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Why Explore Space? A 1970 Letter to a Nun in Africa. (launiusr.wordpress.com)
360 points by mike_esspe on Aug 12, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 159 comments

I don't know if this makes me cruel, but whenever people talk about donating money to starving children in Africa, I always imagine the following: If I were to donate some amount of money to starving children in an impoverished nation every year I could, theoretically, bring some of them out of starvation. However, these children would then grow into adults, and then these adults would have children of their own. The number of these new children would almost certainly be higher than the number I originally helped bring out of famine, so at that point there would be just as many if not more starving children than we had to begin with. So in my mind the question really goes the other way, how does donating money to buy food for starving children in Africa improve Africa's condition in the long term? What problems caused these nations to produce more children than food and what is being done to eliminate the source of these problems, rather than just the symptoms?

When Bill Gates' wife began pushing him to work on issues of third-world health, this was more or less his argument against it. She dug up the statistics to show that this idea, while intuitive, is not supported by fact. As health improves-- and in particular as child mortality goes down-- birth rates fall accordingly.

As we all know, Gates got on board, and now funds a lot of health research and on-the-ground initiatives.

As I understand it, Gates funds health related research, e.g. clean drinking water or malaria. Your parent was discussing the simple provision of free food.

yeah, no bags of rice, AFAIK

Health generally improves with the underlying economy, not because of charity. The underlying economy is going to correlate with damn near other statistic one way or another.

More credibly, the "War on Poverty" was an abject failure in every way.

More credibly, the "War on Poverty" couldn't compete with the "War on the War on Poverty".

It's really simple. Imagine that you have no social security in your old age. Your children, who are very likely to die from malnutrition, are your ONLY resource. In the short term (generationally) it makes sense to try to have as many children as possible. That way maybe someone will still be alive to take care of you.

If you don't feel that pressure, there isn't that population explosion.

If you are referring to Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, you are wrong. It was a significant success and brought poverty rates down to the lowest levels the US had seen before or has seen since.


Of course we have more poverty now but keep in mind that most laws and policies associated with the war on poverty were stopped or reversed somehow or other.

Can you source your information on the abject failure of the "War on Poverty"in every way? I'm sure you were speaking in hyperbole so I'm not expecting that literally this be shown to be a failure in every way.

The term "War on Poverty" in the U.S. specifically refers to initiatives started by the Johnson administration. Do you refer this or some other war on poverty?

The argument is not that "charity improves healthcare" (though in some specific cases it does, locally), it's that since birth rates tend to fall, the claim that "saving a child will only increase the number of starving people in the future" doesn't hold.

I'm afraid that the difference it makes when we decreased infant mortality in a region, is the difference between having 8 children and having 5 children.

The problem is one of culture, education, and relative-wealth (and also whatever traits are infuenced by DNA). Everything else stems from that.

Sub-Sahara population has seen a decrease in infant mortality and at the same time has gone from 250M to 850M people in 30 years.

It's blowing up and I'm also afraid that the cause of all that is foreign intervention and artificial aid. In 2050 there will be 2 Billion people there. Who's going to help feed the hungry then?

Melinda Gates seems to support the idea of birth control in Africa.


Edits: She doesn't want it for population control.

By empowering women to decide whether or not they want to have children, it will still significantly reduce the birth rate.

I'm weary of these statistics as one can manipulate data to suit one's purpose. Source please?


That video does a very good job of explaining this. As child mortality decreases, family size goes down. I'm sure the data is manipulated to suit someone's purposes, but all seems reasonable to me...

Do some Googling. My grandparents were all born in Ireland from 1905-1920. My father's father was one of 6 children, my mother's mother 1 of 13. All families lost at least two children each that I'm aware of -- stillbirths were often kept secret.

The point is, when you have incredibly poor country, excessive influence of religion, poor health and a high child mortality rate, you have more children, both planned and unplanned.

I suspect that excessive influence of religion led to all those other problems.

Excessive influence of religion leads to poverty, poor health, and a high child mortality rate? Do you have any sources to back this besides a general feeling that religion is "bad"?

TED Talk Hans Rosling: Let my dataset change your mindset:

Religion has very little to do with the number of babies per woman. All the religions in the world are fully [able] to maintain their values and adapt to this new world. </quote> http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/hans_rosling_at_state.html

Yes religions can adapt, but of course they don't want to and needn't, so Rosling's reasoning isn't convincing. Utah has the highest birth rate in the US. I doubt that has very little to do with Mormonism.

Have you been to Utah? There isn't much else to do there...

It's not based on a general feeling. It's based on the fact that resources are limited. Any religion that successfully promotes "be fruitful and multiply" will certainly bump against that limit eventually. I can only suspect in any particular case because something else besides religion could be the main contributor to the bad things.

I think you mean wary? Here you can see that as infant mortality increases, population growth is nearly steady or even increases slightly. http://www.gapminder.org/world/#$majorMode=chart$is;shi=t;ly... (Note the log scale on the vertical axis.) You can "scrub" backward and forward in time with the slider at the bottom.

