Our Future in Space – panel at TAM 9

By Phil Plait | October 20, 2011 12:26 pm

In July 2011, at the JREF’s TAM 9 meeting in Las Vegas, I moderated a panel discussing the future of space exploration. On that panel were some familiar faces: Bill Nye (the Science Guy), astronomers Neil Tyson and Pamela Gay, and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. All of us have, ah, some experience talking to the public about matters spacey, so I knew it would be a fun panel to moderate.

I had no idea. The video of the panel has been made available by the JREF, so you can see it for yourself! I’ve embedded it below. It’s an hour long, but I think you’ll find it absolutely worth your time to watch all the way through. A lot of people came up to me afterwards and said it was the best panel at the meeting, and one of the best we’ve ever had at TAM! As a participant, modesty forbids me from saying more, but then, who am I to disagree?

It was a rollicking discussion, and very interesting. Neil was in rare form, and I think my favorite moment was when Pamela was making a point, and Neil jumped in to give an opinion… and Pamela held up a finger and "shusshed" him! It was extremely funny, especially when Neil got this, "OK, fine, you got me" expression on his face. After the panel, Neil was signing books, and I got Pamela to sit down next to him and recreate the moment:

Someone else was able to capture it during the actual moment on the panel, too.

I do want to comment on one thing. At about 44:00 minutes in, during a discussion about dark energy and the James Webb Space Telescope — which in July was already in trouble — I said that JWST would help characterize dark energy, allowing us understand it better. Lawrence then said that this wasn’t true, and that we need to be careful about overhyping the capability of JWST. I was about to reply to him when Neil jumped in, and I decided to let Lawrence’s comment go; as moderator I didn’t want to derail the flow of the conversation, and at the time thought it better to let things move on.

However, I disagree somewhat with what Lawrence said. Extremely distant supernovae are what were used to discover dark energy in the first place, and JWST will be able to to get better observations of them than we could previously. I think part of Lawrence’s point was that our observations have already nailed down some of the characteristics of dark energy pretty well, and the way JWST will work won’t add much to what we already know. I suspect that’s mostly true, but then when it comes to really distant supernovae our observations get a bit shaky. The better we nail them down, the more we can say about them, and JWST would be able provide cleaner data from those distant exploding stars.

I did say that JWST "would go a long way" in helping us understand dark energy, and looking back on that I probably should’ve phrased this as it simply being able to help us. Although it is a very powerful observatory, JWST isn’t optimized for that sort of thing, so it probably wouldn’t be able to do as much to increase our knowledge of dark energy as much as, say, Hubble did. I would add though that whenever we increase our capability to observe in a new way, we learn new things. This point was made both by Lawrence and Neil a moment later; but we should be careful before the fact not to rely on a telescope showing us something we didn’t know. It’ll happen in some ways but not others, and we can’t know until we build the thing and find out! So in that way, I agree with both Neil and Lawrence.

[UPDATE: Hmm, perhaps I wrote too soon. Adam Riess, who just won the Nobel prize for his part in the discovery of dark energy, gave a talk recently where discusses how JWST can help characterize dark energy. The important part starts about 29 minutes in, and is a bit technical. Thanks to Jason Kalirai for the tip!]

I actually enjoyed this discussion for another reason: I like it when people can disagree on big issues and do so intelligently and with evidence to back up their claims. There were some points being made by panelists that I agreed with, and some I didn’t. But I found myself thinking about space exploration in different ways, seeing other perspectives. That always gives insight into an issue, and whether you ultimately agree with the point or not, you’ll wind up thinking better about it.

I’d argue that’s one of the major benefits of skepticism.

Image credits: me; Jamie Bernstein.


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