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Twenty-five years on: Hubble’s unsung heroes

The director of a new documentary on the Hubble space telescope reflects on the craftsmanship behind the planet’s most celebrated science instrument


In a darkened room at Nasa’s Goddard Space Centre in Maryland, I found a focused team of men and women, engrossed in their daily task of taking the pulse of the planet’s most celebrated science instrument: the Hubble space telescope. On the wall in front of them a live 3D rendering of Hubble is projected onto the wall – its orientation and position in orbit 550 kilometers above the Earth presented in real time for everyone in the room to see.

Today Hubble was being harnessed to hunt for distant icy dwarf planets, which Nasa’s New Horizons mission might be able to aim for later this year, after its historic flyby of Pluto. Such objects, found in the remote Kuiper Belt, over 4 billion miles from Earth, are typically only half as big as Long Island, NY, and so dark in colour that only Hubble’s exquisite mirror has a chance of detecting them.

When a giant space telescope was first seriously proposed in the 1970s, Nasa insisted that its primary mirror had to be the largest, smoothest piece of glass ever created. The polishing team at Perkin Elmer did such a perfect a job of making it smooth that had their 2.4metre-wide mirror been scaled up to the width of the Atlantic Ocean, no bump on it would be greater than four inches high.

Such unprecedented smoothness took these devoted optical engineers over three years of polishing to achieve; often working around the clock, seven days a week. Such commitment to the job would be at the heart of Hubble’s success in the decades that followed, as their mirror was repeatedly called upon to capture the faintest of light from some of the most illusive and distant objects in the universe.

Indeed, the craftsmanship of Bud Rigby and his polishing team was so ahead of its time that the new digital camera technologies inserted into the telescope by subsequent space shuttle servicing missions would not match its precision until 2009, some thirty years after the mirror had been manufactured.

But in the months that followed Hubble’s launch in 1990, with the discovery that their mirror had been made very slightly too flat at its edges, the perfection of its smoothness – and their dedication to making it so – was quickly forgotten. Twenty­-five years on, I found Rigby and his friend and colleague from Perkin Elmer ­ Lou Montagnino reluctant to take part in our film, still sore from the mauling they’d repeatedly received over the decades from the media.

Yet it was only thanks to their tireless work on the project that the flaw in the shape of Hubble’s primary mirror could be corrected so completely. The fact that the telescope remains at the cutting edge of cosmology, a quarter of a century after its construction, is a tribute to their outstanding skill.

Days before my visit to Hubble’s control room I’d sat with Rigby in his home in Connecticut and contemplated just how far back in time his mirror had now allowed us to see. In the top left-hand corner of the aptly named Hubble Ultra­ Deep Field image (re-­released by Nasa a few months before) is a small red smudge of light called UDFj­39546284, made from light that’s traveled through space for most of the history of the universe.

“Just stop and think about it”, reflects Rigby. “This is this is light that left billions of years ago and it’s now in our possession. We’ve seen it! The size of the universe is expanded hundreds and hundreds of times in just one sighting. It’s proof in my eyes that we built a telescope that was better than any on the Earth.”

Today it’s easy to take images like this for granted, but Hubble won’t always be here. Since the retirement of the space shuttle, no more servicing missions have been possible and the Hubble operations team expect their instrument to deteriorate significantly in the coming years.

First to fail are likely to be the telescope’s six gyros, which enable it to lock onto its targets, and which will start to fail in the coming years. In preparation for that time the team is pioneering procedures to work around this problem. “We always want to use three gyros to make us as efficient as possible to collect science data,” says Hubble’s deputy project manager Jim Jeletic, a 16-­year veteran of the project. “But now we’ve developed a one gyro mode – allowing us to only use one gyro at a time – to extend the life of Hubble for many more years to come.”

Combined with adapted software to compensate for other problems they might encounter with their ageing instrument, the team’s goal is to make sure they have at least a one ­year overlap with Hubble’s successor,­ the James Webb Space Telescope. “We believe we can get to 2020,” says Jeletic hopefully.

Thanks to the devotion of this team at Nasa Goddard, and the engineers at Perkin Elmer who first imagined the impossible and then made it a reality, Hubble continues to inspire us all. Twenty-­five years after this much-­treasured telescope made it into space, it is time to celebrate the men who made the mirror rather than vilify them.

