On May 23, 2019 the first round of Starlink satellites were placed into orbit by Elon Musk's company SpaceX to much public fanfare and excitement. Fanfare that was rapidly deflated by not the usual billionaire bashes but by the space-sciences natural allies: the community of astronomers. Why would astronomers complain about satellites? There were already thousands of satellites in space - why were these such an egregious error? Online the complaints were vociferous from prominent and well qualified astronomers and astrophysicists across the world fearing the impact of the satellites upon ground based observations. Musk's attempts on social media, like the above Tweet, to allay the fears and problem solve have had little effect in the years since. My contention here is that the criticism of Musk over Starlink's effect on ground based observations was less about the impact on science and more about a very modern malady: a personal dislike of the man that many astronomers today harbour.
What is going wrong with the culture of professional astronomers?
There is nothing new about ill-feeling towards the wealthy. An entire side of politics (indeed sometimes all sides of politics) seem devoted to fomenting feelings of envy for anyone, or anything, successful. Starbucks was a celebrated progressive counter-cultural startup in Seattle. But with success comes a certain kind of critic - which is all very well except that the criticism is often of the success. Why would anyone want to be seen praising what is popular? It’s not enough to support the struggling competition - one must actively campaign against the market leaders. After all, on this view, the size of the pie is fixed. There is only a certain size of the coffee market and any success Starbucks has must come at the expense of “mom and pop” corner store operations. It’s not like Starbucks actually created coffee culture and massively increased the size for the pie for everyone, right? Well, wrong: https://www.drivencoffee.com/blog/coffee-waves-explained/
Market success should be celebrated. There are insights to be learned. Anyone inside business knows this. But I am not from business. So I have some sense of what people outside business “know”. And what they know just isn’t so rather often. If one spends their school and university years almost exclusively taking sciences and mathematics subjects (and perhaps philosophy) while looking down their nose at anyone diving into marketing, business or economics degrees a vast (and even outrageous) blind spot can tend to open up. The two cultures end up speaking different languages. It’s almost as if the science types cannot imagine there is even a thing as “expertise in business”. Business is seen purely as some combination of luck and perhaps grift - a form of dishonest misrepresentation of the product or service being offered.
The professional scientist, like everyone else, visits businesses every single day. They encounter advertising every single day. Sometimes they even have family and friends involved directly in business. Ipso facto: the scientists, like everyone else, has expertise in business, right? But if your main or indeed only real encounter with “business” are the advertisements you encounter and visits to the shopping mall, the idea you have genuine insight into “how to succeed at business” can be very skewed indeed. Aren’t most of those businesses being run by the kids who never quite qualified for the top mathematics class in high school? Weren’t subjects like “business studies” and “personal finance” what you did if you couldn’t handle the actual tough content of chemistry and physics?
Ok, so not all science minded types think like this. But there is some kind of symmetry between how so many scientists on social media feel when a non-scientist butchers a scientific explanation in the media somewhere and how a business person must feel when a non-business person opines about how their profits must have been ill-gotten, easy to come by and should be invested not back into the business but back into “the community” from which they were stolen or coerced in the first place. The rank ignorance about the virtues of profit and how difficult it is to turn a profit at all in the first place let alone large profits is what drives so much of this ill feeling towards the wealthy on full display on social media. In particular, on Twitter.
This dislike spans a spectrum from outright (perhaps only nominally) murderous hatred to a more vanilla non-violent disdain or aloof indifference. It is as unfashionable as it ever has been to speak of self-made millionaires and billionaires as being anything like heroic (as scientists, medical professionals, veterans and first responders are). Praise for hard work, brilliance and society-serving contributions is reserved for those professions - but perhaps even teachers and those working in trades. Anyone BUT the businessperson and entrepreneur. The wealthy (or not even wealthy: simply those who own a business) are almost always and everywhere cast as the villains and therefore most of the essential means of becoming wealthy (such as any profit motive) need to be hated too. Being “self made” makes no difference to their critics: wealth, according to their dogmas, is never created. It is confiscated. And it can be confiscated for the greater good, or confiscated and hoarded by the few. “Record profits” are a pejorative term in the media. Why aren’t those profits being shared out among the deserving workers? Nevermind that profit is precisely what is needed for innovation, creation, research, development and further investment in the business or new businesses to generate more progress more rapidly from which everyone benefits. What exactly is funding the innovation to create the technology to allow many scientists to do their work with more efficiency than ever before? Even the purely theoretical physicists or pure mathematician these days spends much of their time on their computers and the only reason that computer is not the same as the one from 1995 is because “record profits” from the technology sector continue to be reinvested in the businesses rather than siphoned off into the pet projects of politicians and community organisers and so on.
