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The $700 Million Dollar Gyroscope
April 13, 2004 1:14 PM   Subscribe

The $700 Million Gyroscope. A spacecraft set to test Einstein's General Theory of Relativity is now on the launch pad, with the world's most accurate gyroscopes stowed away inside. The experiment will have cost $700 million when the data is in and finally analysed. What practical benefits will the average American reap from this?
posted by DWRoelands (51 comments total)

 
Well, maybe some jokes about the French space program can be spun off of it. Your average American seems to be able to appreciate that kind of thing.
posted by crunchburger at 1:22 PM on April 13, 2004


> What practical benefits will the average American reap from this?

While I'm sure that this is a sarcastic jab at what seems to be an excessive amount of money - although compared to the defense budget: $401.3 billion in 2004 alone it's nothing - realize that space exploration and research has yealed a large number of benefits for the average american.
posted by woil at 1:22 PM on April 13, 2004


Who cares what practical benefits they get? The pursuit of knowledge is worth the price.
posted by Spacelegoman at 1:40 PM on April 13, 2004


What practical benefits will the average American reap from this?

What, you were afraid your link wasn't good enough to stand on its own? Nice way to piss on your own thread—don't complain if it turns contentious.

As for the actual news, there's a good NY Times story about this today.
posted by languagehat at 1:42 PM on April 13, 2004


What practical benefits will the average American reap from this?

It'll be really fucking cool. We Americans don't need any other reason.
posted by bondcliff at 1:54 PM on April 13, 2004


In the 44 years since the project began, some evidence of frame-dragging has been gathered. Gravity probe B is expected to provide much more accurate data than astronomical observations to date have yielded.

This probe took such a long to build because the technology for many critical parts didn't exist when the project began. Take for example the gyroscopes--perfect single-crystal silicon spheres floating in liquid helium.

As for the budget, I read that the project was essentially welfare for grad students.
(can't remember the source, it was a comment on some site)
posted by FissionChips at 2:00 PM on April 13, 2004


What practical benefits will the average American reap from this?

I'm sure that it can be worked into a sitcom.

"GASP! Tyler, you're OLD!"

*laughter*
posted by ulotrichous at 2:09 PM on April 13, 2004


Wouldn't this have an impact on research done in quantum computing? How about telecommunication improvements? After all, anything that measures drag at that level will probably have a use in the future when we start dealing with computing and communications system at the sub-atomic level.

Or maybe it's just a really cool experiment :)
posted by TNLNYC at 2:12 PM on April 13, 2004


The project home page (linked from the New Scientist article) is chock full of more in-depth info. I was particularly stunned by the perfect spheres used in the gyroscopes -- accurate to within 40 atomic widths. The site has a nice write-up of the engineering that went into making those. And, incidentally, it's exactly that kind of engineering innovation that eventually finds its way into 'average American' products.
posted by chrismear at 2:15 PM on April 13, 2004


What practical benefits will the average American reap from this?

Since when is everything in life measured by what the average american gains from it? Not everything has to be crushed to the lowest common denominator.
posted by aramaic at 2:18 PM on April 13, 2004


What practical benefits will the average American reap from this?

??? How unimaginative can you be?

Gravity sling shots for space travel? Gravity well tractor fields (if the object in the well is moving in time relative to one outside of the well ... you get the idea). Foundational science for warp drives. Come on, I'm not even one tenth the science/sci-fi geek I used to be and I can imagine applications built on the core of understand gravity's relation to space-time.

Hell, those gyros alone could be the key to building ... BATTLEMECHS!
posted by Wulfgar! at 2:18 PM on April 13, 2004


there's likely to be very little benefit. physics is pretty much sorted except at extreme energies, so any changes made to how we understand the universe are likely going to have no effect on normal lives (we're talking really extreme conditions - current physics describes everything that exists on earth with no problems, apart from the collisions in the most powerful particle colliders (at least, where things are simple enough for physics to be any help at all)).

we've already seen this - general relativity, while a revolution in physics, has had very little effect on people's lives because the differences between gr and newtonian physics are so small at our scales (the only consequence i can think of is that gps development would have been held back a year or two, perhaps).

there may be gains from the engineering involved, and it's always possible that there's something new that will be useful, it's just not likely...

this is one reason i left research (in astronomy) - because i felt that it was a waste of (uk) taxpayers money. also, i was a pretty crap astronomer. and yes, i've gone back on my decision - i'm again working in astronomy (although the situation is somewhat different).

