Accusing NASA officials of lying, a recent writer imagines Voyager I’s exploration of the solar system as a massive fraud because of frequently lost cell phone communication and satellite TV reception illustrating beliefs immune to facts or discerning knowledge.
Launched on Sept. 5, 1977, Voyager is now 11.2 billion miles from Earth where the sunlight is 1/5,000th as bright and microwave radio signals raveling at the speed of light take 16.7 hours to reach home. Communication occurs through NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) consisting of multiple 111- and 230-foot antennas located 120-degrees apart in the Mojave Desert, Spain and Australia. Command signals are transmitted on a 20-kilowatt S-Band transmitter with roughly one-fifth the power of AM or FM radio stations, while the wattage of the incoming signal is 20 billion times weaker than the power running digital watches.
Hailing Earth with a 20-watt transmitter, the signal emitted from Voyager’s 14-foot antenna will decrease in power to one ten quadrillionth of a watt (1/25th the minimal discernible FM radio signal) upon arriving at the DSN receiver where it will be amplified and nursed by computer programs to reveal news from the edge of the solar system. The directional 8 GHz frequency of the signal is less distorted by Earth’s atmosphere than the longer wavelength frequencies of cell-phone signals (800 MHz), while home TV antennas receiving satellite signals of similar frequency cannot compete with NASA’s 230-foot parabolic antennas and computer enhancement of Voyager’s transmissions.
While NASA’s claims may seem incredible, similar astonishing feats of signal processing are performed during MRI scans. During Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a patient is placed in an external magnetic field causing protons of tissue and surrounding water molecules to align with the external field. Subjected to a radio frequency pulse, an excess of 30 out of every million processing nuclei will be aligned against the external magnetic field and upon relaxing to the lower energy state generate a tiny signal (approximately 0.00001 volt) that will be amplified and transformed by computer computation to an image of the body’s soft tissue. The technology requires generation of coherent radio frequencies and homogeneous magnetic fields to one part in a billion. Skepticism of claims is admirable when constrained by facts.
Although NASA’s Voyager I claims are “believable” in the context of current scientific and technological knowledge, public funding of scientific research is also questioned. The writer sees a conspiracy to waste public resources so scientists can avoid getting “real jobs.” If “real jobs” only occur in a private sector devoid of government largesse perhaps there are none, and just where did the knowledge of the physical world that the private sector exploits for profit come from? Modern medicines, electronic devices, machine powered transportation, electricity generation and transmission and all the other cornucopia of modern technological society emerged from the intellectual curiosity of scientists. Although public funding of curiosity-driven research is a good wager, profit and products alone do not measure its value.
Perhaps more importantly, what is the value of knowledge for knowledge’s sake? Should the market that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing alone determine the expenditures we make as a society? Has not the market determined that big time college football programs are more important than academic departments, and that university expenditures focus more on the wishes of the children of wealth and privilege and less on the public good of broad access to higher education across all socioeconomic classes based upon ability and motivation to learn?
The ability to think in abstract terms is an accidental byproduct of our mammalian evolutionary history, and its execution requires training, practice and constant vigilance. Too often what pass for public discourse these days are spin and distortion of fact in pursuit of personal, community and corporate greed. Too many of us deny the facts and believe the things we do because our denials facilitate comfort, acquisition of material goods, excoriation of enemies and validation of our ideologies and self-righteousness.
The immense beauty of facts and scientific understanding is that they are independent of human hopes, dreams, needs and the pathology of the human condition. Long before the sun consumes its hydrogen and Earth becomes a scorched cinder, the human species will become extinct. There is beauty and consolation in this vision of a physical universe, beyond our self-absorption, that is indifferent to human existence.
Permission granted by author to reprint in full this article that originally appeared on the editorial page of The Greenville News, August 5, 2012. Any other authors (and aspiring authors) who are brave enough are invited to submit their articles by writing to Minotspeakeasy@gmail.com. Readers comments are also welcomed.