RIP Arecibo

The National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) is an observatory located in Arecibo, Puerto Rico and funded by the US National Science Foundation and NASA. Built in 1963, the 1,000 foot diameter radio telescope was the largest single-aperture telescope ever built until China built a 50% larger scope in 2016. Recently steel support cables holding the telescope 500 feet above a natural sinkhole began to snap. This week, the entire structure collapsed. Thankfully, no one was injured.
This large spectacular telescope in its jungle setting appeared in a James Bond movie, Goldeneye, and in the movie Contact as well as other movies and TV programs. The initial interest for such an observatory arose in the late 1950s in order to understand the re-entry of nuclear warhead equipped ICBMs versus decoys. As a scientific instrument, Arecibo supported a Nobel prize, the discovery of organic molecules in space, the first discovery of a neutron star, discovery of the first exoplanets, as well as being the ear of SETI and the mouth of METI. SETI is the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and METI is the Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (to a star 25,000 light-years away).
Critics of scientific research always raise the red herring question, “Why spend so much money on this when you could feed the poor with those funds?” (The question is similar to Judas’ question to Jesus.) The real reason people raise this question is that they resent paying any taxes and they view government expenditures on research as frivolous things that industry could do more efficiently.
The problem is that industry will never support projects like Arecibo, the space program, or theoretical research, because it is either too risky, too expensive or the payoff is too far in the future. What happens when we lose vital research capabilities is that China and Russia step in to take our place. When we fail to maintain our technological lead and our “intellectual capital,” other countries take over and the profits go elsewhere. How do you spell economic suicide?

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