[on preview - you'll soon be able to pay more for wedding rings that are circular to 40 atomic widths. congratulations.]
posted by andrew cooke at 2:19 PM on April 13, 2004


Having studied some Astronomy before settling on a different career, I can tell you that this experiment is quite literally the Holy Grail of physics. I'm no scientist anymore and there are several articles that can explain the mission better than me, but I can tell that at stake here is literally the foundation of everything that we THINK we understand about how the universe works, from its tiniest particle, to the expanse of space itself. Virtually everything in cosmology over the past 50 years is derived from Einsteins Theory of General Relativity. If its wrong, well your gonna see a lot of scientists throwing their hands up and looking for jobs in biology :-)

Very exciting stuff and worth every darn penny!
posted by elendil71 at 2:24 PM on April 13, 2004


If you want to talk practical benefit, physics may as well have stopped with Newton. I don't know what languagehat is so pissy about, though.

It may sound trite, but I'm deeply curious about what makes the universe tick. Aren't you? This doesn't mean that if I had $700 million that this is how I'd spend it.
posted by scarabic at 2:25 PM on April 13, 2004


there's likely to be very little benefit. physics is pretty much sorted except [...]

Haven't we thought this in every age?

Caveman: Well, we worked out the turtle thing, and the lightning god. There's just some minor details left.
posted by Capn at 2:25 PM on April 13, 2004


from what I've read, yes, most of the benefits are from the engineering research done on this project because frame dragging has been verified indirectly during the time that this project has been going on. nonetheless, a direct measurement of the effect is quite cool and will really cement the theory. and what practical use does understanding frame dragging get us? not much, so long as we avoid the proximity of black holes and neutrons stars. still, i'm with Wulfgar!, we may be engineering itty bitty black holes of our own sometime in the next century, and then this research can be of practical use.

re: welfare for grad students - I think I read that somewhere around 80 PhD's have come out of this project.

On preview: scarabic, assuming you have used a computer to enter your comment, I think you'll have to replace "Newton" with "Maxwell", if not "Planck" or "Heisenberg".
posted by badstone at 2:34 PM on April 13, 2004


Practical benefits for the common man? - I bet there might eventually be some very profitable military-industrial complex spinoffs.
posted by troutfishing at 2:59 PM on April 13, 2004


badstone: heh, your argument for the practical benefit of computers is that someone can post to metafilter with them?
posted by RustyBrooks at 2:59 PM on April 13, 2004


You sit in front of a computer that is connected to a worldwide network of other computers that provides nearly unlimited information on any topic and you wonder about the 'practical benefits' of scientific research?

Astounding ignorance...

Maybe we should go back in time and stop Newton & Leibnitz from working on calculus, Maxwell from working on electromagnetics, and Pasteur from experimenting with germs, since there was no 'practical benefits' at the time.
posted by Argyle at 3:08 PM on April 13, 2004


Metafilter: We've worked out the turtle thing and the lightning god.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 3:12 PM on April 13, 2004


Haven't we thought this in every age?

as far as i know, no. the only time i know when there was a similar attitude was with the victorians, but even then the famous quote (which i can't remember, but you may know) mentions the two great problems (ether and what? uv catastrophe?) that led to general relativity and quantum mechanics. and, as i said, general relativity has had little effect. quantum mechanics yes, because it's not so far removed from human scale (materials science).

before the victorians it would probably have been difficult to make the argument i'm making - the conceptual ideas of energy, scales, symmetry breaking at high energies, etc weren't as clear cut.

the equivalent to those problems now is unification, which will certainly lead to new physics (which is indeed fascinating to a physicist). but it is much less certain to lead to practical changes.

remember, this is physics, not engineering or biotech. engineering will continue to improve. biotechnology will continue to improve. life will continue to change, but changes in fundamental physics are unlikely to be a driving force.
posted by andrew cooke at 3:13 PM on April 13, 2004


Clearly no one is against scientific research here, and I don't even think that anyone has an issue with research with no immediate practical benefit. But there clearly is an issue of costs vs benefits.

