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Following a lively conversation on Facebook, sparked by the picture below, one of my friends suggested that someone weigh up the benefits of science to society in comparison to the benefits of military research. I figured I’d tackle the task, but as I am aware people don’t like reading long posts, I thought I’d just focus on one particular part of science. And believe me, the list would be long if I were to try it from every field of science. I doubt I’d even be able to finish it.

So the “part” of science I’m going to talk about is NASA. It’s just one organisation, and yet, NASA has contributed more to society than most people give it credit for. This post is largely inspired by the comment I hear a lot that goes roughly along the lines of “why spend money going into space when we have enough problems here on Earth”. Well, here’s why.

First and foremost is the ultimate pursuit of knowledge. Since the development of the human brain, especially the growth of the neocortex, humans have been obsessed with answering everything they can observe. This used to be done largely through the use of deities, but as science developed, we formulated functional, physical understandings of the universe. This is important because it was precisely due to this drive that we have achieved our current level of advanced society. If this drive to explain things didn’t exist, we would still be living as cavemen.

Second, there’s the fact that humankind will inevitably require the means of traveling outside of our solar system. This need is due to two things – the first being the fact that humans are destroying the Earth through exploitation of resources. The World Wildlife Fund predicted that by 2050, we would need to colonise two planets if we continued to expend resources at our current rate. While this report is a decade old, the very fact that we even have to consider something like this in our lifetime is a sign of bad things to come. This prediction is not alone either, with Stephen Hawking also proclaiming that our species will face extinction if we do not colonise other planets. And even if we manage to survive all the things that could kill us (meteors, black holes, climate change, ourselves), somehow managing to survive five billions years into the future (super unlikely), our sun will go Red Giant on our asses and kill us all anyway. So for starters, NASA contributes to our society by developing technology that helps ensure we even have a future to live in.

Finally, and here’s where the examples come in, NASA technology has resulted in a wide range of what are known as “spin offs”. These are essentially technologies developed by NASA and incorporated by others to suit other needs, and I will focus on these as the core of NASA’s contributions. After all, human nature dictates that what occurs in the future is less important than what happens now, so let’s look at some of the technology NASA has contributed to our current lives. There are so many of these that I’m only going to pick out a few. There’s actually 35 archived catalogues dedicated to NASA spinoffs, which you can find on this page.

But let’s look at a few examples. I’m not sure how to go about this so I’ll just make a quick list and explain the more obscure ones.

  1. Velcro
  2. Teflon
  3. Scratch resistant lenses
  4. Freeze dried food
  5. Sports shoes (shock absorbers, stability and motion control)
  6. Cordless power tools
  7. CAT and MRI scanners (so anyone with fractures or internal injuries can thank NASA for this technology allowing doctors to see what’s wrong in your body).
  8. Light emitting diodes (can be used for cancer treatment and promote faster healing of wounds).
  9. Infrared technology
  10. Mammography systems (reducing need for biopsies due to better breast cancer detection).
  11. Miniature heart assist device (implanted into patients waiting for a heart transplant).
  12. Memory foam
  13. Sunglasses (the technology of the lense being able to filter out UV rays).
  14. Water purification systems
  15. All manner of protective coatings (used on tools, vehicles, buildings and bridges)
  16. Kidney dialysis machines
  17. Medical rehabilitation equipment
  18. Insulation (specifically aluminium and propylene/mylar)
  19. Retroreflectors (used as a sensor to detect hazardous gases in oil development, chemical planets and waste storage sites)
  20. Anthrax detection system
  21. Wireless light switches
  22. Decontamination processes (specifically for areas contaminated by chemicals, used by many companies)
  23. WARP-10 (a portable pain reliever for muscle and joint pain)
  24. Patient harnesses (to assist patients recovering from traumatic brain injury, stroke, spinal cord injury, hip/knee replacements, etc.)
  25. Crash test models (and dummies)
  26. Liquidmetal (used in a large range of sporting equipment, jewelry, watches, mobile phones, orthopedic implants, and coatings).
  27. Navigation systems for planes allowing terrain recognition in all conditions
  28. Gas sensor (used by aircraft to detect dangerous weather conditions and avoid them).
  29. Eye surgery equipment (improving on LASIK)
  30. Bank terminal technology