Play with the raw data as you like at Gapminder.org.

For example, here is a graph I created of infant mortality vs children per woman: http://www.bit.ly/QTPNBk (starts at 1900, press play to see changes to current)

Note that each axis has a small 'various sources' button under it that will cite specific sources.

You may also enjoy Hans Rosling's TED Talk on global population growth, as he gets into the details pretty thoroughly. https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_on_global_population_...

I would have liked to provide the source, but it was a New Yorker article that I read in the print edition.

Here's an "abstract" of the article, which hints at my synopsis: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/10/24/051024fa_fact_sp...

But what if child mortality is up mainly because of high birth rates? When their religion/culture calls for having as many kids as possible, it causes problems that lead to high child mortality. It's very difficult to change religion/culture.

This talk by Hans Rosling makes a pretty reasonable case for decoupling the notion of religion and birth rates.


Does he explain away the correlation in Utah? It seemed a safe bet that Utah has the US's highest birth rate, given Mormonism there. A search confirmed it. (Sorry I'm lazy on video sources.)

No he doesn't mention it from what I recall. The data discussed is broader (and more longitudinal) than that trend.

Personally I'd guess the birth rate there is a direct result of the church's push for more children, but I don't really know.

Fertility rates in poor countries correlate heavily against the number of children dying young (http://www.bit.ly/QrJnFj), as well as against the number of malnourished children (http://www.bit.ly/QrJArU). One intuitive explanation is that if you know that only a fraction of your children will survive to adulthood, you're likely to have more of them. Of course that's not the full explanation, and another reason is that the availability of birth control and sexual education in these countries tend to be poor.

Nevertheless, I think your worried about a scenario that for the most isn't very likely. Typical aid is not just used to buy food, but also to fund education and infrastructure investments, all of which has worked to lower the fertility rates in the past.

There are other reasons to hesitate in regards to the effectiveness of aid money, but IMHO this isn't one of them. :)

I'm on the same boat. Which is why I believe anyone who (in an ideal world) is seriously seeking to change the state of life in those poor countries should spend their money on creating jobs and "factories". By factory I don't mean silicon factories, but basic needs of those people, be it hospitals or modern agricultural facilities. But, sadly, in reality that can't happen. If you want to create jobs, you first need to have a powerful (and obviously not corrupt) central government. Without that, nothing significant can be done.

So, what should be done? I don't know. Education, a benevolent government, jobs, no drugs, secular & democratic laws... You can't have any of them without having others already in place. But, any progress is better than nothing. And in the long term, maybe

Afghanistan might be a good example. 30 years ago, a war between Soviets and US ruined the country and its (modestly functional) government. For the next 20 years they were "governed" by former US ally, the Taliban. Religious zealots who would kill girls if they wanted to go to school. Then US (thankfully) attacked the Taliban and for the last 5-6 years they've had some sort of a central government. It's (to some degree) corrupt, it's not efficient, it lacks technical knowledge, but still, it's a form of government and has some power and the desire to change the country. And they're making progress. 10 years ago Afghanistan was a forth-world country. A country from another century. But now, they've headed to the right direction. In 10 years (if the continue their progress), Afghanistan might very well become a country that people "might" consider living in (in the large cities at least - if they had the choice). It wouldn't become Norway, but it would be an average country instead of the hell it was 10 years ago.

Edit: I found a nice (read: sickeningly sad) article about Taliban and U.S. from 2001: http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/23860 The rest of the site is garbage, but this article is not.

Well thanks for the informative read. I don't agree with you that the rest of the site is garbage. Here is another good story I found there:


This one is of Miranda Gibson, who is a tree hugger sitting on top of the tree for 7 months, at a height of 60 meters. Her aim is to protect the felling of a forest around Tasmania.

Update: I do wonder on the juxtaposition of this mini story in the context of the OP's story (which makes a lot of sense to me BTW). So I don't know whether the answer lies in all of us pursuing our own extremes (e.g. Mars exploration on one hand and saving the the forest on the other hand). The latter extreme, of saving a forest - is it in some way similar to the view point the Nun was taking when she wrote that letter?

Projects like Kiva aim to develop industry in poor countries:


I'm sure it amuses you to know this site is blocked in Iran (by the government). Thanks, anyway!

Good question!

Firstly I would like to suggest that even if you can only tackle the symptom, not the cause, it would still be worthwhile - a patient with untreatable cancer should nonetheless get painkillers. You are correct that the number of people in the second generation would be higher than the number you bring out of famine. But if you do nothing the second generation would be even larger still since the fertility rate of the extremely poor is so high. Therefore simply alleviating the symptoms and not the causes of poverty (a) delays the suffering of hunger by a generation, and (b) reduces the total number people suffering in the second generation.