On one end, the development of calculus didn't cost particularly much, but the benefits were rather large. Towards the other, we could spend $700 million to cover the Moon with cheap autonomous robots with Logitech QuickCams and the simple task of finding rocks that look like Elvis... which might not be worth it.

It isn't so ridiculous to wonder what might come out of this gyroscope experiment and compare that to how much it costs. Maybe it would have been better to do the experiment later, at a time when it would cost less? Maybe the new PhDs and precision sphere-making techniques are more than worth it now?

But honestly, ... I'm going to go write that grant for my Lunar Elvis-Finder mission.
posted by whatnotever at 3:32 PM on April 13, 2004


I'll put in ten bucks. Where's the PayPal link?
posted by stevis at 3:41 PM on April 13, 2004


well, the dichotomy about whether physics is nearly sorted out or not is whether you mean sorted out enough to explain everything we see, or sorted out enough to solve any problems that we have. the disparity between the two is, well, significant. until we can travel instantaneously and have all of our material needs satisfied (for starters), new physics will always be useful. just because those extreme conditions (high/low energy/density/mass/temperature etc...) do not exist naturally on earth does not mean we won't need them to happen in order to achieve various ends.

on the other end, as whatnotever points out, physics isn't the only game in town. there are other possibilities to lay our chips on; we will have to think a bit more economically about our science. in fact, biology will likely eclipse physics in the next century insofar as we will learn extremely important lessons about self-reproducing systems, decentralized systems, and complexity that will advance our thought and technologies in ways that physics cannot.
posted by badstone at 3:45 PM on April 13, 2004


So some of you are griping that they spent 700 million over the course of 30 years on this project which may or may not produce any benefits to John Doe Average American? Hell, the last estimate I heard for rebuilding and repairing the electrical system in Iraq was 13 billion, and I doubt that is really going to actually benefit John Doe all that much either, yet it appears we may be footing that bill as well.

If we only furthered science when it benefited the average American, we might as well not bother with science at all. A lot of scientific research doesn't create immediate benefits.
posted by Orb at 3:59 PM on April 13, 2004


It doesn't matter whether or not it's sorted out. What most people miss is the creation of the tools to measure this, the side ideas, projects often create breakthroughs.

These breakthroughs lead to others...

Often in the pursuit of science we discover other things of benefit.

And no, we haven't nearly gotten it all in physics - string theory is just a theory. How does gravity act the way it does.

Unless you don't want those cool flying cars. I do.

Oh, and so you "get it".

A million seconds = 11 days
A billion seconds = 32 years.

A trillion seconds? Mankind has been alive less than a trillion seconds.

(This may be a little off...but it was from innumeracy...a great book)
posted by filmgeek at 4:08 PM on April 13, 2004


im waiting for them to engineer bacteria that will live in my gutty-wuttsies and metabolize my waste, leaving a nutritious by-product. Seriously! We can route a stream of cathode rays over the surface of a monitor using computer controlled electro-magnets, but we still have to squeeze shit out of our anuses and scoop off the smears with paper. WHERE IS THE SCIENCE OF POOP?
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 4:17 PM on April 13, 2004


$700 million dollars is almost certainly less than what the population of the US spent on snacks yesterday. Lets put the question this way: would you be willing to give up a cup of coffee that you had planned to drink tomorrow if it gets humanity a little bit closer to a quantum gravity theory?
posted by snarfodox at 4:19 PM on April 13, 2004


current physics describes everything that exists on earth with no problems

There's still no good physics of complex systems, like hurricanes and bags of sand. Anyway, 25 million a year (pocket change for a federal project) doesn't seem unreasonable enough to get angry about considering our government's other spending.
posted by Tlogmer at 4:26 PM on April 13, 2004