But the tin-ear of those who have absorbed the messaging of academia on matters of business is immune to arguments of that sort. Hence the fact billionaire-bashing is a pastime of mobs online can in many cases be made sense of: we are saturated in messaging on social media about how they are “grifters” and their wealth the ill-gotten proceeds of theft. These are tropes that have always been at the vanguard of collectivist movements – whether political (the communist tendency to cast the wealthy as undeserving not merely of their wealth but – if history is a guide – their very existence) or religious (the Christian tendency to cast the wealthy as especially compromised in life and so unworthy of any “good place” in what comes after it either).
The Soviet Union put “Huge obstacles and the threat of harsh penalties” in the way of anyone trying to generate wealth. Whether late 70s Khmer Rouge, Cambodia, or the modern day Kim Dynasty in North Korea - regimes remixing and riffing off Maoist China share an anti-individual-wealth character (which, for reasons beyond the scope of this piece is necessarily anti-wealth, period). All collectivist coercive “economic systems” degenerate into some form of tyrannical plutocracy where government leaders become the actual thieves and beneficiaries: they do not produce anything themselves – there is no innovation by those with the most wealth inside such a system - but rather individual wealth is accrued only ever by a process of taking directly from the productive for the purpose of lining the pockets of the politically powerful. An elite echelon of those sharing in government largesse in some systems might ostensibly be elected politicians, but many more are bureaucrats and “officials”: those providing the necessary cover and “legal” sanction for those who, in turn, award them with relatively lucrative positions of authority. When meritocracy and democratic institutions are replaced by a culture of quid-pro-quo favour-doing then political loyalty up and down the chain and to the very system itself becomes a moral and legal imperative.
The history of each of these versions of collectivism of the last century (which all trace the ancestry of their ideology to some version of Marxism) begins with the denigration of the wealthy. It begins there by misunderstanding (or perhaps outright lying) about the causes and hence the source of wealth: it says all (or almost all) the wealth was stolen. Once this is established – the wealthy can be called out as literal criminals – so it becomes virtuous for their ill-gotten gains to be taken from them and (in theory) for the purpose of it all being returned to its rightful owners: fairly and equally to all citizens. The government is Robin Hood – the ethical thief - righting wrongs allowed to go on for far too long. As dystopian as it may seem, history attests to fact that events rarely end with the mere confiscation of property from the well-off when and if ever allowed to go that far. When wealth confiscation fails to improve the ills of that society immediately (and of course this social technique always fails) more severe measures are demanded. Government takes complete control of businesses “nationalising essential services”, communication and media “to curb misinformation” and individuals “to keep the nation safe and protect lives”. State violence continues apace and culminates only in the nadir of horror: actual extermination of the rich and then, if not simultaneously, then soon after, the extermination of the educated too. The Khmer Rouge murdered en masse intellectuals, artists – basically anyone with a post secondary education as a danger to a system which lionised what it regarded as the “base people” – the foundation of the nation: those engaged in physical labour. Anti-intellectualism is a hallmark of Marxist-style collectivism – the Khmer Rouge was not an outlier. Whether it was true that for good measure they took out anyone wearing glasses or not just incase the “intelligent” was not captured by any other category is a fable or not https://www.shadowsofutopia.com/blog/did-the-khmer-rouge-really-kill-everyone-who-wore-glasses the fact remains that what counts as “the elite” tends to broaden out so as to include anyone suspected of not likely to remain fiercely loyal for all time to the new order. Being broadly supportive is generally in itself not enough. North Korea (https://www.dailynk.com/english/north-korean-intellectuals-oppress/) and China (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stinking_Old_Ninth) both turned on their intellectuals - even if the intellectuals leaned left. (For example North Korea even turned on Marx and Marxists but not Marxism. With a thin coat of paint, almost all the content and consequences of Marxism or communism have been incorporated into “Juche” the “self reliance” doctrine of The Kims.)
The fact collectivist systems which denigrate the wealthy so often also denigrate intellectuals has meant that, until recently, there was more affinity in the west, under capitalism, between the wealthy in that society and its intellectuals. Philanthropy has therefore been an important mainstay of the income of many members of the western intellectual class providing more freedom and greater security when engaged (most especially) in open ended research. State-run funding models with their mandated policies and outcome-driven expectations are simply less lucrative and more intolerant of “risky” research – research that just may prove a complete dead end. Individual philanthropists rarely require vagaries such as proof of constant publication or a detailed proposal for success or profitability - let alone the filling out of time consuming, lengthy grant applications. The successful entrepreneur can eschew all of that and streamline the process of money-granting simply through word of mouth recommendations and objective look at successes so far and perhaps some subjective criteria no “objective” government bureaucracy would dare take into account for fear of being accused of a lack, in our modern world, of meeting so-called diversity, equity and inclusion criteria.
