In 1958 a student of Dr. John Kraus and I placed numerous small round antennae among rows of stubble in a corn field near Ohio State University and we wired them together. Fifteen years later, as the Vietnam War got swinging, the university erected a radio telescope called The Big Ear. It covered an area larger than three football fields and became famous for discovering some of the most distant known objects in the universe.
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Years of astronomy were enlivened in 1964 by the discovery of a background radio hiss suspected to be a remnant of the very birth of our universe. Scientists called it the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson at Bell Lab received the Nobel Prize in physics for its discovery. The problem was that, because the earths atmosphere absorbs microwave radiation, balloons were used to collect CMB data and progress was slow until NASA designed satellites to specifically gather it.
A huge step occurred in 1989, only 3 years after the Challenger shuttle hoax, when NASA launched its COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) satellite. No humans were claimed to have been blasted into space along with it that time. The COBE discoveries were amazing and in 2006 again resulted in a Nobel Prize in physics for John Mather of NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center and George Smoot of the University of California Berkeley.
NASA, is not all about hoaxes. Hoaxes are politically and financially expedient unless persons of science and intellect are willing to risk the opprobrium of Americas largely ignorant and poorly educated masses. As recently as 1993 a National Adult Literacy Survey revealed, Nearly half of Americas adults are poor readers, or functionally illiterate. They can't carry out simple tasks like balancing check books, reading drug labels or writing essays for a job.
In the same year the Department of Justices Literacy Statistics Reference Information stated, 21 million Americans can't read at all, 45 million are marginally illiterate and one-fifth of high school graduates can't read their diplomas. I suspect that intellectual abilities have declined further over the past two decades. Cosmology is predictably confusing, potentially threatening and likely to be resented and unsupported.
We live in a wonderfully exciting and interesting time. Man has wondered about his life and his greater surroundings for centuries and has, in many ways and times, determined and measured his own progress by the stars. The English word heaven both singular and plural, has more than one meaning.
NASA's more highly publicized programs, particularly narratives of brave humans who experience adventures in space and participate in life-threatening activities, are designed to appeal to the masses. This is the stuff of childhood drama that offers the same appeal as romantic tales of heroes, heroines, and adventure. Moon stories were great theater. Space shuttle crews, brought to you by the same narrators, and related tales of human earth orbit, shuttle-launched satellites, a shuttle-launched space telescope, and a manned international space station are amusing. Returning into earths atmosphere (re-entry) without burning up, as any incoming meteor, would be physically impossible. If you believe in heat shields and magic tiles I have a small planet to sell you. More significant is the mathematical impossibility of propelling weights of claimed space ships containing humans skyward from a launch pad by means of described rockets.
Philosophy has yielded to experimentation. The universe in which we all live is being increasingly researched thanks to NASA. Immense distances, a postulated new form of matter, a different form of energy, the discovery of an accelerated expansion that began 6 to 7 billion years ago and won, in 2011, more Nobel Prizes in physics, and the reconsideration of Einsteins mathematical cosmological constant, all are far more interesting to many of us than silly television of human actors floating around and photographic trickery. Those who enjoy their TV and folksy narratives are happy too. Thank you, NASA, even if we are unable to positively separate truth from fiction.
Columns may be copied or reproduced in their entirety with credit to author, Stewart Ogilby.
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