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James Webb Telescope: Triumph of Science or Waste of Money?

Wealth creates inequalities. How can these be addressed? What are the deeper problems?

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James Webb Telescope: Triumph of Science or Waste of Money?

When Ariane 5 pushed James Webb into space, I posted a video on a group I manage on Facebook. Immediately, one of the members asked if the money spent could be better used.

The Cost

Big projects usually cost a lot more than initial estimates. The James Webb Space Telescope is no exception. The final cost is hovering around an eye-watering $10 billion. Even Elon Musk might think twice before spending this amount.

The question we need to answer is whether we should have spent this money on more urgent social issues.

The Project

Let's look at what James Webb is going to do. This might give us a clearer idea of any value it might have. The telescope has four objectives:

  • To detect light emitted by the first galaxies. These formed over 13 billion years ago. Their light has been travelling towards us since then. Webb is looking into the deep past.
  • To study how galaxies and stars form and evolve.
  • To help us understand the formation of stars and their planets.
  • To examine planetary systems and understand the origins of life.

The Value of Knowledge

If all goes well, we will learn a lot from the James Webb project. Knowledge is valuable in itself. It may not have practical value but there are many things that are life-enhancing but not useful. Think of the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, or the plays of Shakespeare.

Some of these things cost money, others do not. But they make humanity richer in a spiritual sense.

Where Is the $10 Billion?

The telescope is not carrying the investment with it. Nobody sealed $10 billion dollars in a plastic bag and stuffed it into a compartment. NASA and its collaborators spent the money on the instrument, research, and labour. In other words, this money cycled back into the wider economy. It created jobs and new knowledge.

The Wider Question

Should we have spent this money on other projects? A glance at the news tells us that much of the world is in dire need.

Most people will accept that richer nations have a duty of care. There is no excuse for famine or treatable disease. Yet so many die every year that we could save.

The world's GDP is over $80 trillion. There is more than enough money around to ensure dignity for all.

The real problem lies in two related areas. One of these is the will to change. We could do so much more to help and yet we don't. The second aspect is that of distribution. Wealth is filtering upwards in the rich west. A few people are very wealthy, meanwhile, the middle-class shrinks and the poor get poorer.

You might not like the People’s Republic of China, but it has succeeded in bringing millions out of poverty. Perhaps we can learn from them how to do this on an international scale.

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Moving Forward Sensibly

The $10 billion spent on Webb is a drop in the ocean. We can afford it. It is not a question here of either one thing or another. We should press ahead with big projects. But, at the same time, we need to think about how to help others.

Every human being deserves dignity. Let us see how we can ensure it for everyone.

  • Latest news
    The unfurling of the observatory's giant sun shade is a major milestone for the $10bn mission.

February 1 Update

Webb is now in orbit at L2 (see below) over 900,000 miles from earth. The slow processes of cooling, aligning the optics, and calibrating the instruments will take around five more months. Everything is going according to plan and, by mid to late summer, we should start to see some incredible photos.

WHAT IS L2?

The "L" in L2 stands for Lagrange Point 2. Lagrange points occur at positions where the gravitational pull of two massive objects (in this case, the sun and the earth) acting on a third (James Webb) cancel each other out. A Lagrange point offers a stable environment for the telescope.

The Same Star - 18 Images

The Same Star - 18 Images

Late February

Everything is going wonderfully well. The above image shows a shot of the same star taken by each of Webb's 18 mirrors. It demonstrates that all components are working as expected.

Now, it's a question of calibrating the mirrors. Soon, Webb will be producing photos the like of which have never been seen before.

Late March

James Webb is still aligning its mirrors. This is a slow and delicate process. It has successfully aligned with the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) instrument and, over the next few weeks, will align with the rest of the instruments.

So far, so good.

As of May 1st

A couple of days ago, it was announced that all of James Webb's instruments were fully aligned. A final round of testing has shown that everything is going exactly according to plan.

Photos should start arriving in a couple of months as there is still work to do in commissioning the instruments.

We have become used to seeing stunning photos from the Hubble telescope; Webb will offer us more, much more. There are galaxies everywhere and soon we will have access to images that will make our jaws drop.

We should congratulate the Webb team on an incredible success.

What Do You Think?

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