But hitherto there remains a (pun intended) rich history of western intellectuals – especially those working in science– being supported by generous endowments with few strings attached granted by patrons: sympathetic, curious, “scientifically literate” and charitable individuals with great personal wealth. So it makes perfect sense that partnerships have arisen historically between scientists and those of “independent means”. It is well known (or at least should be) that astronomy in particular has a history of patronage. The very origins of modern astronomy (and science) grew out of partnerships between such luminaries as:
Charles Montagu and Isaac Newton
The Medici Family and Galileo Galilei
Peter Oxe and Tycho Brahe
And this is just to name but an early trio of couplings in the lineage of astronomers who upended our understanding of the “system of the world”. Behind almost all the big names of astronomy prior to the beginning of last century were patrons – philanthropists – funding pure research. And throughout the 20th century philanthropy from successful entrepreneurs not only continued as a cultural force in astronomy but gradually became ever more generous and general in the form of, just for example:
William Keck – an oil magnate who funded what at the time were the world’s largest reflecting telescopes – the Keck Observatory consisting of two 10m telescopes that today remain among the most powerful on Earth.
Fred Kavli whose foundation has funded things at every scale from nanotechnology to astrophysics
A 40 page report by Fiona Murray in 2012 details many partnerships and concludes that even today philanthropy and patronage in the USA still contributes some $7 billion a year to science performed in American Research Universities - some 30% of the overall funding https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w18146/w18146.pdf
Murray seems to be writing in a tone that suggests regret that Federal science funding seems to be declining as compared to private philanthropy. Whatever the case individual gift giving to research in the physical sciences is indeed, according to her report, a very tiny fraction of the overall philanthropic donations received by “the sciences” broadly (see the final page of the report).
Government funding for pure scientific research (via committee-controlled bureaucratic application processes) is a rather new factor in “knowledge creation” alongside the existence of peer review through publications in journals. Many may well see this duo as the very means by which scientific knowledge is generated: government grants funding research intended for publication and review in prestigious journals. Or if it is not the sole means of making a breakthrough in pure science then it is, at a minimum, the gold standard for being taken seriously. But even were that true, it does not show that the history of science prior to this recent taxpayer funded “industry” of scientific research and publication was especially worse at making progress. Indeed all signs are it was not: there is something to the scientist working in relative solitude funded through the generosity of a patron and therefore there is something to that relationship between the wealthy and the intellectuals*. It has been shown to achieve great things not merely of mutual benefit but of benefit to everyone.
*(insofar as these represent distinct categories - there exist a not insignificant number occupying the intersection of these sets, of course.)
What entrepreneurs have tended to do, and no government seems able to emulate much less manage, is foster a funding model in harmony with pure scientific research: open ended, subject to sudden u-turn changes in specific aims and not accountable to periodic assessments of how they are “meeting KPIs” or otherwise demonstrating “good progress toward the stated goals”. Governments by their very nature should be bureaucratic: the money they spend should (i.e morally must) be adequately accounted for and explained to the tax payers. And so it is we have a system in place that all scientists who have ever been involved in a race for research funding are familiar with: administrative hurdles consuming the time and energy of scientific minds who must turn colleagues into competitors for a very limited pool of resources.
Governments and electorates rightly demand specific and worthwhile aims be outlined and, in time, some demonstration of progress towards the stated aims anytime money is awarded from the public purse. But as we have seen: this is at odds in many ways to fundamental science. An “aim”, if it is not going to be so general as to be synonymous with a “hope” needs to be specific. It needs to provide some vision of what the conclusion will look like. It is the “point” of things. But for many scientists working at the very fringe of what is known, “the point” of their work is often only honestly explained as satisfying their own curiosity: solving a problem they personally find interesting. This is not going to wash when it comes to politicians and bureaucratic committees much less those engaged in the daily grind of tedious labour to pay the taxes funding the whole system.
“But I’m not interested in physics – let alone working in part to help pay for someone else to sit on their backside making up more of it” – they might innocently conclude - as is their right. And these days who can blame the broader population of those not fortunate enough to have found their own way into some kind of creative enterprise where they build a personal body of work that might reasonably be described one day as a “legacy” for not wanting to pay taxes to fund those who have? For anyone not so fortunate, the idea any amount of tax money is used to fund research not directly related to life saving essentials (like medical research) seems like government grants for academic vanity projects (for those already occupying some of the desirable, privileged positions in society). That may all be unfair of them: but plumbers, builders, miners and hair dressers exhausted on their feet at the end of hour 12 of day 6 of the week from hell would be saints not to begrudge the lifestyles of most knowledge economy “workers” such as research scientists. Such a system is obviously ripe for the historic communist critique of it: just why do some seem to be trapped working (in part at least) so some others can be paid to do exactly what they want? If scientists are going to be paid with tax money they had better tell us exactly what the point is – and the point had better be able to describe the obvious practical applications that will follow.
Which would seem to rule out the most fundamental and pure scientific research. At a bare minimum. And yet – the most historically important discoveries come not from groups deciding what seems practically important now but rather it comes from scientists free to work on problems they are personally interested in. And it should be completely fine for others to say: good for you. It’s wonderful you are interested in that. But I don’t think I should have to help fund it.
