The 2,320th Meeting of the Society

September 20, 2013 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

In Search of the True Universe

The Tools, Shaping and Cost of Cosmological Thought

Martin Harwit

Professor Emeritus of Astronomy, Cornell University
Director, National Air and Space Museum (1987-1995)

About the Lecture

As astronomers we tend to think of our work as driven by observations and theories we consider particularly significant. That our advances have depended on societal or economic factors, if recognized at all, is often considered a regrettable distraction from a logical path forward. Actually the opposite is true: As a small field, astronomy has always depended on importing and adapting theoretical and observational tools honed elsewhere. As World War II was ending, the United States embarked on a national program of post-war research that seamlessly coordinated basic research in the sciences with efforts to strengthen national security and the economy. As part of this thrust, astronomy became driven by radio, infrared, X-ray, and gamma-ray discoveries, utilizing tools forged for the nation’s defense efforts. Similarly coordinated national research programs also began to shape research in other nations. I will describe these arrangements before turning to three questions: Can such national research programs for astronomy survive into the 21st century, when most defense agencies are loath to release classified information on sophisticated detection systems to the international consortia sharing the high costs of modern space missions? Has our vision of the Cosmos, today, been selectively shaped by the tools made available to astronomy by unrelated academic efforts or defense and industrial priorities? We need only to think of how our concepts of the Universe have changed since the times when ground-based observations at visible wavelengths were the sole means for probing the Universe. What will it cost, economically, socially, as well as intellectually to obtain a true understanding of the Universe, independent of the selection of tools provided to us by scientists from other fields or by military and industrial ventures?

About the Speaker

MARTIN HARWIT was born in Czechoslovakia, grew up in Turkey, came to the United States after World War II, and served in the US Army for two years, before obtaining a PhD in physics from MIT in 1960. Two years later he joined the astronomy faculty at Cornell, and taught there for 25 years, while also conducting research in infrared astronomy from space, a new field at the time. From 1987 to 1995, Harwit served as Director of the National Air and Space Museum where, among other interests, he took part in developing three IMAX films, “Blue Planet,” “Destiny in Space,” and “Cosmic Voyage,” the last of which was nominated for an Academy of Motion Pictures award. Since leaving the Smithsonian, Harwit has worked on two major infrared astronomical space missions jointly conducted by NASA and the European Space Agency. His most recently published work is the book, “In Search of the True Universe – The Tools, Shaping, and Cost of Cosmological Thought.” Some of the book’s major themes form the core of tonight’s talk. Harwit has been honored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Max Planck Society in Germany; he has been awarded the Bruce gold medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific; and the International Astronomical Union has named a small asteroid circling our Sun after him.


President John Ingersoll called the 2,320th meeting to order at 8:23pm September 20, 2013 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. Mr. Ingersoll announced the order of business and introduced seven new members of the Society, including the speaker of the evening.

The minutes of the 2,319th meeting were read and approved.

Mr. Ingersoll then introduced the speaker, Mr. Martin Harwit of Cornell University. Mr. Harwit spoke on "In Search of the True Universe: The Tools, Shaping and Cost of Cosmological Thought."

Mr. Harwit began by discussing the night sky as seen from Earth, which contains an abundance of both bright and faint stars. He explained that the study of planets, stars, and galaxies constitutes the everyday work of astronomers and that the findings of their studies are arrayed into a mental landscape of the universe. Although no two astronomers are likely to see the landscape in identical ways, it is a shared view of the universe that describes the interaction of stars with their surroundings, the interplay of galaxies with their clusters, and our heritage from an earlier phase of the universe. The everyday task of an astrophysicist is to gather additional information and ensure new pieces of observational and theoretical evidence fit neatly into the landscape, ensuring nothing is missing and everything is tidy and explained. This can be an arduous process, as each newly gathered piece of evidence clamors for a place in the landscape but often will not fit. Occasionally, some other form of human activity intrudes and drastically alters the landscape, he explained.

Mr. Harwit described how the development of gamma ray techniques by the military for its own purposes intruded on astronomy and revealed the existence of mysterious bursts of gamma rays and a variety of energetic X-rays. In the 1960s, while the United States and Soviet Union were engaged in a Cold War and scrambling to gain military ascendancy, the atmospheric test ban treaty finally ended the testing of nuclear weapons above ground. The United States believed it was still possible to learn a great deal about a weapon tested underground by recording the seismic waves it produced, fearing the Soviet Union would therefore consider testing its devices at great distances in space. In response, the United States developed and deployed several gamma ray sensing satellites in Earth orbit, which soon detected an intense gamma ray burst followed by additional bursts every few months. Although the first burst detected must have been a tremendous shock to the military, he said, once the military realized these bursts were not related to Soviet nuclear weapon testing they declassified and published their findings. The news stunned the astronomical community and astrophysicists determined that these bursts originated at extreme distances in the universe and that their power was staggering.