As Ed Weiler, the telescope’s chief scientist for most of its life, puts it “Hubble was the great American comeback story, probably the most successful scientific project Nasa has ever done. Bar none.”

This article first appeared in USA TODAY’s special edition on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Christopher Riley is the producer and director of National Geographic Channel’s new film ‘Hubble’s Cosmic Journey’ , airing in the UK on the 21st April 2015. He has a Ph.D. in planetary science from Imperial College, London and is Professor of Science and Media at the University of Lincoln in the UK. Find him on Twitter at @alifeofriley



National Science Foundation ‘urgent’ coronavirus grants miss target

The country is feeling a lot of stress thanks to the coronavirus, and it’s got the National Science Foundation intrigued. So intrigued, in fact, that it is spending millions of taxpayer dollars on more than 25 studies of how various demographics are handling stress. There’s the study of New York parents handling the pains of…

National Science Foundation ‘urgent’ coronavirus grants miss target

The country is feeling a lot of stress thanks to the coronavirus, and it’s got the National Science Foundation intrigued.

So intrigued, in fact, that it is spending millions of taxpayer dollars on more than 25 studies of how various demographics are handling stress. There’s the study of New York parents handling the pains of being forced into helping homeschool their children, and the study of how “at-risk” people are adjusting to the stress of the virus.

There’s a study of whether access to green space has helped college kids cope when campuses closed and they were sent back home. Which is not to be confused with the $163,033 study of how graduate students are coping with stress. Or the $75,319 study of how undergraduate engineering students are handling stress.

The NSF has doled out more than $75 million in what is known as Rapid Response Research or “RAPID” grant funding over the last couple of months, as it seeks to improve understanding of the pandemic.

Much of the money seems like a good bet. There are projects to test how to extend the life of the N95 masks that can filter out the coronavirus, or to use algorithms to try to figure out which already approved drugs can be repurposed to try to treat COVID-19.

And then there are more experimental ideas such as testing whether drones can be used to apply disinfectant over a large area, or whether smarter ventilation in public buildings can reduce the spread of the virus.

But the NSF is also spending millions of dollars on softer social sciences, such as sociology and cultural anthropology investigations that critics say look a lot like the sort of work journalists publish, free to taxpayers, every day.

Congress, eager to help, allocated an additional $75 million to the agency in the coronavirus stimulus law in March, which has already been spent, and the agency dipped into its regular budget to fund what it considers “urgent” research.

“NSF is specifically supporting fast-track, fundamental, and transformational research activity associated with (i) improving our understanding of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus causing COVID-19; (ii) developing a predictive understanding of the spread of the virus; and (iii) enabling approaches that mitigate the negative impacts of COVID-19 on public health, society and the economy,” NSF spokesman Mike England told The Washington Times in an email.

But spending watchdogs said some of the projects stray far from urgent needs, particularly at a time when the federal budget is already stretched to breaking by other coronavirus obligations such as boosting unemployment payments, paying small businesses to keep their doors open and funding food assistance programs.

“The National Science Foundation should focus on the hard sciences during the peak of this pandemic. Instead, the agency is spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on soft and superfluous studies that will not impact the lives of regular people in a meaningful way,” said Adam Andrzejewski, CEO and founder of, which tracks government spending.

His organization flagged projects such as the $200,000 spent on an oral history archive recording New Yorkers’ experiences during the pandemic; a $198,985 study of whether people who search online for coronavirus information in Spanish get different information than those who Google in English; and a $135,825 examination of the psychology of panic-buying.

“In a national emergency, Congress should be directing taxpayer dollars toward the actual problem, not how people feel about the problem,” Mr. Andrzejewski said.

But Mr. England, the NSF spokesman, defended the multitude of studies on matters such as stress levels amid coronavirus, saying they are “consistent” with the agency’s goals, and the pandemic gives them opportunities that “cannot be replicated in a lab.”

“Once the pandemic resolves, these research opportunities will be gone,” he said. “There is overlap in some of these projects because, as with all science and engineering, we do not know for sure in advance which approaches will work, or which ones will lead to solutions that can be implemented. Therefore, we try to cast as wide a net as possible.”