Of course, it would be far better to eliminate the cancer. In many cases it's difficult to know how effective the long-term treatment is, but in some cases the outcome can be measured quite well. Here's a great talk by Esther Duflo about measuring the effectiveness of aid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0zvrGiPkVcs In the book she co-authored called "Poor Economics" she mentions a study of a deworming program for children in Kenya. The study concluded that an extra year of deworming costing $1.36 USD PPP lead to a lifetime income gain of $3,269 USD PPP for the child. To me that is a slam-dunk evidence that aid can be effective in the long term.

> But if you do nothing the second generation would be even larger still since the fertility rate of the extremely poor is so high.

Obviously the population must eventually plateau or decline, due to finite resources.

I think it will be extremely difficult to alleviate the cause of poverty in many African countries. It seems that they have a high fertility rate mainly because their religion/culture demands it. It seems just as difficult to get the fertility rate down there as it would be in Utah (nigh impossible unless nature forces the issue).

Your entire view in this thread sounds very Ehrlichian to me.

Just to explain, Paul R. Ehrlich was wrong when he predicted hundreds of millions of Indians would die because of famines and people still ask questions to him about this just to amuse themselves. I believe anyone holding similar beliefs will be wrong again, at least for the next half century.

Young people are already dying in large numbers in some African countries.

Fair, people also were dying in India in the 60s and 90% of the population lived on less food than they needed every day (according to Amartya Sen), Ehrlich said it would get worse with famines because of lack of resources and hundred of millions starving to death, he was wrong and Amartya Sen argued that malnutrition in India correlates more with corruption than with lack of resources.

To be fair a great number of Indian children still suffers from malnutrition but my argument is that the situation improved because the world is not static as Ehrlich predicted, Africa will also improve in the long run with the advent of modern agriculture techniques.

> ... Africa will also improve in the long run with the advent of modern agriculture techniques.

In the long run that can't be true, when the population continues increasing. There's a practical limit to agricultural yield, even if output can be tripled sometimes. You could generalize that statement as "<unsustainable thing> will improve in the long run with the advent of <thing that kicks the can down the road>". The US debt can be substituted, for example. Always a better solution is to address the "unsustainable" aspect. One shouldn't be fooled into thinking the unsustainable thing became sustainable when the can got kicked down the road for a few decades.

Overpopulation leads to corruption. The situation becomes "every person for themself" to survive.

A fair point, but as a statistician your case is what we use to call hasty generalization, it's a logical fallacy if you cannot argue about it from the data. If it is unsustainable you just to show that it appears to be the case.

There's data out there and from what I have read African's fertility rate is lowering, albeit a little slower than some people wished it would. We just have to wait some more years and see what happen. I believe Africa will follow the footsteps of every developing country until now and will have a society of greater urban population and lower fertility rates with economic growth. India and China are still in their way following this path.

Thought provoking answer!

I'm not OP, but I always wondered: how do nations coming out of poverty (with high birth rates as part of life or tradition) culturally transition to a nation where low birth rates are the norm?

The scenario I'm thinking of is a nation that beats poverty and improves standard of living, but falls back into it because the population refuses to adapt and decrease the number of births.

I think it would be almost impossible for their culture to change. One way might be for the first world to pay monthly stipends to families that have no more than 2 kids. Then taper it off over many decades.

The thing that always bothered me about these arguments is that they always seem to assume that a life (indeed even a life lifted out of poverty) is a net loss for everyone. It is possible for a life to produce far more for others than it consumes. The entire western outlook seems based on this idea.

I would think that a life lifted from poverty, even temporarily through aid, has a much better chance of being one of these human++'s. Without quantifying (and denying) this possibility, calculating the value of aid seems impossible.

It doesn't make you cruel, but it does show you're taking a cheap cop-out. There are plenty of charities that work towards improving the local economies, which include some really interesting things like microloans. The 'starving children' is just an appeal to the heartstrings because sick children win more money than anything else.

You think like a piece of code with its many what if-else-than scenarios. This is a philosophical question and you are not nearly smart enough to even begin to understand the consequences (postive, or negative) of your helping someone in need. Every human being, be it a saint, or a murderer, has the right to not be hungry, and to have a shelter. The sad part is that there is someone above you in the social chain who is thinking exactly the same way about you. Maybe you deserve no help to get to the next stage in your life, because you know, these are all stages. Maybe they should just let you where you are. But no, we are not where we are today because we are Darwinians and let the fittest of us survive. We are where we are because some us want to further Human Kind without prejudice, all of it, the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, the well-fed, and the hungry.

Doesn't the injustice of that bother you? You are given the power to weigh up life and death, without any chance of ever starving yourself. Such naval gazing is stereotypical of people with full stomachs. Is basic human empathy such a bad reason to try and help?

> Is basic human empathy such a bad reason to try and help?

If the help does more harm than good in the long run, then obviously yes. Whether a particular course of action does more harm than good is open to debate.

I wonder what you would say if you were that starving child? Would you feel it is best to just die from lack of food because of the long term benefits of doing so?

You don't get. That's the problem: free food does not solve the starving child problem. It just creates more starving children.