Mr. Harwit explained that in the post World War II era, radio, X-ray, gamma ray, and infrared observations shook up the field of astrophysics again and again, leaving no time to pick up the pieces before the next discovery further disrupted the landscape. Until World War II, our astrophysical theories had been narrowly defined by observations gathered almost exclusively at visible wavelengths, he said. The Cold War introduced new technologies that constituted a totally different, previously largely ignored landscape of their own.

Mr. Harwit continued by describing how the influx of military tools first interacted with astronomy. He highlighted the career of Vannevar Bush, who joined the faculty of MIT in 1919 and later became Dean of Engineering, who helped transform MIT into an institution dedicated not only to advanced engineering but also research in the basic sciences. Bush saw clearly how the linkage between abstract science and practical engineering could solve complex problems facing the nation, he said. After being called to head the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1938, Bush visited the nation's capital and proposed to President Roosevelt a novel blueprint for scientific research, arguing that the nation's universities were better equipped than any other institution to offer scientific leadership. Roosevelt approved of the proposal and Bush was appointed head of the newly created Office of Scientific Research and Development. Bush oversaw a wide range of World War II developments such as advancing radar, accelerating the Manhattan project, and rapidly producing penicillin for wartime use. As the war ended, Bush again sought the President's support to improve the welfare and security of the nation by creating a new agency eventually known as the National Science Foundation.

The United States astronomical leadership correctly foresaw that increased government funding would weaken their position as directors until they would no longer control the course of their research and were hesitant to embrace the NSF as they planned their return to pre-war techniques for visible-light astronomy. However, younger scientists saw the opportunity to conduct research on their own and welcomed the new government funding. In the five years it had taken to establish the NSF, the nascent Cold War had focused scientific research and development on the topic of national security. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 shocked the United States into investing even more heavily into research, establishing NASA to conduct a civil space program separate from military space efforts. By 1967, the federal research and development budget had grown to fifteen billion dollars, only half of which was related to defense, and universities awarded nearly thirteen thousand doctoral degrees that year, more than twice the number in 1960. The annual growth rate of 19% in astronomy was twice that of related sciences, rapidly transforming the field of astronomy in the United States.

Mr. Harwit noted that this technological race with the Soviet Union had an enormous impact on the budgets for basic research. Throughout the war and post-war era, as the armed forces outgrew techniques, capabilities, and devices, these were passed on to colleagues in astronomy and other sciences. Time and again, unanticipated findings from the application of new technologies initiated new lines of inquiry in previously unimagined directions. The discovery of entirely new astronomical phenomena, such as quasars in 1962, the background radiation in 1965, and pulsars in 1968, brought a new sense of excitement and purpose to the field.

Mr. Harwit explained that obtaining the clearest view of the sky often involved launching telescopes into space. The military paved the way with powerful rockets developed by Wernher von Braun and early post-war rocket tests included astronomical X-ray payloads developed by Herbert Friedman's group. Theorists that had been involved in the development of nuclear bombs, whose physics is closely linked to that of supernova explosions, also benefited from the continued integration of military and scientific priorities.

Mr. Harwit continued to describe how half a century passed before the extent of military influence became painfully clear as international collaborations increased. A previously unremarkable set of United States export regulations created in the 1970s to prescribe the sharing of defense related information suddenly appeared to prohibit innocent and mutually beneficial collaborations, he said. Only then did it become apparent that the melding of military and civil research would need to be reviewed and revised in the context of international priorities.

Mr. Harwit then discussed how only about four percent of the current known energy content of the universe comprises observable particles and radiation. The vast remainder is dominated by mysterious "dark matter" and "dark energy," about which little is known except its apparent gravitational effects. He explained that obtaining funding to investigate the nature of dark matter and dark energy may be difficult without governmental or industry support. With the indeterminate application of dark matter and dark energy, researchers may have to turn to private funding sources less concerned by prospects of short-term success or application. He noted that astronomy has had strong philanthropic support for past projects but that those projects have had well-defined and productive goals, as compared to intrinsically valuable but poorly defined problems such as understanding the composition of the universe. Fortunately, there may a viable economy of the commons enabled by the internet that has shifted fund raising from selective local philanthropy to global participatory philanthropy. Mr. Harwit believes that if we want to understand the universe, whether through public, private, or community support, we may have to prepare for a long haul.

With that, he closed his talk and Mr. Ingersoll invited questions.

Someone asked if dark matter and dark energy are considered fudge factors or are real and measurable. Mr. Harwit explained that astrophysicists are not yet sure and suggested the situation may be analogous to the now-discarded concept of aether and its suggested role in the propagation of light waves.

Another question concerned the role of CERN in astrophysics. Mr. Harwit explained that the LHC was able to detect the Higgs Boson but they had hoped they would find new particles, especially relating to dark mattter, and therefore do "new physics." He clarified there is still a chance of discovering new particles at the increased energy levels planned for future experiments.

After the question and answer period, Mr. Ingersoll thanked the speaker, made the usual housekeeping announcements, and invited guests to apply for membership. At 9:49pm, President John Ingersoll adjourned the 2,320th meeting to the social hour.

Attendance: 71
The weather: Clear
The temperature: 22°C
Respectfully submitted,

Justin Stimatze
Recording Secretary