Space dust: Your tax dollars at work

By Maggie Koerth-Baker at 9:07 am Tue, Oct 11, 2011

Your tax dollars build bridges. They pay the salaries of teachers and firefighters. Tax dollars help put people through college, provide a safety net for the elderly and the disabled, and pay for fighter jets and nuclear bombs.

You may not agree all those ways your tax dollars are spent, but they are all, at least, fairly tangible. When it's time for re-election, your senator can point to a roads project, a school, a saintly grandmother, or a missile silo. Through these projects, Americans are being educated, cared for, and protected.

But it's hard to make that clear cost/benefit analysis for basic scientific research. At least, not on a timetable that matches up with election cycles.

Basic research is often weird, and it's often boring. It's the years spent mapping the neurons of zebra fish, so that future scientists can have a more detailed biological model to work with. It's the chemical analysis that has to happen, so that two decades from now somebody else can discover a new cancer-fighting drug. Basic research is about curiosity, and knowledge for knowledge's sake. By it's very nature, basic research relies on public funding. But by it's very nature, it's hard to explain how the public benefits from the basic research we fund.

Attila Kovacs is one of the scientists who put your tax dollars to work. An astrophysicist at the University of Minnesota, he specializes in the study of space dust. That is, yes, dust. In space. It's the sort of thing that would be very easy to mock. (Imagine Bill O'Reilly making a joke about lemon-scent space Pledge.) But Kovacs says space dust matters more than you think. And he makes a good case for why it's important to spend tax dollars on funny-sounding science.

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Maggie Koerth-Baker: You study space dust, but what does that really mean? Is this the same thing as dust on Earth, just in space? Or is space dust something a little different than the stuff that builds up on our bookshelves and end tables?

Attila Kovacs: In some ways it is similar. I like to think of Earth as a giant dust ball. Earth was made of space dust, but it went through a lot of evolution so dust that’s on Earth now isn't exactly the same. We don't actually know the structure of space dust, but we can guess. It probably has metallic core surrounded by a carbon or silicate shell and an ice mantel. They may be shaped like snow-flakes or a crumpled piece of paper. And we know that a typical speck of space dust is about 0.1 microns, about 1 thousandth of the width of your hair. It's hard to get your hands on space dust. We can only get indirect evidence through observation, by looking at the light that goes through the dust.

For instance, we know the size of space dust because light that has a wavelength larger than the particles of dust has come through the dust. We can see how different wavelengths of light either get blocked or go through the dust layers and we can put a size on that.

But what really makes dust interesting to me is its intricate connection to star formation. Dust is produced by stars in their dying phase, and it's also an essential ingredient for making new stars and planets. Interstellar dust is mostly heated by massive young stars less than a million years old. In fact, most of the light from stars is absorbed and re-emitted as heat by dust. So, by measuring the heat contained in dust we can get an accurate picture of the current level of star-formation in galaxies at all ages of the Universe. Through the dust, we can directly measure the complete star-formation history of the universe and get a glimpse at when and how the galaxies and stars came into being. This is what I research.

Yet another interesting aspect of space dust is its role in the chemistry of space. Most molecules, including molecular hydrogen, water, CO, and even some organic compounds that we see in space, have formed on the surfaces of dust grains, which act as catalytic surfaces enabling chemical reactions at the low temperatures and densities of space. There is no other way to make such molecules. All the precursor organic molecules of life on Earth probably formed on dust grains around a dying star, before our Sun and solar system were even born.


A scanning electron microscope image of an interplanetary dust particle. CC licensed, via Wikipedia.

MKB: When did you decide to dedicate your life to studying space dust?

AK: I was drawn to astronomy from a very young age. Soon after I learned to read, my grandmother took me to a bookstore, and told the clerk to get me whatever book I wanted. I told him I wanted a book about astronomy. The clerk got me something appropriate for a child of age 6, with pretty drawings of a smiling Sun and all, but I was very upset. I told him I wanted something much more serious. In the end, we settled on a book that would be your college-level intro astronomy. I loved it. I did not understand it all, but I still loved it. Later my interests turned to physics. But physics was a pretty dry landscape. A lot of the really crazy discoveries go back to the beginning of 20th century. Astronomy is always new and exciting. Every time you turn on a new telescope, there's always something new you’ll discover. That's what drew me back to astronomy.

As for dust, dust is the most prominent thing that you will see in space, even more than stars and star-light. More than half of all the light from galaxies in the universe is radiated as heat from dust grains. It’s also the most critical ingredient in the chemistry of the interstellar medium.

