Marcelo Gleiser / National Public Radio & The Tonight Show & Joe Setyon / Reason – 2018-09-17 22:10:04
Accessory to War: The Pentagon’s Alliance with Science
Neil Degrasse Tyson / Audiobooks.com
Listen to this title in full for free here (North America).
Accessory To War: An Uncomfortable Wake-Up Call For Some
Marcelo Gleiser / National Public Radio
(September 17, 2018) — Any doubts that science has a dark side were extinguished when, on August 6, 1945, an American Air Force B-29 bomber dropped the atomic bomb Little Boy on Hirsoshima.
Three days later, Fat Man, a plutonium implosion-type bomb, was dropped in Nagasaki, prompting Japan to surrender.
It had not been three weeks earlier when, on July 16, scientists and military personnel working at the top-secret Los Alamos facility had detonated the first-ever atomic bomb. Everyone present knew that the world would never be the same after that. “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds,” Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer was quoted as having said years later, reminiscing about the event.
That turning point in the history of humanity had been brewing for millennia, the result of the “unspoken alliance” between scientists and the military.
In Accessory to War, astrophysicist and popular director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson, indefatigable promoter of science to the general public, joins forces with his long-term editor Avis Lang to deliver a powerful report of this deadly alliance, focusing on its history, science, and the impact it has had on the American century-long worldwide dominance.
The book makes for fascinating reading. The history, dating back to Ancient Greece and before, and stretching to current events, is meticulously researched. There are copious notes and bibliographical references. The science is carefully explained, with Tyson’s trademark passionate clarity.
There are forays into ancient astronomy, astrology, navigation, the development of telescopes and the many tools that scientists use to explore all wavelengths of light from radio to gamma rays. Tyson retells the history of space exploration, and of the Cold War, excelling in bringing forth the entangled advances of science and military interests.
The book’s message rings like a wakeup call, even if an uncomfortable one for the pacifists out there. War makes the world go ’round. It heats up the economy, as governments flush private military industries with lucrative contracts. It heats up scientific research, as governmental agencies flush research universities with cash. Jobs follow in many sectors, personnel get trained, with a resulting upsurge of technicians, engineers, and science PhDs.
Knowledge flows both ways, from the university laboratory to the military and back. Everyone benefits from the unspoken alliance. To a large extent, American science jumped to world dominance because of the success of the Manhattan Project, the one responsible for building the bomb. After that, the great fuel has been the Cold War and the consequent race to conquer space by exploring it (as the scientists see it) and weaponized it (as the military see it).
As noted historian of cities and technology Lewis Mumford wrote, “the moon-landing…is a symbolic act of war, and the slogan the astronauts will carry, proclaiming that it is for the benefit of mankind, is on the same level as the Air Force’s monstrous hypocrisy — ‘Our Profession is Peace’.”
No science is immune to this, not even the most arcane. We all have our hands dirty, despite the vast majority of scientists having only the curiosity about the world as their main inspiration.
Few join the military or the defense industry willingly. Nevertheless, the end result is the same, irrespective of personal choices or qualms: Whoever dominates the technology wins the war game, pure and simple. So, if you want to be at the peak of the technology game, at the cutting-edge of research, you’d better work in a country where the purse of military and the scientists are deeply allied.
The history of the world can be told in terms of the long succession of empires rising and falling. The rising is always very similar: military prowess, a combination of strategy and technology, determines the winners. I was surprised not to see a mention to Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer-prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, since it tells a complementary story — that of the domination of Western colonizers through their technological superiority.
I also would claim that the boundaries within different physical disciplines are more porous than how Tyson and Lang depict them. Nowadays, high-energy particle physics is as invested in space exploration and astrophysical-related research as are astrophysicists.
The so-called golden age of cosmology and astrophysics is a result of the joint effort of many different kinds of physics, that involve space-borne satellites and underground particle detectors. We are all trying to figure out the universe together, and the key questions in the different areas are more convergent than ever. What’s the material composition of the universe? What secrets are harbored within black holes? What kinds of life could we find in exoplanets, if any?
Tyson and Lang make it abundantly clear that America’s dominance both as a science powerhouse and as the main player in space exploration is floundering. Despite its still lavish investment in defense, it can no longer claim dominance over space technology. Russia, and more importantly, China and India, are rising fast and China can easily claim a tie. The picture is quickly changing, and if America’s military leaders think they can dominate space technology and hence have power over all nations, they’d better think again. Those days are gone.
Tyson and Lang do end the book on a somewhat positive note, arguing that with future space exploration the situation is different. There are, of course, huge economic interests up there, from space tourism to asteroid mining — and these are the main drivers for a new player in the game, private corporations like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin, among others.
If the skies were seen by the military as an inevitable battlefield, and by physical scientists as their research ground, they are now also seen as money-making markets.
The dance for power and control of space is getting much more complex and this can, in the long run, be a good thing for science. After all, since science is the backbone of the whole thing, the surest way to stay on top of what happens in space is to make sure your science is on top, too. This will require an alliance between scientists, the military, and private interests.
Given that a war in space is, like its thermonuclear counterpart, a war with no winners, it is indeed possible that the tide will turn and space will be seen as the last frontier not for a single power, but for humanity as a whole. I remain optimistic that this will be the case, despite our tragic past history.
Marcelo Gleiser is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth, where he also directs the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher’s Quest For Trout and the Meaning of Everything.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Defends Trump’s Call for War in Space
The Tonight Show with Stephen Colbert (September 12, 2018)
Neil deGrasse Tyson: We Need a Space Force
To Protect the Earth From Asteroids
Joe Setyon / Reason
(July 20, 2018) — Famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t think President Donald Trump’s proposed Space Force is such a bad idea.
Tyson tells TMZ that some people are only against the Space Force because it was Trump’s idea, but “just because it came from Trump, doesn’t mean it’s crazy.”
He says creating a separate Space Force would be similar to the Air Force splitting off from the Army and becoming its own branch in the 1940s. “Today, you’re not questioning, ‘why is there an Air Force,'” he argues.
So what does Tyson think the Space Force would be good for? Asteroid strikes, for one thing. “What happens when the next asteroid comes and it’s going to take us out? I’m going to want a Space Force to bat the thing out of harm’s way,” he says.
Such strikes are a genuine threat, albeit a very unlikely one. And the Observer’s Neel Patel makes a decent case that the military would be more suited to plan and carry out the response to an asteroid than a civilian organization like NASA, particularly if the US decided to fire a nuclear missile at the asteroid in the hopes of throwing it off course.
The Space Force has also received the support of many officials, including Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. But it’s not a good idea.
According to The Wall Street Journal, which cited a 2016 study from the Government Accountability Office, there are currently “60 distinct entities that deal with assets in space.” In fact, as I noted earlier this month, the US already has a kind of Space Force: the Air Force Space Command, which employs more than 36,000 people. Is there really a need to make the Space Command larger, or to add to the alphabet soup of space agencies?
There’s another problem. The UN Outer Space Treaty puts some limits on the militarization of space: It bans the use of weapons of mass destruction outside the Earth’s atmosphere, and it prohibits the installation of military bases on asteroids or the moon.
But as the University of Kent’s Gbenga Oduntan writes, the treaty does not preclude member countries from deploying other kinds of weapons in space. If the Space Force triggers an extraterrestrial arms race, we could see “a total disruption of the agreed law that outer space is the common heritage of all humankind.”
TMZ, meanwhile, asked Tyson if he would be willing to serve as an adviser on the Space Force. “When the government calls, we all have a duty, if you have a particular expertise that can serve the nation,” he responded. “I think you need to serve.”
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