The promised follow-up article on the workshop last week in Waterloo, Canada will have to wait til Monday; I had too many scientific activities and chores to take care of today, and I want to make sure the article, which is a bit complicated, is nevertheless clear. But in the meantime, let’s celebrate Martian Curiosity!
First, a big congratulations to the NASA folks! Very impressive, and fantastically cool. I was a huge fan of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, especially of their 3D photography. Looking at those photos on a big screen, through red/green 3D glasses. brought me to sweeping Martian vistas and deep Martian craters — as vivid and as close as I’ll ever see them. It was amazing stuff, and I look forward to more from the new rover.
Next: some perspective. Some people have complained that building this machine and getting it to Mars cost 2.5 billion dollars. Well, most of that 2.5 billion got spent on Earth, spread out over many years; much of it funded people’s salaries, and in particular some of it allowed companies to pay and train highly skilled engineers and scientists, who will continue to contribute to the world economy through further technological development. So the 2.5 billion number means nothing until you do a more careful analysis to decide how much of it was simply spent on perishable things like rocket fuel, and how much of it was invested in something that has future growth potential. Moreover, the scientific knowledge obtained from Curiosity may have value that we cannot foresee. Meanwhile, there’s an estimate that the London Olympic Games cost about 15 billion dollars. Think about that for a while. The two numbers are not without ambiguities, so don’t take the precise ratio too seriously. But one does have to wonder why people are accusing NASA of wasting their money.
Finally, have you looked at the instruments that Curiosity is carrying? There’s a huge amount of modern physics there, most of it involving quantum mechanics, and subatomic physics in particular. Beams of X-rays, alpha particles, and neutrons, along with machines to detect the ones that bounce back; lasers, spectrographs, and mass spectrometers; and tricks involving cosmic rays. It’s all stuff from 20th or nearly-20th century quantum physics, involving things you would learn as a physics student as early as freshman year and as late as graduate school in nuclear and/or subnuclear physics. Maybe someday I’ll walk you through all the physics packed into the rover. If you’re curious.