MKB: I’m assuming you’re not the only person studying this stuff. What makes your approach different? What aspects of space dust are you looking at that your colleagues aren’t?

AK: To some degree all of us are doing somewhat different work, but that doesn't mean there's not overlap. But I think it's important to have that overlap. That's where you get the credibility of science. Without that there’s no way to check whether somebody is right or wrong. Redundancy is a cross check.

What I personally do different: We do the same sort of observations. When I get observing time to look at a few galaxies on a telescope, there are people doing similar observations. But what's unique about what I do is the models that I use for analyzing the data and the tools I develop. Most astronomers who observe similar subjects are really users of technology. They use what's there. I, on the other hand, try to think about what will be the next gadget we can bring to the telescope that will enable us to do this research even better. I don't know a lot of people in the “dust” community that do that.

For example, I’ve worked to develop the equivalent of digital cameras for this long wavelength light, that lies between the infrared and radio bands. Essentially, they’re very sensitive thermometers. When you put them on telescopes then the light from the distant galaxy heats up the detector and you notice this very small temperature change. The instruments I helped to build are used on telescopes in Hawaii, Chile and Spain. And more recently I had an interesting idea on how to build an instrument that would split that light into 1000 different colors for each pixel, and then you can take pictures of both the dust and the dominant chemistry in galaxies. You can get a vast amount of information from that because you will be able to detect and map dozens of molecular lines in distant galaxies all at once. I’m hoping to build such an instrument and get it and on a telescope in a few years.

MKB: That sounds expensive. How do you fund this research? Who funds it, and how does that process work for you?

AK: We're relying a lot on government agencies, particularly the NSF (National Science Foundation) or NASA. And there are two ways to get funding. First is through regular grant projects, which are 3-year cycles where you apply for a grant to do specific research. And NASA also provides funding to use their space telescopes. So you can propose to do a specific bit of science with them and if you get observing time then they'll give you some money to help you with that.

The process starts with a proposal. You tell them what you want to do, why it's important, and what you hope to learn. You really have to justify your work. They don't just give you money because it's nifty. The grants are peer reviewed. And your peers decide whether it merits funding or not. They look at what you've done before with funding. They look at the potential impact, and what you'll do to communicate your science to the public. This is how they select who gets the funding. Typically it's for a 3 year cycle. Every 3 years your whole life hangs in the air. And it's far from guaranteed. Most things I apply for, 1 out of 20 or 1 out of 100 proposals are successful. It's far from easy.


Pig at the Minnesota Tax Cut Rally 2011, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from fibonacciblue's photostream.

MKB: How expensive is your work? When you do win these grants, what does the money go toward?

AK: At the bottom level it's the salary. I get around $40,000 and when you add overheads and whatnot that the university pays, it’s maybe $70,000. To do the science we have to build the instruments. We can't just use our eyes on the telescope, and those tools typically cost a few million to develop.

Then there’s the telescopes themselves. A 10 meter radio telescope up on some high mountain, that’s maybe $10 to $15 million to build, and a few millions a year to run. Private donors often pay for the construction of telescopes that will bear their name — like the famous Keck telescopes in Hawaii, paid for by W. M. Keck. A space telescope can be upwards of $1 billion.

That’s expensive. But you have to think of what it costs to the typical taxpayer. With just a single dollar of tax you pay every year, how much can you buy when it’s combined with the $1 everyone else pays? For $1 per person every year, you’re going to pay for 2000 post-doc researchers. That’s 2000 people like me. Or you could buy up to 100 instruments to put on the telescopes. Or your $1 can also buy you a few telescopes a year or one space telescope every few years.

MKB: You do basic research, stuff that’s really driven by curiosity, not by short-term practical goals. In a time of tight budgets, why is that important? In a recession, is space dust really something we can afford to spend money on?

AK: These are difficult times and when the money is tight we have a tendency to ask whether this is practical, and do we really need it. The answer to that is that it's not the need that drives discovery. It's the other way around: discovery drives our needs. You can only need things that you already know about. What basic science does is look for new knowledge. What it will be made of in the future, we don't know. But often it brings us new things that will be very practical.

My favorite example is electricity. Electricity, when it was discovered, wasn't anything useful. But once it's discovered, then you can start thinking about how you'll use it. What you have to think about is this: What is practical is something very short term. Basic science is much more forward looking. Some of it will produce useful things 10 to 30 years from now.

