Star Quest there for fifteen years. It is a very well run event, and I had a ball.

Now some star parties are just camping at a dark site, observing the sky at night and (as I’m told) either sleeping or drinking during the day. Not at GBSQ! First, there’s a bunk house and cafeteria, so no camping required, although you can if you want. Second, they had tours, speakers, and workshops lined up from 9am to 8pm every day, so no reason to be bored. These were really good, too! I learned so much about radio astronomy, “multiple messenger” astronomical discoveries (finding things out through various lines of inquiry), and even astronomy history! The evening keynote speakers were all very enthusiastic, interesting, and engaging on their various topics. I met some new friends as well as spending time with a college bud of mine. In fact, when I registered I was told I am now part of the Star Quest family!

There is more to write about this week’s experiences than I can manage tonight, but I want to get one thought out there. The principle scientist at GBO, Dr. Jay Lockman, was the keynote speaker for Thursday night. He spoke about his experience in developing one of the Great Courses for The Teaching Company on radio astronomy. He told us about the rather grueling process of writing, editing, and filming the course, about some of the history of radio astronomy that he learned himself in developing the class, and about his own radio research, which ironically ended up on the cutting room floor, all of which was quite interesting. His recent research is on the enormous bubbles of gas and dust that have been found to be expanding from the center of the Milky Way above and below the central core, and how, by tracking neutral hydrogen in those areas, some theories as to their nature and flow have been developed. This led my friend Bruce to ask in the Q&A, “As fascinating as this is, how do you answer those who say (and always there are those who say), ‘What is the point of all this? What difference does any of this make? How does this help anyone, or me in particular?'” Dr. Lockman asked Bruce what his answer is first, to which Bruce said, “My answer is, ‘What is the point of a baby?'” which I thought was insightful.

Dr. Lockman, acknowledged Bruce’s idea but went on to say, <paraphrase> “Of course we who do such things know about the intrinsic value of science and of any sort of knowledge, and we can talk about that and about how we may someday find practical applications to all these discoveries. Further, we can talk about the relatively tiny financial investment that we make in science and the vast returns we receive on that investment. But frankly, I am tired of trying to convince people of that. If it isn’t obvious, it is very difficult to get someone to understand it. What I have come to use as an answer instead is that people are interested in these things. I spend a great deal of my time telling conferences full of people like yourselves about this, and they are excited by it. We have 50,000 visitors a year that come through this facility, because they care about science and want to learn things. So it makes a difference because there are people who care about it.” </paraphrase>

This blew me away, and it continues to provide thought fodder for me. It is a great prophetic statement in its justification of something precious and its repudiation of the inherent repudiation in the question. Let’s look at other cases. We might ask, what is the point of professional sports? What good does it do anyone? What is the point of popular music? What is the point of photography, or sculpture, or quilting? What is the point of fishing, or hiking, or boating? What is the point of collecting antiques or beer cans or paperweights or dolls? None of these things has any practical justification, either, but people pour large amounts of time, money, and energy into all of them and more. People make careers around most if not all of these things, too. Why should science, which produces so much more value to the world than, say, football, be held up for scorn as a waste of time and money? And, if the value of science is found in that humans like it and find meaning and pleasure in it, then so, too, the value of all those other things as well, at least to the extent to which they are not harmful to human wellbeing.

Humans do what humans do. Some of us love science. Let’s give thanks for that.

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