That's a fallacy. "Free food" does not create more starving children. Whilst some famines are caused by over-population, it is far more likely that they are caused by other factors such as genocide campaigns, civil wars, refugee flows and episodes of extreme violence and state collapse.

Of course, if your solution to the "starving children" problem is to let them die of starvation, then you indeed have a final solution. And what a solution!

I am interested in where you are coming from. Personally, I would hate to look a starving child in the eye and deny them food to keep them alive. I would hate to look their parents in the eye and tell them that because they have four children that they aren't worthwhile keeping alive and they should drop dead from malnutrition.

So I do get it. My question remains the same - what would you say to a starving child? Or their parents as the child lay dying?

Free food almost certainly causes more starving children in any country whose main religion/culture demands "be fruitful and multiply".

> Whilst some famines are caused by over-population, it is far more likely that they are caused by other factors such as genocide campaigns, civil wars, refugee flows and episodes of extreme violence and state collapse.

It's also likely that all those other factors are greatly exacerbated by overpopulation, if not outright caused by it. Jared Diamond's book Collapse makes just that argument for the Rwandan Genocide event. Wikipedia: "Diamond theorized that population pressure was the main cause of the genocide. ... Rwanda's population density in 1990 was 760 people per square mile, one of the highest in the world. The population grew at over 3% a year. By 1985 all the land except the national parks had been cultivated."

> My question remains the same - what would you say to a starving child? Or their parents as the child lay dying?

If I was personally involved then I'd have a hard time not giving aid, even as I was confident I was making the problem worse in the long run. These age-old questions show the reason we insulate our leaders from problems on the ground, the better to allow them to make decisions that do the greatest good.

How do you know that limiting food aid would have the desired effect of limiting population growth? Do you think that people stop having sex just because their children die? I would argue that high population growth is a consequence of excessive mortality rather than the cause. This is evident in the drop in birth rate that tends to accompany development. This has even happened in countries that have traditionally objected to contraception (Italy).

You can search for the article "Why Foreign Aid Is Hurting Africa", which says "Aid is an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster." I can't prove that aid including its free food form contributes to population growth. I'm confident that it does from my studies.

> This is evident in the drop in birth rate that tends to accompany development.

I would argue that development follows a dropping birth rate, not the other way around. Poor people with 4+ kids can't contribute to development or otherwise improve their future. They're too busy each day focusing on basic survival. Unlike many African countries, Italy solved their cultural/religion problem. Now they largely ignore the Catholic Church on contraceptive issues.

Make up your mind. Is it a problem with their religion, or is it a problem with free food for the starving?

There's no contradiction. Religion/culture is the root cause of the problem. Free food makes the problem worse.

That is fundamentally just misanthropy. Peoples actions are based on free will, and are often logical if you take the time to understand the world from their point of view. A subsistence farmer with no pension scheme has an economic imperative to have lots of children. It is insane to suggest that letting our farmers children die is going to change that. Children are a consequence of sex, not religion or culture. Do you want me to draw you a diagram to explain how it works?

If your diagram can explain away the fact that Utah consistently has the US's highest birth rate, then yes. Children largely are a consequence of religion/culture in many parts of the world. The parents use their free will to do what religion/culture has told them is good to do.

The subsistence farmer who has lots of children to help him dooms his kids. What's insane is enabling farmers to do that by saving their kids and nothing else. Since it's economic the farmer may well have even more kids to do even better economically.

So only those with a religion that does not encourage many children (or those with no religion) should be fed? If so, let's take it further - should we actively go around refusing food to those who want large families?

No one should get free food except temporarily for events that can't be reasonably predicted / planned for. No other conditions need apply. Doing otherwise does more harm than good.

You have pretty much repeated that in every comment of yours in this thread. Hope we all could have a healthy discussion without gross generalizations and prevent Ycombinator HN from turning into another r/atheism.

Healthy discussion can include the word "religion". I haven't made any generalizations that haven't also been suggested by much research by others.

Including the word "religion" and asserting a position on it via gross generalization is two things. Going through the thread it is just a shame to find you repeat the same mantra (no pun intended) over and over in the every comment without providing a substantial source or proof to back it up. In other words just like a typical discussion you find over at r/atheism.

He can't know that. To be clear, overpopulation is a problem - but the solution is not to stop trying to save those who are dying!

Catholic doctrine would teach that contraception does more harm than good. They, like you are measuring harm badly.

You are spot on in the problems of "scalability". In my opinion I think the efforts for example of the Clinton Global Initiative are highly important, as they target less the "starvation" problem, but trying to break traditional gender roles. By giving girls an education it should help them to define themselves beyond the traditional housewife role and limit the reproductive "ambitions". The promotion of contraceptive is of cause another tool in order to reduce a further growth of the population in certain regions. But it is a very sensitive subject, that is rarely discussed openly (i.e. who are we to tell other nations to change their cultural traditions etc).

That is what most people think at first but it is wrong. Poverty with its associated lack of education and career opportunities generally causes high birth rates.