Alan Turing was personally interested in the esoteric foundations of mathematics: what could and could not in theory be calculated. It was a side effect and not “the point” of his work that in retrospect his discoveries laid the foundations of an entire discipline: computer science - and so illuminated the way to the technology of the information age. Astrophysicist Martin Ryle wanted to improve the resolution of radio telescopes to see distant galaxies so he proposed and demonstrated the efficacy of “aperture synthesis” which upgraded interferometry techniques. Presented to a government committee today he may have been knocked back: no one could have known that very same technique would be used to improve images from magnetic resonance imaging devices used in medical diagnosis.
Granted, it is no simple thing for a curious, energetic and brilliant scientist to find a sympathetic like-mind in industry to fund their research which has no obvious technological application. All the arguments about “spin offs” and leaving a legacy are well known – and may work as well on an individual millionaire as a committee of government bureaucrats. Scientists – especially physicists and perhaps especially astrophysicists have a particularly difficult road in this respect exceeded perhaps only by theoretical physicists (or pure mathematicians). “What is the point of this?” or “Who cares?” or “How will this help us solve our most pressing problems on Earth? There is enough to worry about here with viruses, cancer, climate change and other disasters. Black holes and quasars are, by your own admission far too far away to affect us here at all.”
The point here is: astronomers like many intellectuals have interests but their interests seem to the man-on-the-street rather like the interests of the philosopher, painter, playwrite or poet: luxuries of the privileged. Never-mind the fallaciousness of the argument, never-mind the often barely concealed internecine war of aggression by the pure physicists upon the philosophers and poets. To the plumbers, police and even politicians – these areas of human diversion are just that. They are not pressing. And we may ask: why can’t they just be hobbies? What are we paying these people for? Reasonable questions with completely reasonable answers that are often utterly unknown to those doing the paying (the tax payers).
So one would expect that out of self interest, scientists – like other intellectuals (poets and philosophers alike) would be rather more eager to keep on side all those with the means to really boost and broaden the impact of their work. Which is why today it is so bizarre when we reflect upon some intellectual cultures, just how the wealthy are spoken of. And not merely in confines of private grumblings around a workplace lunch table – but publicly – in full view and seemingly with pride. The wealthy are reviled by many as it is but astonishingly in many respects and so sadly many who might otherwise benefit from their largesse. Intellectuals, the dominant part of academia are politically active socialists. Of course this is uncontroversial. Almost all who have any connection to academia know this. And it makes sense: the university sector is far and away in many places heavily funded by the state. So praise for state bureaucracy comes easy to those who benefit from it. Why should it be otherwise?
The most wealthy among us have accomplished things in recent decades (as they always have done) that their own governments make lofty promises about and almost never deliver. Governments promise improvements in systems of schooling and education. But it was the technologists and entrepreneurs who actually delivered a global revolution in learning through an almost universally affordable means of educating and improving everyone no matter their age through free video content, podcasts, books, courses and free or near-free audio books and other technology. Designed and delivered not by government committee but by Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon (to name just the prominent few). Traditional schooling and university is rapidly becoming redundant – a relic, a centuries old system serving now solely (in many ways) as little more than a formal culture of credentialing where (despite their protestations) so much educational ballast is utterly superfluous to the process of learning. In many cases the ballast is completely antagonistic to the ostensive purpose of it all. The technology and content now freely (or near freely) available allows engagement coupled with “just in time” rapidity that means the schooling and university systems taking advantage of the internet revolution is rather like having a modern fully functional Airbus jet used solely for the purpose of ferrying passengers from one terminal to the other, on the ground, at the same airport.
As we have seen, historically there has been until recently a tradition that fostered an affinity, if not friendship, among scientists and the wealthy. Especially the inventor who became super rich because scientists, like inventors, innovate. They each share a love of technology and progress, knowledge and pushing civilization forward. There’s that and there’s the philanthropy. At least some (it could be most) of the super rich are super generous and keenly aware of the benefits and rewards of science. But rather often they focus on what they think they can predict is likely to be an investment that will turn a profit: cutting edge materials science, nanotechnology, fusion technology, quantum computation, medical science of any kind and so on. So scientists can suddenly find they can help to create wealth personally, corporately (perhaps for thousands of small time shareholders) and even to the level of civilization. So the wealthy and the scientists have had a polite agreement of sorts. Financial fuel exchanged for the fruits of the research. Natural collaborators.
