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).