Countries that improve living standards usually get lower birth rates as a result. This usually results from better education for women more career opportunities for women, lower child mortality, better financial certainty, etc. This effect has been seen in almost every country to undergo a significant improvement in living standards and it is pretty much known to be true.

I think this logic is fine if you then donate to a cause that seeks to solve the longer term problems. But otherwise despite being a short term solution, feeding a hungry child means a hell of a lot to that person. And if you found yourself in a similar situation I think you would be happy for someone to skip the logical arguement and just give you a meal.

That's why free food alone doesn't work.

You have to couple it with healthcare, education, infrastructure and economy reform (because the famine was most likely caused by a failing economy) and maybe political reform. It's more or less rebooting the place.

Famines in the modern age are rarely caused by anything other than war and bad local governance. If one approaches famine from the perspective that the issue is one of food shortage alone then they will be working on the wrong problem.

It doesn't make you any more cruel than a gardener who destroys some of the buds on a plant so the few that remain are bigger.

However, you may wish to consider whether you are the gardener of Africans and whether humans should be pruned.

To be blunt, I believe this is a cruel statement. What you are saying is that someone who is starving shouldn't be saved because they will grown into an adult who will have children.

You then suggest that looking at the causes of population explosions should be investigated and resolved, and therefore until this is fixed then children should starve.

A cruel sort of logic indeed.

IMHO, logic can only be correct or wrong. There is no such thing as cruel logic.

Well, there's a non sequitur if ever I've heard one!

I said a cruel sort of logic. His logic is wrong. Misused logic is a sort of logic. Unfortunately, his misused logic leads to cruelty. Sort of like the logic that says you need to forcibly sterilize disabled people to reduce those who have genetic abnormalities from polluting the overall population.

Which child will grow up to revolutionize their nation's politics?

That question presupposes that the only people it is worthwhile to save from starvation is the one who grows up to make a large impact on their country. It's the sort of logic that I find very dangerous.

The question presupposes that you cannot possibly determine this in advance and therefore all are worth saving.

Let us say that you knew with absolute certainty that none of them would grow up to revolutionise their society. Would you still save them, or would you let them die?

It's a pointless question as it is absolutely impossible to predict. So we continue to attempt to save them all. They will make other contributions too, or their children.

So you value people solely by their contributions to society. I do not.

By their potential to be meaningful in the framework of our existence. Yes.

I am not advocating for the use of probabilities, but instead possibilities.

It certainly reads better than "We need to funnel some money to the guys who build the rockets so that, if the Russians get frisky, we can credibly threaten to can end the world."

Or "99% of US Congressmen own shares in the military–industrial(–congressional) complex, so we need any excuse to funnel $trillions over there"

I wish they kept dumping more and more money into NASA instead of just directly into the military.

NASA is part of the military-industrial complex.

See the first link joering2 posted. If you look at the top 10 defense contractors you'll find that several of them are also Nasa contractors.


That's my point, I want as much of the "let's fund the military-industrial complex" money as possible to go to NASA. Right now they're struggling on funding.

It seems like NASA is always "struggling" to get funding, when in reality, there have been very few years when their budget wasn't higher than the previous year[0], even when taking inflation into account.

[0] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budget_of_NASA

And yet there are still science programs canceled half way through development.

Man if that's true it really ruined my day. Do you have proof?

Do you need proof? If so you can watch the 60 minutes expose on their insider trading: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7388130n/

They don't just do this in the military industrial complex, they do it across the board, making decisions that benefit their portfolios and constructing their portfolios so their decisions get benefits from laws being passed.



> Do you need proof?

Yes. What kind of a question is this?

Kevin, we are not in Kansans (or Memphis) anymore!

Top 100 Defense Contractors (most privately owned) 2007: [1]

Further, histories like the one with Chertoff [2] makes U.S. politics really a dirty place: spend trillions of scared US tax payers' money on frying them with cancer in the name of fight on terror with Al Qaeda (quick hint: while we fight them here in US (and of course spend most of your tax money on it), we ally with them somewhere else at the same time [3]).

[1] http://www.govexec.com/magazine/2007/08/top-100-defense-cont...

[2] http://gawker.com/5437499/why-is-michael-chertoff-so-excited...

[3] http://www.redstate.com/streiff/2011/03/27/us-allies-with-al...

It's not true. If it was nearly that simple, it would be a lot easier to fix.

Dingdingding. It's more that military contractors have jobs in literally every district in the country, which makes anything done against them 'hurting jobs', etc. There's a lot of money funneled in that direction, but it isn't because of cronyism or anything- just pure hard corporate strategy choices.

But who would fix that problem? Congress?

We're talking about changing fundamental aspects of our society, not patching some code.

It would require a massive cultural shift, on a number of levels.

The timing doesn't match--this might have been the answer ten years or so earlier--the intercontinental ballistic missiles had long existed in 1970. But, preventing another world war from happening, which is what nuclear rockets did, probably saved many more lives than any humanitarian help could have.