But there are unfortunate exceptions in the modern day. One is astronomy and one reason may be that astronomy of the observational and theoretical kinds is near to pure mathematics: exploring a space of objects and fascinating truths in reality applicable no doubt to radical changes in our deepest ideas and possibly affecting even distant fields and a crucial part of some radically transformative future technology but never able to show any *immediate* way that what it provides is something to “productise”. It’s super refined techniques (like Michael Murphy’s way to measure fine structure: https://astronomy.swin.edu.au/~mmurphy/research/are-natures-laws-really-universal/) should be expected to one day - maybe years but maybe centuries from now - be vital for the operation of what is then a household item. But no one can know that today. Whatever the case astronomers miss out on the best funding and have little reason to meet with venture capitalists and investors.
So over time: they’ve taken it personally. And it may not be a quirk of astronomy (it may be the same with chemistry and zoology too…though I doubt it) to have public disdain for the prominent wealthy but they have a particular bee in their bonnet and it’s doubly strange because it has infected one thing especially: what used to be their enthusiasm for everything space science.
I am not an astronomer. I am not part of “the community of astronomers”. I don’t publish papers, I lack a PhD, I don’t work in any allied technical field and cannot even say “astronomers” form any significant part of my own social circle. Which all needs to be said before I stick my neck out on the following:
As little more than an enthusiastic amateur for the last few decades who took an undergrad degree focussing on astronomy and later a Masters in it, I have an arms-distant familiarity with the field – less than any actual astronomer – but more than most lay people. I am an enthusiastic follower (and generally a fan) of experts in the field and the public facing social media “community” of astronomers. Before, since and during formal learning about astronomy, I’ve read (& collected!) many of the popular science books published by astronomers – those few in “the community” who are able to do so after gaining prominence among their peers. Astronomy, as a rule when compared to most other sciences, seems to attract “a type” that *also* often *likes to lecture* and so many astronomers can become in short order confident media performers. Two reasons astronomy is unique in this is:
1. The media likes astronomy news as “fluff” pieces. They are rather like those “human interest” stories used to break up the bad news. If there have been one too many stories that week about fire fighters rescuing a kitten from a drain then it can be the turn of the team of researchers finding another “Earth like planet” not so far away to be cut and pasted between covid updates and the UN’s latest sanctions.
2. The tradition of prominent astronomers-as-voice-of-science. Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” was not just science through the lens of astronomy but reason and rationality itself. When there is a panel discussion involving politicians and businesspeople, the “token scientist” is rather often (though not always) an astrophysicist. Less contaminated, perhaps, with an obvious political ideology they can still be relied upon for the standard intellectual takes on climate change policy, the (anti)facility of religion and necessary role of the state in science education, funding and innovation.
Now it is true that few of these “voices of science” become, somewhat poetically, “stars” in their own right. Perhaps the only descendants of Carl Sagan to rival the great astronomy communicator himself today would be Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox. Though the former is from astronomy, the latter is actually a particle physicist but one would barely notice from titles like “Wonders of The Solar System” and “Wonders of The Universe” among his oeuvre. If there is to be a “celebrity culture” at this particular epoch within our Enlightenment, then if there are to be such people of disproportionate influence, astronomers are as good as any others perhaps and maybe even better than some within constraints set by a cultural paradigm with a deference to fame for its own sake.
Once the night sky itself had me hooked as a child, it was initially books I turned to for understanding. Introductory books about astronomy never need to embellish for effect. Titles such as “The Solar System”, “The Universe” and in one case simply “Space” were enticing, mysterious and vertigo inducing. Astronomy tragics remember their first telescope, they remember those early read and read again and again and again books. And of course we remember our first encounters with one celebrity scientist or other who appeared on the television. I was just a little too young to be personally inspired by Carl Sagan. For me it was physicist Paul Davies who, when I was in my teens, was living and teaching in Australia and for a time our most prominent scientist and science communicator (Davies was and remains excellent, but “Australian Science Celebrity” could reasonably have applied to Davies at the time and perhaps only one other. It was a very thin bench compared to today). Like those who went on to be professional astrophysicists, I began by enrolling into a BSc (Physics and Astronomy) and if nothing else, learned how one could in theory keep up with the latest in astronomy, even if in practise one could not. Chiefly this entails keeping one distracted eye on “astrophysics news” by scanning abstracts of AJ and ApJ (The Astronomical Journal and The Astrophysical Journal respectively) and of course by now and again checking in with the astro-ph arXiv of pre-prints (roughly: a repository of each and every journal’s published, submitted, draft and in some cases rejected papers. Roughly speaking, as I say: even the arXiv has standards (that in theory are set well below that of official journals much less the very top tier AJ/ApJ). All of which is to say I am a poor imitation of the real thing - nothing like a genuine professional astronomer/astrophysicist but with perhaps a passing familiarity of the fundamental content and state of play in the subject and vicarious “observer status” position in terms of astronomy outreach and online “astro” culture for what it is. On Twitter I’ve kept an alter purely for the purpose of curating a (private to me) list of astronomers as a means of following news updates in astronomy more effectively. That was the theory and certainly when astronomy makes the media, lists of professionals are an excellent way to check, criticise and correct bad takes where need be from talking science heads on television. But those times are rare. Astro-twitter is very “academia” heavy. Yes, there are excellent amateurs out there on Twitter. There are prominent astronomy-communicators working outside the university system. But the far more major segment of astro-twitter are Professors, Researchers, students and graduate students. Every subculture, by definition, has its own unique standout features to any outsider. What immediately is obvious to me – outside academia – are the complaints made about the job. This observation may simply be a feature of all academics with class commitments and have nothing whatsoever to do with astronomy per se. However, public complaints about emails appear periodically – often on Mondays. Always during holidays. This is followed closely by (legitimate) frustrated tweets about the process required to secure funding for a research project, complaints about the publication policies of professional journals and complaints about coding difficulties and software malfunctions - not to mention public complaints about their very own employers (the university administrators). This is all for the good, in my opinion. Youngsters passionately romanticising an academic career have a real-time insight into the psychological state of both junior and senior academics and what the job really entails away from university promotional material. But all of that is utterly orthogonal to a more important observation.