As I write this, I realise that there is way too much for me to keep going. I’ve put down 30 of the more common ones. You are welcome to take a look at a longer list available here (even if you don’t read it, I advise you to click that link and scroll down just to get an idea of just how much NASA alone – let alone all of science – has given us). One thing is for sure though, in 35 years, NASA has given humankind a ridiculous amount of things. Science in general is responsible for everything you see around you. I guarantee that there is at least a dozen things around you right now that are the result of science, so when people ask why we should bother spending money on science (not only in the case of NASA, but for the LHC as well), I shake my head in dismay. But wait, I’m not done yet.

It’s become a cliché to compare the chronically underfunded NASA to the comically-bloated military establishment, but the comparison is instructive. In 2010, total military spending (not including indirect costs from interest on incurred debts) was 683.7 billion dollars. This was a three percent increase over the previous year.

Let me put it another way. At the same time the NASA budget was being nickle and dimed with budget decreases every year, the budget increase in the military for that year was about equal to the total NASA budget. The military budget increased by nearly $20 billion dollars the same year that NASA was cut back by a critical few hundred million.

– Joel Boyce, Care2

To wrap your head around it, here’s a quick comparison. It costs $1 billion more than NASA’s budget just to provide air conditioning for temporary tents and housing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I’ve been sloppy with my hyperlinks, for which I apologise. This post was a huge undertaking. Here are my last two links for you guys. Dr. Tyson is fun to listen to and is quite popular on the internet, so I thought you guys might enjoy these.

Neil deGrasse Tyson defending NASA before the Senate

Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about NASA’s importance

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“What professions do all these senators and congressmen have? Law, law, law, law, business, law, law, law … Where are the scientists? Where are the engineers? Where’s the rest of … life?”

– Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

So, recently scientists reported the discovery of a particle with observable effects likening it to the Higgs Boson. That’s a very complex way of saying “they think they found the Higgs Boson”. Some of you may not think this is a big deal. To those people, I say “I don’t believe you understand the gravity of this matter”. That’s the first of some of the Higgs jokes popping up.

Anyway, this is a huge scientific breakthrough and it pretty much shoots the whole neutrino affair out of the water. Why is that? Well, there was a lot more hype over the neutrino potentially surpassing light speed because geeks and opportunists started an avalanche of ill-informed statements. The most prominent of these was the whole “faster than light” travel fiasco. I wrote an article on the neutrino for a course at uni but I can’t be bothered finding it so I’ll sum up quickly why this is a stupid idea: the neutrino is also known as the “ghost particle” because it can travel through matter with minimal to no interaction. If something with that kind of amazing ability can’t surpass light speed (or was in doubt of surpassing light speed at the time that these faster than light dreams started multiplying) then what hope do humans have? Let’s put this in perspective. Suppose the neutrino did manage to break the light speed barrier. Well, you might say humans will use that technology to develop super-light speed travel. Errrrrrr. Wrong. What are you going to do, make a spaceship out of neutrinos? Let me remind you that neutrinos do not interact with matter. You’ll have a better chance at resolving the atheist-theist war than ever making even a seat out of neutrinos. There’s a lot more to the neutrino than that, and maybe I’ll put the information up here some time, but for now, rest easy knowing that we’ll always be stuck at sub-light speeds.

I sort of went off at a tangent here. The point was that the neutrino buzz was a fad; there was never really any substance to it. This Higgs boson ordeal, however, is mind boggling. I mean that literally. Even with my reasonable grasp of science, it’s a bit hard to wrap my head around. I asked my mom and stepfather (both PhD physicists who were top of their field in Australia before retirement) for a bit of clarification and arrived at the understanding I have now. I’m going to give a brief explanation of the Higgs Boson and Higgs field in the following paragraphs; if these do not interest you, you may skip, but that leaves you with a bigger question – what are you doing reading this if you’re not interested in science?

