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A Duty to Science

January 21, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Reading this article got me thinking about the duties and obligations of being a scientist.

All scientists have a duty to perform their work honestly and ethically.  Ultimately, this obligation springs from the symbiotic relationship between science and society, the give-and-take between scientists and the society in which they partake.

But sometimes science turns around and lays additional obligations upon the intrepid explorer.

Which brings me back to the article.

None of the people who originally designed the Voyager probes ever believe that they would still be functioning, much less returning invaluable scientific data, after 33 years in the cold darkness of outer space.  But that wasn't their mandate.  Their task was to design probes that could function into the late1980s, to survive treks to the outer suburbs of our solar system.  And they succeeded.  Did they ever.

At any point in the following decades, it would have been permissible to accept that the missions had been spectacularly successful, to congratulate all involved, and then…stop listening.  To stop spending that trickle of money on receiver upgrades and manpower to maintain that slender thread of communication with the Voyagers.  I use the word "permissible," but I don't use the word "acceptable".   It would have been a tremendous disservice to science, and to our understanding of the universe around us, if that had happened.

The unprecedented solar wind measurements coming from Voyager 1 right now aren't simply a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  The unfortunate reality is that they might become a once-in-a-civilization opportunity.  Other probes have made similar, if not as historic, long-distance journeys.  Voyager 2 and the Pioneer probes have all crossed the orbit of Pluto.  Others will leave the solar system in the (far) future.  New Horizons, for instance, will streak through the Kuiper Belt in the next ten years, and eventually head for the great beyond a decade after that.  But how long will it mantain contact with us?  Will it survive its journey unscathed?  The other probes currently in the distant fringes of our solar neighborhood aren't positioned and/or equipped to take these measurements.  Meanwhile Voyager 1 is out there right now and still working—after spending almost as much time in deep space as I've been alive.

Nobody expected this.  And yet it is. 

When I read these investigators' speculations about how the Voyager probes might outlast them, I'm struck by what a strange and unique obligation has been laid upon this dwindling group of scientists.

The people who designed and built Voyager, who trained it and flung it into the void, who kept an ear cocked toward the heavens for all these years, have a duty to keep listening.  To keep squeezing every bit of data from that incomprehensibly distant outpost of humanity.  And somehow they continue to uphold that duty, year in and year out, tirelessly and unfailingly. 



Susan January 21, 2011 at 6:00 pm
This probably wouldn't have made it onto my radar -- at least not anytime soon -- so thanks for sharing. It's pretty...well...amazing. Both that the probe is still out there and going, and that (luckily) someone is still listening. Wow is right.
Ian January 21, 2011 at 7:21 pm
I'm glad you enjoyed it. Yeah, I find it pretty amazing, too. Downright touching, in fact. Poor lonely space probe. But I find a little bit of comfort in knowing that no matter what we do down here, no matter how badly we might screw things up, there's a little bit of us still out there somewhere. Forever.
Tengland January 22, 2011 at 1:59 am
Like some big alien goobers who'll use the info on the laserdisk to come to Earth and invade and have us for dinner as the main course. Or to enslave us. Heh-heh. OK, that's the SF side of me, extrapolating to ridiculous lengths. The science follower guy in me can only repeat Ian's "wow" and marvel at the success of the program and what those lonely satellites are telling us. The way things are going now they might be the only pieces of us that get beyond our own back yard and let the cosmos know that, once upon a time, there was intelligent (mostly) life here. A pity, but at least we got that far.
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