Putting aside the universal frustration about completing the administration necessary to justify their own continued employment (some version of which almost defines the term “white colour job” in all but the most innovative silicon-valley type institutions) astronomers on Twitter are an exceedingly homogenous culture of professionals. And while this may not be, by any means, unique to astronomy – it is especially pronounced within it. And it is, relatively speaking, new and notable. New as in: woke new. Astronomers on average are woke. It is not universal but it is not uncommon for astronomers, as of early 2022, to fully embrace the most trope and extreme of the woke signals: pronouns and diversity flags are in their bios are just the start. Their favoured political issues are, essentially, synonymous with those of most green parties around the world. Climate Change is a chief concern, followed closely by all things “diversity, inclusion and equity” and to complete the trendy trifecta: an economic perspective that embraces anti-capitalism and pro-socialism. Now some of this may have been there for decades in astronomy. I don’t know: but I didn’t notice (by which I mean: it was not noticeable) and that is the point. The astronomers who lectured me, broadly speaking, were, well: “professional” - on topic and seemingly apolitical.
Whatever was trendy in politics at the time just was not on the menu during lectures, labs and tutorials. I wouldn’t have had a clue how a professor, lecturer or tutor voted or what social issues they were interested in. There simply was no time (much less any interest) during lectures, labs and tutes. And at first, online, it was not obvious that the community of astronomers was at all “just like you’d expect from university employees”. They posted about astronomy or other kinds of science. But something changed around 2016 like so much else. The online culture of astronomers became highly politicised. There was little debate from what I could tell among those who belonged because there was no one to debate. There was universal agreement. Some views were obviously simply wrong according to “community standards” in astronomy – like Brexit. The exist of Britain from the EU could only be bad for science as a whole and in particular astronomy. From there, as is now recent history, vocal (and in some cases vitriolic) posts from Professors and PhDs in Astronomy attesting to their feelings – about Brexit, then Trump, then Greta and swiftly the flood gates opened entirely. University employed astronomers (almost all of them) became champions for the new woke collectivism. And with that came something necessarily tied to all that but nonetheless new and jarring all the same: the anti-capitalism trope: a comfort in publicly professing one’s disdain or dislike of the wealthy.
What washed over online-astro culture? Why was the ground there so very fertile for febrile political posturing? Is astronomy special in terms of the sciences? It is – and there are many factors. Among them are:
1. Jobs are very hard to come by in astronomy and extremely precarious to keep hold of. The majority with formal training in astronomy will not be employed directly in research astronomy. They will work instead in physics education more broadly, education more broadly than that, outreach of one form or another (for a particular university, for a science foundation or government “STEM” program) or they will find more lucrative (but perhaps less fulfilling) work in industry where their coding, mathematical/statistics proficiency or possibly just impressive PhD in Astrophysics and other signs of technical capacity make them attractive as consultants, developers, advisors, venture development and strategy analysts and so on and on. If one manages to make it through the system that culls so many fellow hopefuls, one becomes a little fearful of the system itself for it is cruel.
2. Astronomers online almost always find themselves comfortably taking on the 2020s version of “science communicator” – the social media science “influencer”. Gather a reasonable following, have a Youtube channel, or podcast, or blog or appear on some other podcasts and soon you may find yourself the go-to astronomer for the local radio station, then perhaps television station and perhaps a spot somewhere on a national broadcaster. You now have clout. People value your opinion. You should have one and it must be acceptable. As in business, promotions in academia cannot entirely ignore one’s social media presence. Taxation funds the university. It funds the better part of your research and all of your salary. Why would you ever support the side promising to cut it? (And why go to the hassle of social ostracisation by being counter-culture?)