If you’re tight on your own budget how do you trade off on everyday necessities versus saving for retirement? You can't pay for rent and food at the cost of not saving at all for retirement. So when the budget is tight you have to cut back on both ends, rather than eliminating one. And we should do that in science. You can’t sacrifice the future because times are bad now.

MKB: Okay, but is there something you can look at and say, "This is what people will get if they fund me?" Is there anything tangible?

AK: For my work specifically? Well, you never know where it will take you. There are some things you can foresee a little bit. But I’m hesitant to guess. You do get benefits from astrophysics, though. There’s the selfish curiosity of knowing, but in that process we create technologies to detect the light we're analyzing. And a lot of those will be practical in the future.

When you're using your digital camera today, you’re using technology that optical astronomy developed 30 years ago. Today it's in your camera. Lots of technologies from radio astronomy are in your cellphone today. You wouldn't have that without basic science trying to detect light at different wavelengths. You really have no idea where the technologies we develop today will take you in another 10, 20 or 30 years.

MKB: But why government funding? Why not find a private organization or corporation that wants to help you research space dust?

AK: I think there's many sides to this. Right now, private funding tends to be product based. It has to lead to a product within a few years for a private company to be interested. So it may be practical and possible for things with immediate applications, but it's hard for me to see why a corporation would be interested in something long term and uncertain.

Basic research used to be privately funded in the past, like with Bell Labs. That used to be THE place where basic research was happening. But somehow that model has disappeared and I think it's because corporations are looking for more short term goals. There's really no corporation doing basic research in the same way Bell Labs did.

But there are also reasons why you might not want it, even if they were interested. Corporations are interested in proprietary technologies and getting out ahead of another company. They won't share what you discovery and they'll use it exclusively to their advantage. They'll file patents and protect their turf. And that’s fine. But the reason we want public funding is that we want to generate public knowledge. We want to share this with the world. We want it to be immediately available to everyone around us. Science doesn’t have trade secrets. I think public funding is essential to keep it that way.

Editorial note: This interview is part of a blog carnival on publicly funded science. Organized by Annalee Newitz at iO9, science writers around the Web have produced stories showcasing the triumphs of publicly funded research. You can read Annalee's post that started it all.

And, if you're so inclined, please consider contacting your congressperson about the importance of public funding for science. There's a budget proposal due out on November 23rd, which promises to slash funding to organizations like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Whether you realize it or not, those institutions have had a major impact on your health and your quality of life. As Attila Kovaks says, fiscal responsibility is important. But we won't solve this country's money problems by cutting off our source of future innovation.

Main Image: Cosmic dust of the Andromeda Galaxy as revealed in infrared light by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Published 9:07 am Tue, Oct 11, 2011

About the Author

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.

Maggie goes places and talks to people. Find out where she'll be speaking next.

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20 Responses to “Space dust: Your tax dollars at work”

  1. Lobster says:

    Of course you can’t get government funding for science.  Our government would rather fund satanism, and sees little difference between the two.

  2. Thorfin says:

     NASA and Science funding in general is a minute portion of the American government budget.  It amounts to just over  one half of one percent.
    I don’t mind $20.00 a year of my tax money going to learn more about the universe around us.

  3. Marktech says:

    For my work specifically? Well, you never know where it will take you.

    When I think of serendipitous results from pure research, I’m always reminded of Robert Heinlein.  Back in 1979, Omni magazine printed his testimony to a joint session of the House Committee on Aging and the House Committee on Science and Technology, about the benefits of spinoff technology to the aging and disabled:

    “The most ironical thing I know of about our space program is that there are thousands of people alive today who would be dead if it were not for spinoffs from the space program and who have not the slightest idea that such is the case, and they complain about all that money being spent on silly stunts, and often they make that complaint by long distance with a satellite bounce.”

    You can find the testimony here – http://fwd4.me/0DW2 – and it’s well worth a read, it’s vintage RAH.

  4. Mister44 says:

    Science funding is rather modest. DARPA I imagine has the biggest purse. While I would like less gov, I wholeheartedly support science funding. As I  have said before:

    A culture is remembered for three things -

    1) The art and architecture they created

    2) Their science and discoveries

    3) The wars they fought.

