Commentary Upfront Blog

Space math

For the scientists of the Cassini mission, math has unrelentingly transformed Saturn from a curious jewel in the night sky into something we have vicariously touched and tasted.

The Cassini spacecraft blasts off from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Oct, 1997.
Joe Skipper/Reuters
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The beginning of this week’s cover story by Eva Botkin-Kowacki and Charlie Wood might well be a Stieg Larsson thriller tilting over the rings of Saturn. Space exploration is not for the faint of heart, even if you’re just on Earth listening to the remote bleatings of a spacecraft traveling at 55,000 miles per hour 934 million miles away. 

Yet for the scientists who devised the Cassini spacecraft’s slingshot path to Saturn, coiling its gravitational spring around Venus, and then hurtling toward the solar system’s most iconic outer planet, there was some solace. To them, this was not a feat of cosmic derring-do or a superhuman feat of engineering. 

It was a math equation. 

“Scientists have come to realize that mathematics, when used with sufficient care, is a proven pathway to truth,” writes physicist Brian Greene in “The Fabric of the Cosmos.” 

Math has consistently opened vistas we never imagined, from quantum physics’ jittery micro-universe defined by uncertainty to the general theory of relativity proposed by Albert Einstein, where space and time are kneaded in seemingly unsettling ways. 

But for the scientists of the Cassini mission, math has unrelentingly transformed Saturn from a curious jewel in the night sky into something we have vicariously touched and tasted. We have splatted down into the custard consistency of the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, where liquid methane flows into frigid seas. We have caught the ice crystals of another moon, Enceladus, on Cassini’s mechanical tongue, tasting what could be the traces of organic life beneath its frozen surface. We have darted between Saturn’s rings like a dolphin amid the waves. And in Cassini’s final act, we will skim our fingertips though the clouds of the gas giant in a feat of scientific discovery that Renaissance astronomer Jean-Dominique Cassini could barely have envisioned. 

At each step, as humanity’s capacity to reach outward and upward grew, math was waiting there to turn the most fantastical ideas into achieved reality. 

So why is someone who was immensely relieved to get a C-plus in calculus rhapsodizing about mathematics?

Because it is impersonal. For scientists, this just comes with the job. If you get the math wrong, you can’t plead with Cassini to take the right trajectory to avoid becoming a gigantic fireball. Math is math. 

That might seem like something that’s only relevant to science. But consider: What was Magna Carta’s quantum leap forward? It curtailed the power of the king through other political processes. 

Seen another way, Magna Carta was a seminal step toward impersonalizing the exercise of power. American democracy was another step, further spreading power beyond any one person or group of people. The Founders sought to enshrine an ideal.

Science reveals many wonders. One is that principles, and not personalities or personal genius, are the safest foundation on which to progress.  

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