3. Related to “2” – as an astrophysicist you are by default an intellectual. You are part of the elite. Astrophysics in particular is very impressive in a way even geophysics is not – much less geology. Or anything related to biology. You know enough about quantum physics that to a layperson you may as well be a quantum physicist. Or a mathematician. Or a climate scientist. So you have informed, evidence based opinions on climate policy. And hence politics. So you know enough about economics. And history. And philosophy. And how to think logically and critically (so you’ve been told) – like a scientist. Of course it is to be expected you and your collegues agree on these matters for they are highly qualified astrophysicists too. Of course you will reach the right conclusions while “low information” lay people are going to make mistakes because they do not understand the science.
This explains the inexorable pull upon an entire culture of astronomers online who, seemingly in lock step, began to agree about next-to-everything politically. Everyone agreed about the importance of diversity. There could be no diversity of opinion on diversity. Astronomy rushed into systems of rectifying wrongs in proportions of populations “not identifying as males” working in astrophysics. Equality had to be enforced by ensuring some were given advantages when seeking positions or promotions which considered one’s cultural background or sexuality. And so it went as it did in many other disciplines and indeed many other industries outside academia and education. But none of this seemed quite so grating as the swift slide into cynicism about innovation…when it came from the wealthy.
Now anti-capitalism is a mainstay of academia. Why should anyone be surprised at this? No doubt faculties of humanities, arts, social sciences, economics – even business (but not always graduate MBA programs) are going to lean left, even far left and green and woke. Where’s the mystery? There is no mystery but in astronomy somewhat more than perhaps elsewhere there has been historically a culture of patronage on the one hand and on the other a mutual respect for those entrepreneurs and technologists with whom they shared a “geeky” love of computers and rockets.
In this article I am taking a stance of not calling out any particular academic by name - although it is tempting to cut and paste some of the vitriol that is ripe for the taking out there from professional astronomers about Elon Musk. But it takes little time to compare Tweets made about the billionaire by some prominent gainfully employed academic astronomers in 2014 or thereabouts and today. They move very swiftly from the broadly positive (if they say anything at all) to negative. Musk earned more ire from the astronomy community than any other billionaire precisely because of his Starlink satellite project all because of an extremely parochial concern of astronomers and so, seemingly on a dime, the entire community (more or less) turned against this particular use of space science and technological innovation and indeed seemed to broaden itself out to target the billionaire space race altogether. The lack of love shown by astronomers today (broadly speaking) for the new millenium’s commercial space race is awfully telling of this bias against not merely the wealthy but business and free markets.
Astronomers have traditionally loved rockets & space science. They will praise NASA for almost anything (and broadly speaking – rightly so). Kids who grow up looking at the heavens grow up loving rockets too. It must be confusing for children looking to their astronomy heroes to see them complaining about rockets and satellites.
Astronomers on social media now, if they are to mention Elon Musk at all (or the modern space race) conform to a unique social pressure: that which dictates the *politics* of their community: namely the wider dominant academic culture of our time. And the academic culture of our time almost never rises to praise the pioneers of space science *this time*. The normative response to any billionaire’s space-science project receives disinterest (at best) or denigration. It is sad to see. Even now, with SpaceX satellites providing additional capacity for the people of Ukraine to avoid being “cut off” from the world by Russian aggression goes unnoticed by the broad community of astronomers across the world. They still will not praise it. They have only complaints about the technology. The silence is not deafening as such because (fortunately) the attitude of most astronomers does not translate to the attitude of most people not indoctrinated by a reflexive skepticism of billionaires. They - the broader community - do see virtue and praise it when it happens.
One might object: well it is rather below the belt to criticise astronomers for not foreseeing peaceful virtuous applications of Starlink technology in wartime. But anyone paying attention knew that Starlink would be a method to deliver internet to people too remote to access mobile let alone cable or landline internet of any kind. Australia is a perfect case in point where vast emptiness and exceedingly low population density in some places means the possibility of satellite internet is an absolute game changer for isolated individuals and communities. Surely that alone is enough for astronomers to problem solve? And this too is a problem with pessimism. When Starlink was first launched the almost unanimous cry from the community of astronomers was how Starlink was destroying the “seeing” – or the clarity of the sky. Ruining long exposure imaging and just otherwise making the jobs of astronomers more difficult if not impossible. Again, I am no professional astronomer. I may be utterly ignorant of how certain physical laws do indeed mean that progress in astronomy in certain ways is now impossible given the existence of Starlink satellites. But absent that explanation I can only imagine the problem is soluble. Satellites have always interrupted the images taken by the observatories of astronomers. They have work-arounds – they have methods of subtraction. Yes, it’s more work, but the non-astronomers of planet Earth have been, from any reasonable perspective, rather generous in many ways in supporting astronomers. Keeping them, as it were in “refractors, reflectors and processors”. Astronomy is an expensive business. Some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers are devoted to simulating astrophysical phenomena. At great expense we place telescopes in the most remote places where few other structures are built (see the aforementioned Keck observatory) and in some situations where no other structures exist (from Voyager probes now at the edge of the solar system to probes on Mars and recently space telescopes). There must be give and take. The pristine night skies of planet Earth cannot be expected to remain spotless forever, nor should it be thought that the best place to observe the cosmos is from Earth through an atmosphere. Hence the space telescopes. The James West Space telescope is said to have cost $10 billion. That’s a rather lot of a money to justify to a skeptical tax paying public who paid for it.