    • Alas, the basest and most numerous among us tend to prefer to be remembered for wars, and those with the least want for art and architecture, while the ones doing the science are typically too busy doing it to worry about who’s going to remember them. We can predict accurately, then, the outcome of political allocation of resources toward cultural development: the vast majority toward warfare, a lesser portion toward art and entertainment, and a barely noticeable blip toward science and technology. Oddly enough, perhaps, non-political market allocation of resources works in the exact opposite direction.

  5. nixiebunny says:

    Thanks for posting this! I work as an engineer at the University of Arizona, building the electronic gear that we use to do exactly this sort of research. It’s nice to see someone addressing the importance of basic research such as this, since I have a hard time explaining it, being an engineer instead of an astronomer.

    As an example of the spinoffs that the end of the post discusses, there’s a move afoot to get millimeter-wave radar into automobiles for them to automatically detect potential collisions before they happen, thereby saving lives. Radio astronomy is the field in which most of the techniques for operating radios at this frequency were developed.

  6. TheHowl says:

    Dude, I wish my name were ‘Attila Kovacs.’

    That is all.

  7. Matt Valley says:

    Great interview Maggie.  You should make interviews with basic scientists a regular column – there are tons of happy mutants working on obscure and fascinating scientific topics.

  8. Halloween_Jack says:

    And now the purple dusk of twilight time
    Steals across the meadows of my heart
    High up in the sky the little moon starts to climb
    Always reminding me that we’re apart
    You wandered down the lane and far away
    Leaving me a song that will not die
    Love is now the stardust of yesterday
    The music of the years gone by

    Sometimes I wonder why I spend
    a lonely night dreaming of a song
    The melody haunts my reverie,
    and I am once again with you
    When our love was new
    and each kiss an inspiration
    But that was long ago,
    now my consolation is in the stardust of a song.

    Beside a garden wall,
    when stars are bright,
    you are in my arms
    The nightingale tells his fairy tale
    Of paradise where roses grew
    Though I dream in vain,
    in my heart it will remain
    My stardust melody,
    The memory of love’s refrain

  9. felix says:

    I think this sort of article is crucially important, as too often the “public” and some politicians bash science they do not understand (despite the vastly larger amounts of tax money being spent on far less sensical things).
    It is a tough ask to justify our current basic research in terms of long-term benefits – we simply do not know. What is the LHC good for? Why do we need to know about the Higgs boson? Does it matter where the Universe comes from? Some attempts to justify expensive programs are not helpful either (like the infamous Teflon pan as the main benefit of the space program, or the WWW from CERN).

    I have been thinking about trying to explain the benefits of basic research, and I think the best angle (although complex to pull off) is to trace back current technology and identify where the knowledge to make it came from. This is difficult, as often the knowledge permeates into general education, common knowledge, etc. For example, not too long ago Einstein developed his theory of relativity, and thought Quantum theory is bogus. Now both are taught at high-schools (at least in some countries), there are popular science books about it and is generally accepted and at least vaguely understood by non-experts. The way we explain complex theories also improve and become more accessible. We constantly keep raising the starting point for upcoming generations – what seemed impossible some decades ago is now sometimes obvious to school children.

    Maybe looking at a modern cellphone is a good example. The design of the processor has to take quantum effects into account (tunnel effect on transistor gates, nonlinear dielectric effects, and advanced optical concepts for making the masks to generate 30 nanometer (!) structures with wavelengths much bigger). The communication uses everything from the discovery of electromagnetic waves to advanced mathematical concepts for data coding, error correction and cryptography. The GPS system applies a relativistic correction to the atomic clocks on the satellites, as they are in a different, lower-gravity system. And the atomic clocks could not exist without a thorough understanding of quantum physics. Neither would the satellites exist without the space program.  It would take significant effort to really trace back everything we need to know to build a cellphone to the scientific discoveries that made it possible, but I think it is clear that without publicly funded university research most of it would not exist. And neither would we have well-educated and highly motivated/excited engineers and scientists to develop these products in a commercial context.

    • You neglect the alternative possibility that, without publicly funded university research, perhaps there would be privately (commercial or non-profit) funded research. It’s hard to say what the case might be, but a great deal of innovation in past centuries (in fact, almost everything not involving warfare) came from private individuals. Save these arguments for explaining why we should contribute to this or that non-profit research fund, rather than an attempt to justify taxation (i.e. the actual practice of a gang of vicious thugs stealing from us primarily to fund their own largesse and wanton criminality), when only a miniscule token amount of what is taken actually goes toward research.

