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).

Author: Jake Christensen

Jake Christensen, aka ChildeJake, is a Michigan-based writer with a strong interest in space exploration and NASA in particular. He has attended NASA Socials at Glenn Research Center and Goddard Space Flight Center, as well as trips to venues like the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. He is a member of The Planetary Society and an avid reader and creative writer. During the daytime, Jake provides marketing and administrative support for scientific equipment sales. His writing has appeared in The Planetary Report, Current Magazine in Ann Arbor, as well as online for,, and his other blog: Childe Jake’s Pilgrimage. He has also performed many times onstage in regional and educational theatre. Periodically, he appears in The Moth StorySLAMs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s