Science’s humankind shield

We need to reconsider where the notion that “science benefits all humans” comes from and whether it is really beneficial.

I was prompted to this after coming upon a short article in Sky & Telescope about the Holmdel Horn antenna in New Jersey being threatened by a local redevelopment plan. In the 1960s, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson used the Holmdel Horn to record the first observational evidence of the cosmic microwave background, which is radiation leftover from – and therefore favourable evidence for – the Big Bang event. In a manner of speaking, then, the Holmdel Horn is an important part of the story of humans’ awareness of their place in the universe.

The US government designated the site of the antenna a ‘National Historic Landmark’ in 1989. On November 22, 2022, the Holmdel Township Committee nonetheless petitioned the planning board to consider redeveloping the locality where the antenna is located. According to the Sky & Telescope article, “If the town permits development of the site, most likely to build high-end residences, the Horn could be removed or even destroyed. The fact that it is a National Historic Landmark does not protect it. The horn is on private property and receives no Federal funds for its upkeep.” Some people have responded to the threat by suggesting that the Holmdel Horn be moved to the sprawling Green Bank Telescope premises in Virginia. This would separate it from the piece of land that can then be put to other use.

Overall, based on posts on Twitter, the prevailing sentiment appears to be that the Holmdel Horn antenna is a historic site worthy of preservation. One commenter, an amateur astronomer, wrote under the article:

“The Holmdel Horn Antenna changed humanity’s understanding of our place in the universe. The antenna belongs to all of humanity. The owners of the property, Holmdel Township, and Monmouth County have a historic responsibility to preserve the antenna so future generations can see and appreciate it.”

(I think the commenter meant “humankind” instead of “humanity”.)

The history of astronomy involved, and involves, thousands of antennae and observatories around the world. Even with an arbitrarily high threshold to define the ‘most significant’ discoveries, there are likely to be hundreds (if not more) of facilities that made them and could thus be deemed to be worthy of preservation. But should we really preserve all of them?

Astronomers, perhaps among all scientists, are likelier to be most keenly aware of the importance of land to the scientific enterprise. Land is a finite resource that is crucial to most, if not all, realms of the human enterprise. Astronomers experienced this firsthand when the Indigenous peoples of Hawai’i protested the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, leading to a long-overdue reckoning with the legacy of telescopes on this and other landmarks that are culturally significant to the locals, but whose access to these sites has come to be mediated by the needs of astronomers. In 2020, Nithyanand Rao wrote an informative article about how “astronomy and colonialism have a shared history”, with land and access to clear skies as the resources at its heart.

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One argument that astronomers arguing in favour of building or retaining these controversial telescopes have used is to claim that the fruits of science “belong to all of humankind”, including to the locals. This is dubious in at least two ways.

First, are the fruits really accessible to everyone? This doesn’t just mean the papers that astronomers publish based on work using these telescopes are openly and freely available. It also requires that the topics that astronomers work on need to be based on the consensus of all stakeholders, not just the astronomers. Also, who does and doesn’t get observation time on the telescope? What does the local government expect the telescope to achieve? What are the sorts of studies the telescope can and can’t support? Are the ground facilities equally accessible to everyone? There are more questions to ask, but I think you get the idea that claiming the fruits of scientific labour – at least astronomic labour – are available to everyone is disingenuous simply because there are many axes of exclusion in the instrument’s construction and operation.

Second, who wants a telescope? More specifically, what are the terms on which it might be fair for a small group of people to decide what “all of humankind” wants? Sure, what I’m proposing sounds comical – a global consensus mechanism just to make a seemingly harmless statement like “science benefits everyone” – but the converse seems equally comical: to presume benefits for everyone when in fact they really accrue to a small group and to rely on self-fulfilling prophecies to stake claims to favourable outcomes.

Given enough time and funds, any reasonably designed international enterprise, like housing development or climate financing, is likely to benefit humankind. Scientists have advanced similar arguments when advocating for building particle supercolliders: that the extant Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe has led to advances in medical diagnostics, distributed computing and materials science, apart from confirming the existence of the Higgs boson. All these advances are secondary goals, at best, and justify neither the LHC nor its significant construction and operational costs. Also, who’s to say we wouldn’t have made these advances by following any other trajectory?

Scientists, or even just the limited group of astronomers, often advance the idea that their work is for everyone’s good – elevating it to a universally desirable thing, propping it up like a shield in the face of questions about whether we really need an expensive new experiment – whereas on the ground its profits are disseminated along crisscrossing gradients, limited by borders.

I’m inclined to harbour a similar sentiment towards the Holmdel Horn antenna in the US: it doesn’t belong to all of humanity, and if you (astronomers in the US, e.g.) wish to preserve it, don’t do it in my name. I’m indifferent to the fate of the Horn because I recognise that what we do and don’t seek to preserve is influenced by its significance as an instrument of science (in this case) as much as by ideas of national prestige and self-perception – and this is a project in which I have never had any part. A plaque installed on the Horn reads: “This site possesses national significance in commemorating the history of the United States of America.”

I also recognise the value of land and, thus, must acknowledge the significance of my ignorance of the history of the territory that the Horn currently occupies as well as the importance of reclaiming it for newer use. (I am, however, opposed in principle to the Horn being threatened by the prospect of “high-end residences” rather than affordable housing for more people.) Obviously others – most others, even – might feel differently, but I’m curious if a) scientists anywhere, other than astronomers, have ever systematically dealt with push-back along this line, and b) the other ways in which they defend their work at large when they can’t or won’t use the “benefits everyone” tack.