The Allure of Telescopic Rhetoric

“After years of preparatory studies, NASA is formally starting an astrophysics mission designed to help unlock the secrets of the universe — the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).”

—NASA Press Release, Feb. 18, 2016 (emphasis added)

Illustration of NASA’s WFIRST Telescope, Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/Conceptual Image Lab

Is the universe deliberately keeping things from us? If so, what is it not telling us? Why does the universe keep the truth locked away?

The more I ask questions that ascribe motives to the universe, the less scientific I sound. Yet, as the above NASA quote shows, the rhetoric of scientific publicity often summons metaphorical language. The engineering required to build, deploy, and operate the above space telescope may be the application of pure science. The language used to promote and justify its funding to politicians, journalists, and tax payers, is not purely scientific.

Elsewhere in the press release that includes the above quote, NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld uses the phrase “unravel the mysteries” to describe the telescope’s capabilities. Late in the release, project scientist Neil Gehrels uses the term “treasure trove” to describe the anticipated scientific return from the telescope’s data.

Such language is alluring, plays to our innate sense of curiosity, and includes a catchy alliteration to boot. Speaking as a biased space enthusiast, I think these stimulating phrases are quite appropriate to the cause of justifying the considerable undertaking of deploying a space telescope.

However, it is a good reminder that if we are to be wise and effective citizens of a technological society, we need not only develop scientific and engineering conversance. We also need to be well-practiced in written and spoken rhetoric which science pulls from our literary traditions.

Here is a link to the entire press release:

Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

Crisis, Thy Name is Muse

There will be grave consequences if you do not read this blog post in its entirety.

Actually there may not be any consequences at all. But I am thinking about the question of how a speaker creates a sense of urgency in his audience. How does he or she make the listener truly listen? And once he has his audience’s full attention, how does he persuade them to change their thinking, or to act on his entreaties?

Portrait of Charles Bolden, NASA
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

For NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who on July 8, 2009 addressed a Senate Committee which would decide if he could become NASA’s Administrator, the writer’s strategy involved invoking a sense of crisis. Here is a link to PDF copy of Bolden’s speech:

Statement of Charles Bolden
Before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
United States Senate
July 8, 2009

After acknowledgments and a brief personal history of how Bolden broke through racial barriers to secure a career as an officer in the Marine Corps, he uses the word “crises” for the first time in his speech. He does so speaking of missions in which soldiers in his charge provided humanitarian assistance in the Horn of Africa. Later from a speeding perch in Low Earth Orbit, he witnessed environmental crisis in the Amazon Rain Forest. He also reflects on civil rights crises and anti-war strife in the 1960s.

Next he quotes Dr. Shirley Jackson of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who speaks of “…a quiet crisis building in the United States—a crisis that could jeopardize the nation’s pre-eminence and well-being.” Bolden quotes an entire paragraph of Jackson’s remarks in which she uses the word crisis four times. The crisis involves a disparity between the demand for trained scientists and engineers and the inadequate rate at which the United States generates them.

After listing four challenges the nation must confront, Bolden returns to the word crisis. “Today we face a crisis of opportunity.” Yet, this is also the final time Bolden invokes this dissembling term before the Senate Committee charged with confirming or denying his appointment to oversee NASA. For by this point, Bolden has begun using a term he favors for the remainder of his remarks: challenge.

Where crisis comes in the form of threatening developments—violence and suffering in particular—challenge binds itself more likably to the notion of opportunity. A speech that focused its thesis initially around a solidly negative idea, now transforms itself into something motivational.

“Today we face a crisis of opportunity. We can either confront the aforementioned challenges of technological leadership that ensure our nation’s safety and security or cede that leadership and prestige to other nations. I ask each of you to help NASA turn these challenges into opportunities.” —Charles Bolden

From here to the end of his remarks, Bolden weaves the notion of worthy challenges into the ongoing and well-established aerospace efforts of NASA. All of these Bolden frames within well-worn nationalism and a desire to keep our country exceptional. A speech that early on grounds itself in the imagery of crisis ends in a call to meet challenges which NASA was founded to overcome.