I don't buy the argument. A $100b space mission is going to have a bigger benefit to the desperately poor than a $100b medical research program? No way.

But then, why does the space program need to be defended like that? People prefer buying big TVs, big cars, big houses instead of giving the money to starving Africans. So why not view the space program as just an extension of that?

Because hedonism isn't really a good argument when being offered to a nun.

Because the government is the one spending the money.

A more curt, but more direct response would be: As a Christian Nun, you wouldn't even be in Zambia if it weren't for explorers increasing the bounds of our knowledge. Apart from the Copts in Egypt, there's not a lot of 'native' Christianity in Africa.

I doubt it would have the same impact; I don't think the Catholic church is anticipating the conversion of godless Martians.

Given the location she may have been a C of E nun, but if she was Catholic, another curt response would have been: Why doesn't the Catholic Church spend its incredible wealth on the starving children? Why is it immune from the question of 'what's more important than hungry kids'? The Catholic Church is an astoundingly wealthy organisation and could make a mint from sales of both art and property, both of which they have plenty lying unused.

On the other hand exploration and colonization can make place for many more billions of potential Catholics and ensure the sect survival in case of a global extermination event.

A relevant quote:

> When he [Michael Faraday] demonstrated his apparatus [the dynamo] to His Majesty's Government, the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, asked, "Of what use is it?" To which Faraday replied: "I don't know, but I'll wager that some day you'll tax it."

- Michael Faraday




We will tax space in good time my fellow skeptics.

All in good time.

I did not know the SU actually turned off all radio transmissions and sent out ships to assist in the recovery of Apollo 13. That is an impressive display of human compassion, even inmidst the Cold War (though the cynic in me assumes there were ulterior motives, as well).

So the argument that research for the sake of research is worthwhile is perfectly sound, the condescending "let me explain to you how a budget works" and "it's not my decision to spend the money" parts certainly rubs me the wrong way.

How on Earth is that condescending?

How is a nun in middle of Africa meant to have even a basic understanding of how a specific government's budgeting and economic system works?

I am willing to bet the vast majority of Americans themselves (to this day) have no idea of even the basics so simply explained by Dr Stuhlinger, yet it was a critical part of the bigger picture.

I thought it weakened the piece. The story of the microscope made the point, the letter could have been ended there and been much shorter/stronger.

Weakened the piece? The microscope-story was just fluff to prime the reader to be open to the idea that science can benefit humanity. It was loosely based on real events, and the quotes from the count assuredly are made up.

Still, a good story though. Had he ended there, the letter would lack any real substance to argue his point.

> "he microscope-story was just fluff to prime the reader to be open to the idea that science can benefit humanity."

Not just that, but to drive home that although the benefits of research may not be known at the time they are nevertheless existent.

Because the obvious response to 'how the budget works' is 'well then change the way the budget works'. I'm not sure if it's 'condescending' per se, but it did take away from the power of the letter.

>How is a nun in middle of Africa meant to have even a basic understanding of how a specific government's budgeting and economic system works?

She can't have read a few books on economics? His explanation was pretty basic and nothing that couldn't be found in econ 101 textbooks. He essentially just assume she was uneducated.

When communicating with an unknown audience you can't make any assumptions of pre-existing knowledge. Especially if that knowledge is considered essential to the topic at hand. If you do otherwise it will leave the audience confused, or confident but with potential misunderstandings.

If this were in person, he might have been able to ask, "What do you know about the US's method of setting a budget and taxation?" and tailored his response after that. Since it was a letter, greater caution was needed.

Are you offended by the first chapter or two of nearly every programming language book that explains what variables, conditionals, arrays and the like are? If you know it, you can skip it. If you don't, you can read it to have a better foundation for the rest of the text.

A nun, in the 1970s, in Zambia, is not going to have easy access to economics textbooks.

As if she lived there her whole life, never had a standard education, never had any opportunity whatsoever to access a standard library?

Some quick Google Books searches indicates that Sister Mary Jucunda might have been a nun for maybe as much as 20-30 years by then (someone by her name shows up in various documents from the Catholic church dating back quite far). While I have no idea how much of her life she spent in Zambia, it is quite possible that she received her "standard education" in the 30's or 40's.

It would seem quite reasonable for a nun who received her regular education that early to possibly have grown up going to a religious school somewhere where the idea of teaching topics such as economics to a woman would not have been particularly favoured, and/or where the use of a "standard library" to read texts outside of the curriculum would have been discouraged.

In other words, depending on the wording of the original letter, it might very well have been entirely reasonable to assume that she would not have had any knowledge of economics (for that matter, you could assume a fairly substantial percentage of adults today would benefit from the explanation he gave).

I did not find that comment condescending, though I expected to when he mentioned that he was going to explain how the budget worked. In fact, the thing that struck me while reading the entirety of the piece was how well he advocated for his position and explained difficult ideas in an accessible way while not talking down to the nun or criticizing her for not sharing his point of view. If all scientists could write in such an effective way their politics would be much better received I'm sure.