Ok, so let’s start with the Higgs field. Why? Because the Higgs Boson is a particle associated with the Higgs field in the same way a photon is associated with an electromagnetic field. The difference here is that the Higgs field permeates the universe. This is a bit hard to understand without an analogy. Let’s say that the universe is submerged within a tank of water – that is, all the planets and stars and galaxies are objects within this tank. The water would be the fabric of time and space – as well as the Higgs field. It is everywhere, in more ways than one. For example, you can bend the fabric of space time (with our analogy, that would be a ripple in the water). Whilst this may shorten the “distance” between two points, the ripple does not eliminate the space time in between – it merely distorts it.

So now that we’ve determined that the Higgs field pretty much encompasses the entirety of the universe (Einstein theorised a similar space time fabric, though I forget the exact name), what you need to know is that particles travelling through the Higgs field, and thus interacting with it, are affected by the Higgs  Boson. The Higgs Boson is a class of particle whose category is known as a Boson. It’s special because it transfers mass to certain elementary particles and thus explains why some particles have mass and others do not. Without mass, there would be no gravity and thus no universe – which is why you’ll hear that the Higgs Boson “holds the universe together”. You’ll also hear it called the “god particle” but Higgs dislikes that name – originally he wanted it called the “goddamn particle” but his editor thought it would be more attention grabbing if it was named the “god particle”.

Anyway, if we delve a little deeper (and further outside my comfort zone), we can attempt to explain how this mass is transferred. Most particles have a positive or negative, non-integer spin. This means that at each energy level of the particle, only one type of spin can exist for the orbiting electron. This is known as the Pauli exclusion principle. The difference with the Higgs Boson is that it can have zero spin or integer spins, thus allowing it to exist alongside another spinning electron at any given energy level. This essentially means that it can exist in multiple states (you may have heard of this quantum mechanics term before, especially since the popularisation of Schrodinger’s Cat). Because the Higgs Boson can exist where no other normal particle should, it has the potential to transfer mass (this is actually my own speculation, don’t quote me in any academic papers).

Anyway, that’s about as far into it as I’ll get. The crux of the matter is, the simple model has been completed. Scientists used this model for 50 years with no proof that the Higgs Boson existed, and now, finally, we have that proof. In short, we’ve discovered something that was fundamental to not only our creation, but everything we see around us in the universe.

The title of this post also mentions world powers, but I’ve rambled on a bit now. I’ll just leave with a quick paraphrasing of the well known Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. “On the day that we Americans like to tell ourselves that we’re the best (July 4), Europe reminds us how far behind we’ve fallen in science (Higgs Boson)”. Dr. Tyson has a deep concern that scientific power will shift away from the US, and wishes to reignite his country’s passion for science. I agree with his forecast; due to the nature of brilliant minds, the next generations of scientists will go to Europe instead of the US for their scientific goals, due to the infrastructure Europe can offer (Large Hadron Collider vs. the now closed Enrico Fermi reactor in the US). A large part of the US’s success is due to the infrastructure and opportunity available within the country, which attracted immigrants and geniuses together. As Dr. Tyson also points out, the greatest scientific achievements made by the US were made by immigrants (a German scientist started the US space program, for instance), and if their infrastructure falls behind, inevitably, their science will too. This will have a widespread effect that will eventually see the US removed as the world superpower (among other factors).

Well, those are my thoughts for the day. Forgive me for any errors in my scientific talk – as I said, the details of quantum physics elude me and I haven’t had the time to research the Higgs Boson as much as I did for the neutrino. Let’s just leave with a picture of the second (and perhaps more prominent) reason why Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is so famous now.

Image

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