Thursday, October 06, 2005

On Gamma-Ray Astronomy and Nuclear War

From today's New York Times, Ancient Interstellar Collision Helps Explain Source of Radiation:

With a screech of high-energy radiation brighter than a million billion suns, a pair of stars in a faraway galaxy collided two billion years ago and disappeared into a black hole.

That cataclysm, recorded by a battery of telescopes and NASA satellites on July 9, has provided scientists with the answer to the last remaining piece of 35-year-old astronomical mystery: the origin of explosions that sporadically shower outer space with gamma rays, the most energetic and deadly form of electromagnetic radiation.

Exactly what happened 35 years ago to merit this investigation isn't mentioned by the New York Times. These bursts were originally discovered by the United States Air Force's constellation of Vela satellites, spacecraft designed to detect nuclear explosions.

The realization that these satellites were detecting gamma rays from outer space rather than nuclear explosions on Earth triggered a burst of funding to solve this mystery: billions of dollars spent on astronomers, spacecraft, radio telescopes, and even general relativity theorists, costs spanning an entire generation.

The results of this spending have included the dissertations of many physicists and astronomers and a great deal of fine scientific knowledge. Yet, even as scientists pat themselves on the back for their achievement, it should be remembered by citizens and policymakers and the scientists themselves that the ultimate purpose of this spending was an ideal higher than the ambitions of individual researchers or the cause of science itself: to prevent accidental nuclear war.

Why doesn't the New York Times mention this? Perhaps because mentioning it would credit the military-industrial complex of the United States with a great achievement in the realms of pure scientific inquiry and world peace, and doing so would offend the left-leaning sensibilities of the Times publisher, editors, or staff.

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