There's still no good physics of complex systems

If the universe was a chess game, physics would be the rules written down on one or two sheets of paper. Biology (a general biology, not just an earth-specific one) would be the thousands upon thousands of strategy guides written over the centuries that have still not solved chess but that get you a hell of a lot closer to understaning (and possibly winning) than just reading the rules does. On the other end, you can't really use the strategy guides until you know all the basic rules.
posted by badstone at 4:50 PM on April 13, 2004


I wish that kind of money could be dropped into fusion research.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:55 PM on April 13, 2004


What practical benefits will the average American reap from this?

Anti-gravity, time-travel, teleportation, and warp-drive.

Might take a while though...
posted by inpHilltr8r at 5:31 PM on April 13, 2004


those gyros alone could be the key to building ... BATTLEMECHS!

[OT]Aren't 'Mechs stablized by an interface with the Mechwarrior's cerebellum?[/OT]
posted by Octaviuz at 5:38 PM on April 13, 2004


Science is silly. I'm just waiting for Jesus to come and take me home.
posted by 2sheets at 5:45 PM on April 13, 2004


Octaviuz, not really. The fibrous "muscle" of the mech is driven by the neuro-interface, but the stability of the mech is gyro-centered. Take out the gyros, take out the Mech.
posted by Wulfgar! at 6:15 PM on April 13, 2004


Very cool. Let's hope this thing gets off the pad safely. $700 million over four decades isn't that bad, is it? There's plenty of pie left for the others, and it's definitely a good idea to make sure that we actually know what we're going at.
posted by mote at 6:27 PM on April 13, 2004


scarabic, assuming you have used a computer to enter your comment, I think you'll have to replace "Newton" with "Maxwell", if not "Planck" or "Heisenberg".

How so? I'm intrigued.
posted by scarabic at 6:46 PM on April 13, 2004


If physics is pretty much worked out, then where the fuck is my flying car, and why don't I have relatives living in orbit around alpha centauri?

Pretty much worked out, my ass.
posted by jaded at 7:14 PM on April 13, 2004


I wish that kind of money could be dropped into fusion research.

$700 million / 30 years = about $23 million per year

2004 Fusion Energy Sciences budget = $262 million (pdf)

So, you want to cut the fusion energy research budget by 90%?
posted by Wet Spot at 7:29 PM on April 13, 2004


How so? I'm intrigued.

Maxwell nailed down electromagnetism, the modern need for which is obvious. There's no single name to cover quantum, but Planck, Heisenberg, or Schrodinger will do in a pinch. Anyway, findings from quantum mechanics gave us (among lots other things) semiconductors, without which we'd still be working with vacuum tube-based machines as big as a room.
posted by badstone at 7:31 PM on April 13, 2004


Lets put the question this way: would you be willing to give up a cup of coffee that you had planned to drink tomorrow if it gets humanity a little bit closer to a quantum gravity theory?

Let's keep that question off the ballot, shall we?
posted by crunchburger at 7:35 PM on April 13, 2004


What practical benefits will the average American reap from this?

That's a hard question to answer directly. We simply do not know what the outcome of this or any novel experiment will be. Remember, an experiment is a test of a hypothesis. It is an effort to extend our understanding of nature.

In the early 20th century it was conventional wisdom among physicists that all of physics, i.e. all known phenomena, was understood.

Soon thereafter, the photoelectric effect and the Michelson-Morley experiment showed the scientific community that their understanding of physics was quite incomplete. These contributed to the development of quantum mechanics (QM) and special relativity, respectively.

QM and relativity were quite a surprise to early 20th century physicists; it's doubtful that anyone expected such developments before 1900. However, a significant fraction of the US GNP is now due to technologies derived from this unexpected understanding.

In 1945, Vannevar Bush of MIT wrote a report for president Roosevelt, Science - the Endless Frontier. This report contains Bush's argument for the government's regular patronage of basic science research. Bush's arguments are regarded as the basis for the creation of the National Science Foundation. One of Bush's more memorable statements in support of basic research is,

Basic research leads to new knowledge. It provides scientific capital. It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn.

