Thursday, 13 November 2014

Landing a Probe on a Comet vs Tackling Poverty

On March 2, 2004, an Ariane 5 rocket took off from French Guiana containing the Rosetta spaceship. A few days later, having escaped the earth's gravity and put into a heliocentric orbit, Rosetta commenced a 10-year 6,500,000,000 km journey which involved taking slingshots off the earth (three times) and Mars (once) to rendez-vous  with a rubber-duck-shaped snowball the size of Cambridge 300,000,000 miles away, moving at 42,000 kmh, Having achieved the rendez-vous, a dishwasher sized probe with three harpooned legs was to be released to float down to the surface of the comet, as it hurtled through space. Touchdown was achieved on 12th November 2014. 


This is, quite simply a technical and scientific achievement equivalent to putting man on the moon. To my mind it is enough that it's there to do, but this isn't just an everest for rocket engineers. We will get data on the origins of the early solar system, and possibly the origins of life on earth from this mission. We will know more about what comets are made of. Much of this is pure science of little immediate or practical use. Put charitably "Why are we firing rockets at snowballs in space?" is a question about opportunity cost. What did society forgo to achieve this soft landing on a comet. And the answer is "not much".

There is a complaint that "we should be curing cancer" or "ending poverty" with the money spent on space exploration. "What good is it to me?" some ask. I'm tempted to dismiss such soulless utilitarianism as the bleatings of one who's already dead inside. The point about pure science is that it leads to who knows what future advances that solve real problems. Perhaps vital resources can be recovered from comets cheaply. We might learn a bit about the composition of objects that might hit earth, potentially generating knowledge that saves life on earth from extinction. To ask "what is this for?" is to betray a total lack of imagination. If nothing else a nine-year old might be watching the probe land on a planet and be enthused to become an engineer, and go on to do something we haven't even thought of yet.

"End Poverty"? Benefits paid to poor people are not where they are because they're the most that can be afforded. We could afford to pay the unemployed more to live on, or top up low wages by more. The reason they're low is because of the freeloader effect. The higher benefits are relative to work, the more attractive benefits become, and the lower the returns to work. People do not want to work hard to pay taxes to fund a comfortable life-style for those who don't. More people would choose benefits over work. Thus benefits are set at a level which means live subsisting on them is pretty rotten. Any more would be politically impossible to sustain. Besides, poverty isn't solved by cash transfers, but by work, and trade and free markets. This is the same thing that will ultimately cure disease. That and the application of pure science.

"Curing diseases?"Aids or Ebola will be cured by free trade with Africa, allowing their farmers access to our markets. Such trade will stimulate road building; roads, which unlike those to mines, go to where Africans live and work. Roads stimulate trade. With trade comes a cold-chain. That means vaccinations. Vaccinations mean healthier people. Healthier people do better in education, making them more productive. Being productive, means being richer, and being richer means people wear watches. And when people wear watches, they know when to take their anti-retrovirals. And if people take their anti-retrovirals, their HIV blood counts go down, making them less infectious. Less infectious means fewer infections. And fewer infections which become chronic rather than fatal conditions will lead to the steady decline in AIDS infection rates we've seen in the west. 

In developing all the above, a few decent health-centres and hospitals will mean Ebola will not spread when it's first identified. How much will this cost us? Less than we spend stopping it happening now. (Farm Subsidies like the CAP are, you see, wholly, genocidally evil). Trade you see is not Zero-Sum. Africans get richer because the market for their produce increases. We get richer because more people are competing to supply our markets so we get things cheaper (and vice versa). We're both richer. 

Cure cancer? It's difficult to see how a rocket engineer could help there. There's very little tangible that can be done in that regard that isn't being done now. There's already good money in curing cancer. So if we cannot give more money to the poor, cure Aids Ebola or Cancer with the money, why not give us something inspirational? To encourage us to let slip the surly bonds of earth and look out to the stars. That's a public good, that is. But to cure poverty or whatever, we need to stop the Government doing bad stuff to Africans, not stop it doing wholly amazing, inspirational science.



6 comments:

Simon Jester said...

Best. Article. Ever.

Simon Fawthrop said...

Yep, good arguments.

You could also ask them a rather simple question - where do they think we'd be if someone hadn't decided to walk over a hill to see what was there.

bilbaoboy said...

Agreed

Sean Vosper said...

Brilliant article, well done!

SadFact said...

You can't permanently cure things like cancer. Not ever.

The probability of death is 1, so the sum of the probabilities for all causes of fatalities must be 1. As you knock off individual causes of death the others must fill the gap vacated. While not wishing to downplay the role played by illnesses, the likelihood of diseases such as ebola becoming cause of death No 1 is still small.

In the West, the main causes are (a) a hard-working part wears out (e.g. heart) or (b) the body's regenerative mechanism goes wrong (e.g. cancer). Individual diseases can be annihilated, but I suspect that some 'cures' merely defer the dreaded day.

Anonymous said...

60 000 die Daily of Starvation.Sort the Earth out First !

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