Astronomy and Human Progress

This morning, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory issued a press release, which in and of itself is hardly extraordinary. Its contents, however, are extraordinarily awesome:

ALMA image of the young star HL Tau and its protoplanetary disk. This best image ever of planet formation reveals multiple rings and gaps that herald the presence of emerging planets as they sweep their orbits clear of dust and gas. Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

Astronomers have captured the best image ever of planet formation around an infant star as part of the testing and verification process for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array’s (ALMA) new high-resolution capabilities.

This revolutionary new image reveals in astonishing detail the planet-forming disk surrounding HL Tau, a Sun-like star located approximately 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation Taurus.

ALMA uncovered never-before-seen features in this system, including multiple concentric rings separated by clearly defined gaps. These structures suggest that planet formation is already well underway around this remarkably young star.

“These features are almost certainly the result of young planet-like bodies that are being formed in the disk. This is surprising since HL Tau is no more than a million years old and such young stars are not expected to have large planetary bodies capable of producing the structures we see in this image,” said ALMA Deputy Director Stuartt Corder.

While this photo is not about to save a life or help a man improve his intimate relations, it occasionally occurs to us to remind that astronomy is not just about fancy photos. The human species needs astronomers.

Certes, there are more immediately vital ideas. Manual gamete extraction from bulls helps us grow food to eat; doing the same to herring actually does extend human life. (Yes, really, there are lifesaving pharmaceutical products derived from herring and salmon sperm.) And the science of improving intimate relations between humans can lead to truckloads of cash. There are many sciences that, viewed from afar, offer more directly apparent benefits to human life.

But every once in a while one might find themselves in odd discussions with associates in which someone else is lecturing about the origins of life and suddenly you hear them say something about how C14 dating is inaccurate; this usually comes up where science and faith not so much intersect but, rather, collide and cause a traffic jam. And that is when the value of astronomy in the human endeavor becomes apparent.

If the radiocarbon dating is wrong, for instance, then a bunch of other math underlying the physical sciences is also wrong; mathematics tend to work that way, with errors repeating and augmenting every step of the way. And if the math underlying such outlooks on the physical nature of the Universe were, indeed, so wrong, the human endeavor would be much worse off.

No radiotherapy, no radioimaging. And no mobile phones. Indeed, all telephony would still be on cables; there would be no satellite relay. You know, just for starters. No satellite television; possibly even no television. No nuclear energy, and maybe we would be better off without the weaponized form, but that’s the thing; the trade is merely a commitment to maintaining just enough peace that we don’t exterminate ourselves with those weapons—it doesn’t seem too much to ask compared to the benefits.

And this is all superficial, really. The actual scientists can tell us much more about what microprocessor technology would look like without astrophysics, for instance. And when you look at the commercial products we get from NASA engineers who build spaceships and telescopes? Maybe a certain kind of grooves in tarmac don’t seem like the biggest deal in the world, but you wouldn’t know that they have saved your life unless you happen to know that they are there and what they are for, but it would have taken considerably longer to discover what seems really simple technology without NASA.

And they figured it out as part of trying to get people and satellites into space.

Perhaps the Space Race seemed like a geopolitical necessity, but the end of the Cold War does not mean astronomical research and exploration have stopped offering immediate daily benefits to the human endeavor.

We need astronomers. The awesome pictures? Call it a fringe benefit.


National Radio Astronomy Observatory. “Birth of Planets Revealed in Astonishing Detail in ALMA’s ‘Best Image Ever'”. 6 November 2014.

Langley Research Center. “NASA Saves Lives with ‘Groovy’ Spinoff”. NF204. October 1993.

(A grateful tip o’the hat, if I actually wore one, goes to S.L., for pointing to the NRAO press release.)


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