Monday, February 16, 2009

The Saga of Gravity Probe B

This is a fascinating coverage of the history of the Gravity Probe B and also the tenacity of its champion, Stanford physicist Francis Everitt, in keeping it alive and running.

I continue to be amazed at something like this. You have a science experiment that is trying to test one of the most fundamental and important aspect of our universe, and it struggles to continue to exist while operating under such puny budget when compared to the cost of other things (I believe you can come up with your own list of what these "other things" are). So you force the researcher to go begging for money just to continue with the original mission. This partial funding of something and cutting it of before it completes its mission is INSANE!



Hadronic Chaos said...

Gp-B is an experiment that ran over budget and failed to produce results with anywhere near the advertised error bars. It will produce no ground breaking results. Other experiments have already indirectly observed these effects.

Basically, GpB has two things in its favor: 1.) its a direct measurement of these GR effects 2.) LISA, the space based gravity wave interferometer, depends on the same flight technology (no drag inertial flight systems).

Other import space missions, with much broader scientific impacts, like Spitzer, Fermi, IXO, and JDEM, must fight for the little cash available. I'm friends with some of the GpB guys, but you eventually have to say enough is enough. I wish them all the best, but don't expect the government to bail them out again.

Doug Natelson said...

When I was a grad student, we joked that GPB was "The Project that Ate Stanford". Unfortunately their incredibly challenging experiment just didn't work as well as they'd hoped in some ways. I'd said a decade ago that either they'd confirm GR and everyone would say, "so what?"; or they'd find something goofy and no one would believe the results. I, too, wish them the best, but the fact is that this project has been going since the mid-1960s, when Leonard Schiff gave a talk at Cal Tech (attended by my future thesis advisor) and said that they'd fly GPB within 2-3 years. During my time at Stanford in the 1990s they were pulling tens of millions of dollars a year.