P. Z. Myers said he’d vote for Tyson for president. Tyson’s point, made on Bill Maher’s program, is certainly something that should be part of our political discussions today.
This is not a new idea by any stretch, that doing great things and dreaming great things to do is one of the things that makes America what it is, in its better incarnations.
Physicist Robert Wilson — who had been the youngest group leader at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project — gave a brilliant defense to a Congressional committee about the value of pure research, while working on the project that eventually became Fermilab. Wikipedia has a good, concise description of the event, and an account of Wilson’s words:
In 1967 he took a leave of absence from Cornell to assume directorship of the not-yet-created National Accelerator Laboratory which was to create the largest particle accelerator of its day at Batavia, Illinois. In 1969, Wilson was called to justify the multimillion-dollar machine to the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Bucking the trend of the day, Wilson emphasized it had nothing at all to do with national security, rather:
It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.
Thanks to Wilson’s leadership—in a full-steam ahead style very much adopted from Lawrence, despite his firings—the facility was completed on time and under budget. Originally named the National Accelerator Laboratory, it was renamed the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab for short) in 1974, after famed Italian physicist Enrico Fermi; the facility centered around a four-mile circumference, 400 GeV accelerator. Unlike most government facilities, Fermilab was designed to be aesthetically pleasing. Wilson wanted Fermilab to be an appealing place to work, believing that external harmony would encourage internal harmony as well, and labored personally to keep it from looking like a stereotypical “government lab”, playing a key role in its design and architecture. It had a restored prairie which served as a home to a herd of American Bisons, ponds, and a main building purposely reminiscent of a cathedral in Beauvais, France. Fermilab’s Central Laboratory building was later named Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall in his honor.
It’s time to dream, America. It’s time again to make America worth defending.
- There are other things that make America worth defending, of course; we soaked some of the ideas here in the Bathtub four years ago