Ok, so the story with microscope was a good one. I was initially shortsighted. But coming back to the recent Mars mission, anyone has any ideas, more or less accurate/detailed, of how this particular mission will/could benefit our civilization? This is a serious question.

Unlike other mars rovers, Curiousity isn't solar powered. It's nuclear powered. RTGs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioisotope_thermoelectric_gen...) are not new, but I have no doubt that plenty of refinements went into the process to make this one better and more efficient.

Now what if this is the next fuel source for cars? We could dramatically cut down on our use of fossil fuels. That's pretty world changing.

The automated landing represented a huge engineering challenge as well. Lots of lessons learned can likely be transferred to earthly pursuits. Imagine a rescue helicopter that can automatically fly into dangerous situations and save people. Imagine robots that are faster and more efficient at producing or harvesting food.

Then of course, every time we land on a planet, we get better at it. The earth has a finite surface area. Barring major catastrophes, we'll probably fill it up eventually. If the experiments of today can provide a place for the people of the future to move, I think that will be the biggest contribution.

I should point that while engineering the skycrane was no doubt very difficult, and provided all sorts of lessons and solutions, that if we wanted to develop autonomous helicopters for use on Earth, the best way to do it is infact to develop autonomous helicopters for use on Earth [1] [2].

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northrop_Grumman_MQ-8_Fire_Scou... [2] http://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/2012/07/marine-kmax-bea...

Great read, thanks Randall! [+1].

Interesting points, but I don't believe in next 100 years we will be able to live on Mars, or there will be enough justification to move there and spend trillion to pursue that vision (of course this mission only gets us closer). Not only its still extremely expensive to fly there, further the only way to live there is under the shelter, which would cost hundreds of times more than building something similar on Earth.

One could only hope that down within the further explorations, there will be possibilities to either mine or produce something that Mars' atmosphere is perfect for, and something that would cost much more to accomplish here on Earth. Eventually, possible monetary gains would create entire new industry with trillion poured in. Wonder what Mars atmosphere is suitable to produce.

Well the instant someone invents the fusion reactor, all that HE3 on the moon is going to be worth mining...

I was wondering about that nuclear power engine. Is it safe?

Because on the one hand they spend all this effort to make sure all the components that go into space are absolutely sterile, in order to not accidentally contaminate the environment on Mars [this really is high priority to NASA], and on the other hand you fly a nuclear reactor there, without anyone or anything to make sure it's contained in the event it might start leaking or something.

1: Development of autonomous robots. The light-time delay forces autonomy.

2: Possibility of discovering signs of prior life on Mars.

3: Baby steps on the way to developing a more robust space presence.

I don't want to take the time to flesh these out.

You could argue with all of them. You could grant them, and argue about cost/benefit.

But ultimately, it's exploration, and there are no guarantees what will turn out, so arguing cost/benefit when benefit is unknown is not an analytical process.

I'd say that you are still being very shortsighted. Research and discovery are usually a very long progress. Maybe there is something on this mission that directly benefits someone else and maybe there isn't. The fact that you're asking means you completely miss the point.

When first transistor was invented, they haven't thought of microcomputers or mobile phones. Whey would not imagine CAD systems or modern biomedicine.

When first microscope was constructed, the author did not and could not know anything about bacteria or anything other microscopic.

Your question is unanswerable yet.

Got it now?

But coming back to the man grinding the lenses for the count, who at the time had any idea what use his particular occupation could have benefitted their civilization?

We're learning more about Mars. It's pretty much precisely the same benefit Spain, France, Portugal, and Britain derived from early expeditions to the New World.

It's fundamental research. You don't know what you will get out of it, only that you will get it.

Does anyone know how this letter first came to be published?

Update: Google Books answered the question for me:

> Dr. Stuhlinger responded to the sister in a letter that was published by NASA/George C. Marshall Space Center in 1970 titled "Why Explore Space?"

[1] http://books.google.com/books?id=qXuLydSqzDQC&lpg=PA55&#...

This is also a perfect parallel to CEOs who have to justify to their shareholders why they spend so much money on R&D.

Well, US produces lots of surplus every year. We don't give them out. Instead, we burn them. Really now?

"You may ask now whether I personally would be in favor of such a move by our government. My answer is an emphatic yes. Indeed, I would not mind at all if my annual taxes were increased by a number of dollars for the purpose of feeding hungry children, wherever they may live."

Amen to that.

Coupled with improving the effectiveness of distribution of aid to recipients, which would involve increasing the cooperation of the recipient governments and decreasing the corruption of those same governments and independent thugs, alluded to in the letter.

And now it gets complicated. Money is necessary but far from sufficient, and the problem is very much not lack of resources.

Spending more dollars does not feed starving children. Hunger is not a problem that is caused by a lack of food, we have plenty and also plenty of resource to feed every living person. Hunger is a political problem, caused by corrupt, malfunctioning government, or no government at all.