One wonders if the community of astronomers, instead of becoming a veritable cacophony of criticism, instead took the route of petitioning Elon Musk or Starlink with a proposal to fund another space telescope to make up for any interruptions to their work? Starlink appears to have gone to great lengths to reduce the impact of their satellites on astronomy to “preserve the night sky”: https://www.spacex.com/updates/#starlink-update-04-28-2020
The online presence that represents astronomy and astronomers on social media does appear to any outside observer to be a close knit and rather unified culture. This may give some insight into the broader community of astronomers – the majority of whom may not have a presence on (for example) Twitter. Astronomers share information generously – research data, expertise, telescope time. They are, of course, collegial and professional and provide a wealth of inspiration to young people fascinated by what is still the king of the sciences: it is the most majestic. It is the most awe inspiring. It is both gateway drug to and stage for all other sciences. So astronomers have that advertising advantage: it is prima facie thrilling: something molecular biology, industrial chemistry and geology (even in the form of vulcanology) cannot approach. But what it has always struggled with is: practicality. And that means investing in it can be a challenge. So surely, as a community, astronomers should not want to alienate any potential sources of investment?
Does this mean astronomers online cannot be political? Of course not. The issue here is the quirky self-destructive niche area of politics astronomers seem to be captured by: disdain for the wealthy and in particular disdain for Elon Musk. But not only is criticism of wealth, business and billionaires against the very self interest of astronomers themselves: it’s against everyone else’s interest too. Alienation of potential investors in astronomy does not help astronomy. And astronomy really does help everyone. Criticism of technological progress like Starlink because of an exceedingly “inside baseball” inconvenience seems narrow minded. It is the worst thing someone actually concerned with the well being of the greatest number.
I considered for about 20 seconds whether or not to do a quick survey of a random 100 astronomers on Twitter by searching their feeds for references to “Musk” and graphing the results into “Entirely Negative” “Overwhelmingly Negative” “Predominantly Negative” “Even Handed” “Predominantly Positive” and so on – but this is less informative for the curious reader to try this themselves because the actual tweets from astronomers on Twitter about Elon Musk are revealing. As I hinted at, there is a category of (it must be admitted, older) astronomers who made positive remarks about Musk back when it seemed he was more focussed upon green energy. And Neil deGrasse Tyson – the world’s most famous astrophysicist has only ever said positive things about the Tesla billionaire. But with Starlink astronomers turned on Musk and billionaires broadly. They are relatively silent for now as the war in Ukraine rages. But the anti-wealth socialist memeplex that directs the culture in which astronomers find themselves will rear its head again. And that is a shame. Because the wealthy might like to support astronomers. But not if astronomers don’t support them. This is not an appeal for astronomers to “remain in their lane” by any stretch. It is a call for them to think more critically about politics. There are too many who have swung not merely left but far left. There have even been calls recently on Twitter for more astronomers to be “verified”. And why? They seek authority - they have bought into the “trusted sources” narrative and demand that they be trusted in particular as experts on science “for the health of public discourse”. This is not counter culture: this is straight out of the social media giant, left leaning political ideology playbook. Collectivists are concerned for collectives. But that is quite different to being concerned with the well being of the greatest number. Concern for the well being of a collective is not identical to well being for the greatest number. “Healthy public discourse” is something like: discourse that does not challenge the prevailing “official” (usually political) narrative.
What we need to preserve is a tradition of criticism. A way of holding up ideas to the light and finding fault with them so that we can move forward. We do not need experts in astronomy falling back on the authority of their credentials. We do not want them to be parochially concerned about whether one advance in space science (like starlink) is a solution that generates absolutely zero additional problems (like satellite transits on deep space images) - we want them to be champions of progress and champions of those who make progress. So it would be far better for them - and everyone - were they enthusiastic supporters of the Elon Musk’s of the world. Sure: criticise Musk’s ideas too if and when deserved. But not because of his politics or wealth or because his attempt to bring internet technology to places it could not be had before affects your narrow but personal research project. Astronomers and the wealthy have a tradition of working together as benefactors and patrons in large part because they share a deep similarity: they are radically transforming our view of the world and our place in it. Sometimes they are coming from very different places and it seems their goals are not entirely aligned. But they are the catalysts in culture for change and especially for change in the right direction which we call progress. It is time for astronomers to hold fire on Elon Musk and the other billionaires. Perhaps when they do they might be surprised at the dawning of a new age of patronage. But the patrons have to be met halfway: and not with brickbats.
The most valuable thing you can offer to an idea