Bush's arguments are still valid. While there is no guarantee that this particular experiment will yield any practical application, it will provide scientific capital. It will contribute to the fund from which practical applications of knowledge must be drawn.
posted by funkbrain at 7:42 PM on April 13, 2004


Damn you science people and your infernal contraptions!

*mutter* millenium hand and shrimp *mutter*
posted by dejah420 at 9:24 PM on April 13, 2004


Tlogmer> There's still no good physics of complex systems

I think this point needs clarification. There has been brilliant research done in nonlinear systems, turbulence, phase transitions; a whole list of complex systems. All good science, and in some (many) cases classifiable as physics. Complex systems theory is no more 'complete' though than general relativity or quantum mechanics. I suppose what you might be saying here is that in this case though there is no ‘near enough is good enough’ system (like Newtonian mechanics in place of GR/QM) that can be used as an alternative?
posted by snarfodox at 10:42 PM on April 13, 2004


What practical benefits will the average American reap from this?

I know! I know! Ask me!

This will highlight how much of a boondoggle the faith-based missile defense system really is.

Just compare the prices and the quality of engineering involved to see that some crony defense contractors are absconding with billions of our tax dollars so aWol can have warm fuzzies when he hits the Big Red Button this year.
posted by nofundy at 5:01 AM on April 14, 2004


I don't know what languagehat is so pissy about, though. It may sound trite, but I'm deeply curious about what makes the universe tick. Aren't you?

Hey, scarabic, I'm on your side. I took the final question to be a snide "why should we do this? does it benefit anybody?" If it was a straightforward call for discussion of benefits, I apologize. But yes, I'm very curious about what makes the universe tick.
posted by languagehat at 8:05 AM on April 14, 2004


What practical benefits will the average American reap from this?

Well, not nearly so much as from murdering thousands of Iraqis, granted...but it costs a whole lot less!
posted by rushmc at 8:08 AM on April 14, 2004


What practical benefits will the average American reap from this?

The value of anything being the price we're willing to pay to obtain it, we will by definition have $700 million worth of new knowledge. That's about $2.50 worth of knowledge for every American!
posted by kindall at 10:35 AM on April 14, 2004


I suppose the charges of elitism come from the fact that only 1 in 1000 will actually use (loosely defined as "be aware of") it. By this reasoning, the government should fund Big Macs rather than science.

(or science education, to increase the above number...but that's just crazy talk!)
posted by rushmc at 2:12 PM on April 14, 2004


snarfodox: You're right; I was using physics in the archaic sense -- obviously there are good physics projects focused on complex systems, but still no overarching Newtonian coolness (nor might there ever be; that's probably the wrong template. but the point still holds).
posted by Tlogmer at 3:44 PM on April 14, 2004


I think funkbrain said it well -- "a significant fraction of the [current] US GNP is ... due to technologies derived from ... unexpected understanding[s]."

I'd go one step further and speculate that most of the US GNP comes from the application of obscure and unexpected discoveries. Examine America's biggest companies; think through the evolution of the ideas that made those companies possible.

In most cases, the connection between intellectual origin and profitable application is utterly unpredictable. For instance, would #2 GM, #3 ExxonMobil, #4 Ford, and #7 ChevronTexaco exist if it hadn't been for the obscure work of an early 19th century young engineer from a disgraced French military family, glad simply to have his father's apartment to live in? Would he have imagined,
180 years from now, much of the economy, the foreign policy, and the cultural identity of the richest, most dynamic society on Earth will trace back to -- er, to my unpublished musings about water-pumps and cannon-boring machines.
Who'll be the Forbes 500 in 10 years? 20? 50? What ideas and innovations will create those companies? My prediction: I can't predict.

Basic research constitutes placing a bet on the table. If you don't play, you can't win. America has historically done a good job of betting and playing, and it should continue to do so.
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 9:14 PM on April 14, 2004


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