This letter is timeless, and provides such brilliant perspective. It's a fantastic answer to questions I've also been thinking about.

As an aside, I wonder if something so convincing could be written about military spending.

I think you can certainly make an argument for military spending in terms of the side benefits associated with developing any complex technology, but I don't think the societal cost of increased militarization justifies military spending.

Only if it is done right.

"Tell me, do you plan to report on the millions we've saved by advancing medical technology or kept from starvation with our intelli-crops? All those breakthroughs, military funding, honey." -- Tony Stark, Iron Man.

I agree with TheComedian that the drawbacks mitigate the benefits a lot, though. The thing about space exploration is that the drawbacks are purely speculative (alien regard, exoplanet contamination, etc.) and are a lot easier to dismiss.

He answered that after a fashion. Military spending has the potential to bring about many of the same scientific, engineering and medical discoveries, but at the cost of increasing the conflict driving many of the societal problems that they could solve (poverty and disease in war torn countries -- see Afghanistan in the 1980s, caught in the crossfire).

I'd love to compare $billions in expenditure / angry letters from conservative nuns, for both NASA and the Department of Defense.

Even better would add the estimated lives saved by NASA technologies and DoD bombs.

Somebody said "It's not by looking at improving the candles that we would have discovered electricity.". Like fundamental research, a lot of people are having a hard time to understand that it is a long term investment.

>He was a member of the German rocket development team at Peenemünde

Just the guy to be answering ethical questions...

He was also drafted into the Wehrmacht to fight on the Eastern front, was wounded in the Battle of Moscow, and was the only member of his platoon to survive Stalingrad.

The world isn't some Hollywood movie where the good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated.

Anyone who discounts a thoughtful response based on some other criteria than that found in that response is not someone qualified to comment about ethics.

The important things are not what he discusses but what he doesn't discuss. For instance, why the space program is supported instead of other initiatives in science and technology or the connection between the space program with defense and propaganda. On the other side of the coin, he doesn't address the use of foreign aid as a tool of international relations and how it destroys local markets for food production. How corruption and lack of infrastructure often thwart well-meaning programs.

He was a smart guy who could spin a good yarn and seemed to care. I sincerely doubt that he did and don't value his opinion.

You were doing pretty well there, then dove back into the ad hominem. Who he is as a person is entirely irrelevant, if you want to criticise the letter then criticise the letter, not the man.

I am talking about my emotions, yes. All I can say, if you don't like it, is that I am sorry. But I don't believe one can have an entirely objective discussion on this topic which will arrive at an incontrovertible answer. Most tech inclined people (e.g. HN readership) are positively biased towards the space program. I am not, despite the fact that I fit the profile. I think it's science done for the wrong reasons. In addition, I don't like this guy and I expect to disagree with him and I can't change that.

The issue is not that you don't agree with other people here. The issue is that you were disagreeing incorrectly.

I think the fact that someone was an actual Nazi is enough to raise doubt about any moral arguments he makes.

did you even read the other comments?

"He was also drafted into the Wehrmacht to fight on the Eastern front" doesn't seem like he had a lot of choice there...

Einstein was German as well. Do we discount him as well?

Most of our early rocket scientists were ex-German scientists taken from Nazi Germany.

That's classic ad hominem logic.

This guy has incredible tact, and knows his audience well.

> Ever since this picture was first published, voices have become louder and louder warning of the grave problems that confront man in our times: pollution, hunger, poverty, urban living, food production, water control, overpopulation.

He even took care not to mention climate change, which I assume was in case the reader has a strong bias against it.

That letter was written in 1970.

The possibility of human-caused climate change did not start come to the awareness of the general public until 1988, and did not become a political issue until this millennium.

He therefore cannot legitimately be criticized for his inability to predict where science would go in future decades. However he can legitimately be praised for being prescient about the role of satellites in researching a number of environmental problems, including global warming.

"he can legitimately be praised for being prescient about the role of satellites in researching a number of environmental problems"

Good catch to notice that. I was impressed this too, but didn't post until I saw your reply.

To me, Earth remote sensing is the most clear-cut example of near-term benefit to humanity by space technologies. It's amazing what can be done -- way beyond inputs for weather forecasts.

You can assess health of forest canopy from space (because you can measure water content of leaves -- it's a delicate measurement, but it can be done). (Hyperspectral radiometer)

You can measure full-air-column CO2, CO, and other gases, from space.

You can measure sea surface salinity and temperature, and even surface wind velocity, from space. (microwave radiometer, radar scatterometer)

You can measure tiny post-earthquake land deformations -- not at selected sites, but continuously over a broad area. (Radar interferometry)

All this is way beyond where it started, with pictures of cloud formations. Having these physical inputs allows much better modeling and prediction of all kinds of activity: weather/ecology/seismicity.

I'm not sure climate change was particularly well-known in 1970.

Not true. While not as widely known, it was still causing concern amongst scientists. Wikipedia is particularly helpful here: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_climate_change_scien...

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