      Think of it this way: if there is enough public will to pressure politicians into funding this tiny token amount of non-military research, doesn’t it follow that there’s enough public will to raise these funds without their help? If there is, in fact, not enough public will to fund science without government, does it not follow that government-funded science is not representative of the public will, and thus that government is in violation of its own purported function? If we take it as a given that any individual disfavors a great deal of what tax money is allocated to, does it not follow that they could afford to contribute more to what they do favor if they were not required to contribute, against their will, to those things they do not support? Or put yet another way, if the government (or any “public” organization) had to ask nicely for its funding, how many ICBMs do you think our civilization would produce, and how many rocket ships?

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        if there is enough public will to pressure politicians into funding this tiny token amount of non-military research, doesn’t it follow that there’s enough public will to raise these funds without their help?

        You have, to put it delicately, a very streamlined view of cause and effect.

        Also, you’re repeating yourself.

  10. hostile_17 says:

    My tax dollars?

    I didn’t realise this had become an Americans only website?

    • Other countries’ tax dollars fund research like this, too. It’s an American political issue right now, which is why I’m addressing it from an American perspective.  But it’s everybody’s issue in the long run. Insert your country here. 

      • hostile_17 says:

        I give up my hard earned Queen’s British Pounds thank you very much!

        But I’ll be sure to speak to keep an eye out for my “senator”.

  11. Aaron Swain says:

    I would gladly give my tax dollar to fund pure research.  And public broadcasting, since you asked….

  12. GeorgeStanton says:

    I think it’s very limited to say that science funding is important because you get some particular technologies out of it eventually. A few additional reasons:

    Given how the quarterly financial cycles, private funding of science is extremely risk averse and only interested in the most pragmatic applications. Basic science is needed not only to eventually turn into technologies, but to get research to the point that it can be taken up by industry. Science funding is essentially a subsidy for the economy (and probably one of the few where you actually get a Keynesian multiplier larger than one, imho).

    It is important to maintain a base of scientifically capable citizens, and publicly funded science is the largest source for giving students research experience and educating graduate students.

    Science is implicitly interesting to people. My very conservative grandfather always sends me articles about astronomy and physics from the newspaper. I’d bet even if no applications were ever developed large numbers of people (maybe even a majority) would still support science.

  13. Matt Fisher says:

    I’m happy to see that, so far here, this is a case of preaching to the converted.  I’m far from spiritual but the dollars and cents pragmatism of Republicans when they’re in cutting mode bothers me because it doesn’t place a value simple curiosity.  As a kid I had to study the bible and can remember the first time finished it.  I thought the whole thing was reasonably entertaining but had a hard time understanding why we were just going to start at the beginning again.   And now I wonder what kind of insights anybody could possibly get spending a lifetime reading and rereading that book of banalities – surely there’s better repeat potential with great literature.

    But science is different.  Science, even if you don’t practice it yourself, is about looking into things that are new.  Sometime the things are so new the only reason we even suspect they exist is because of science someone else did.  So there’s this crosstalk amongst the scientific community, each informing the others, and we on the sidelines get to watch this incredible game play out.  And quite unlike religion, the best part about science is what can happen when it turns out we were wrong about something fundamental.  I appreciate all the gizmos used to justify science to people for whom science itself isn’t enough.  But following along, keeping track of the simplified explanations from scientists like this one who really have more important things to do, this has replaced religion for me.  I’m far more in awe of the world as science lets us understand it than I was of the shallow morality plays and transparent parables of the bible.  I don’t really care if we can monetize space dust.   Just being able to eavesdrop on the journey is more than enough as far as I’m concerned.

    Justifying science feels crass to me.  Like justifying religion does to people who believe in it, I suppose.  But, when pressed, I bet it’s easier to justify science.  Carriage return.  Click send button.  Electrons go whoosh.

  14. Hey I’ve got an even better idea than writing congresscreatures about funding science. Let’s ask them to stop robbing us to pay for things *they* think are important. Instead they can offer services just like any *legitimate* organization, and if we are interested in them, we can purchase or contribute to their funding. I don’t know exactly how much of my money is going to waste blowing up little brown children, bailing out banks, and subsidizing industrial agriculture, but I’d gladly contribute, say, half of that toward scientific pursuits that benefit rather than destroy humanity (at least, in my estimation). I’ll keep the rest. Y’all who think blowing up little brown kids with towels on their heads is more important to the future of humanity than understanding how the universe works are welcome to keep paying for that instead, if you can afford it.

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