Friday, February 7, 2014

Is It All Worth It?

I am always confused at the question of whether or not all the money we invest in the search of things that we will likely never physically come close to is actually worth it. At one end, we are collecting immense amounts of data that does help us come closer to finding an answer to how our universe originated, and how it became as it is now. At the other end, one can pose the question of whether or not we will actually have a use for this information, or if it’s just to sate our human desire to know “Where did we come from? Why are we here?” These cliché questions seem to be exactly what we’re trying to answer by spending billions of dollars on research. Nonetheless, my question still remains: Is finding out how our universe originated really worth those billions of dollars that we pour into astronomical research?

My personal answer is yes, to an extent. The first Sloan Digital Sky Survey had a cost of approximately $100,000,000. This is chump change by today’s standards, especially when compared to space-based telescopes such as the $8.7 billion James Webb Telescope, which will be discussed later. SDSS-I gave us a taste of what there is more to know in our universe—several dozens of terabytes of information. This “taste” effectively gave us a hunger; astronomers, it seemed, were not sated.

Hopefully the way I measure the “worthiness” of these projects isn’t too far-fetched. The way I see it, the Value of a project is determined by the total cost of the object divided by the amount of data received by the project in TB.

Using the equation above, we can calculate the cost per piece of data acquired from a project. The Value of SDSS-1 is $100,000,000 / ~50 TB = $200,000 per TB of info. Comparatively, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which is planned to have first light between 2022 and 2032, will have an estimated data output of ~150 PB after 10 years, or—to keep things on the same level as the SDSS-I—75 in 5 years, equating to approximately 75,000 TB, which dwarfs the amount of data received by the SDSS-I. Using the previous value equation, we can estimate that the cost per terabyte acquired by LSST (estimated cost $400,000,000 to open) to be $5,333.33. That amount is between 2% and 3% of the estimated cost per terabyte of SDSS-I, suggesting that LSST is much more valuable in terms of research potential. It is expected to have data to document approximately 10 billion galaxies, compared with SDSS-I’s 860,000 galaxies, with 208,000,000 imaged galaxies.

The LSST is, at least on paper, worth it in my opinion. Its capabilities are unparalleled compared to other ground-based telescopes. Ground based telescopes, as can be seen by the previous value calculations, are very cost effective. However, subjectively, do we really need that much information? Especially with the upcoming $8.7 billion James Webb Space Telescope, is it worth spending that much money on space-based telescopes—which, to their credit, are not affected by atmospheric distortion as ground-based telescopes are—when ground-based observatories are already making huge leaps in terms of data that could be obtained, and their image quality? That much has yet to be seen. Space-based telescopes can look deeper into the universe, offering more information, but at much greater cost. It simply may not be cost-efficient. In my opinion, if someone wants to fund these projects then they are obviously welcome to do so—these projects do benefit us regardless of their cost. The only issue is that the information that would be acquired is only useful to a certain extent; it would, however, have a more practical use in the future when our technology actually reaches the threshold that is needed to aggregate the data and make something of it.
Nathaniel Benzaquen-Ouakrat