For some of the projects, it’s not clear what the government might be getting back.

One proposal by researchers at Virginia Tech, which was awarded $98,185, says it will use “construal level theory by empirically distinguishing between the spatial and psycho-social dimensions of the construct of psychological distancing and calibrating the psychological impacts of immersion in online environments during a period of limited in-person interactions.”

The proposal continues: “The team investigates how digital media and technology consumption influence construal level and how the interaction of these two factors shape individuals’ risk perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors over time. Our research thus moves beyond simplistic explanations of the direct linkage between psychological distance, construal level, and judgments and decisions to a more nuanced understanding of interactions between construal mindsets and overload, stress, and fear.”

Other projects include:

• Studying two Virginia high schools to see how student-teacher relationships have changed. That is costing taxpayers $150,763.

• Tracking internet traffic patterns to see if stay-at-home orders worked, at a cost of $91,928.

• Examining whether people who are curious about science know more about the pandemic than those who are less curious. That proposal won $91,928.

• Studying how funeral homes have reacted to the crisis, at a cost to taxpayers of $97,509.

• A $197,475 look at how New Yorkers are making use of parks and other open spaces. That project is being led by Timon McPhearson, a professor of urban ecology at the New School.

“The Twitter data collection is only a portion of the research we’re conducting,” he told The Times. “We are also tracking a number of changes to New York City energy use, park use and more in order to document how much social distancing policies are driving behavior changes, and how these behavior changes in turn impact the ecological spaces and infrastructure of New York City.”

Initial results of the work are posted at

The Times reached out to a number of other researchers who won funding. Most didn’t reply, while several declined to answer questions about their work.

That included researchers at Johns Hopkins University who won $200,000 in taxpayer money for their work updating an online “dashboard” of coronavirus cases, deaths and recoveries worldwide.

That site, which has gotten heavy use from the public, reporters and even official Washington, was up and running well before the NSF awarded its grant. Hopkins researchers declined to say why they needed the additional funds.

There are also a number of coronavirus data collections online that aren’t funded by taxpayers, including several run by media organizations.

That overlap between what news organizations produce for free and what taxpayers fund through the NSF is a frequent complaint for critics of the agency.

Mr. England said they had awarded 400 COVID-related grants as of May 12, all but six of them under the RAPID program, at a cost of $77.4 million.

That’s more than the $75 million in emergency money Congress approved, but Mr. England said they’re able to tap regular NSF funds to help what they see as an “urgent” need.

He said final numbers on how many proposals were accepted versus rejected will come later.

Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said the NSF should be trying to save money during coronavirus, not boost spending. He suggested canceling nonessential spending and tightening the standards for new grants.

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Politics vs. science during the COVID-19 pandemic

ANALYSIS/OPINION: Just in case we needed a reminder, the debate over the desirability and duration of stay-at home orders during the current coronavirus pandemic has exposed the uncomfortable relationship that exists between science and democracy. Science points in the direction of the rule of the expert while democracy is rooted in the principle of popular…

Politics vs. science during the COVID-19 pandemic


Just in case we needed a reminder, the debate over the desirability and duration of stay-at home orders during the current coronavirus pandemic has exposed the uncomfortable relationship that exists between science and democracy. Science points in the direction of the rule of the expert while democracy is rooted in the principle of popular sovereignty.

While the American people and scientists have competing claims to rule (popular consent vs. scientific knowledge), each actually needs the other to survive peaceably and comfortably, so neither can afford to completely discredit or abandon the other.

Modern, rights-oriented democracies like the United States desire much of what science has to offer, including a real shot at comfortable preservation for the many and not just for the few. There are good reasons, then, for democracies to be perplexed when it comes to the relationship they should seek with persons who have mastered the physical and natural sciences.  

The tension between competing claims to rule based on popular consent on the one side, and scientific knowledge on the other side, only came to a head once the democratic model of government was shown to be defensible, principally by the Founding generation in the United States.

Living with the tension between democracy and science in a responsible way requires that we distinguish the respective spheres within which “political” reasoning and “scientific” reasoning should prevail. This is easier asserted than accomplished, but doing this intelligently is critical to having a decent and competent democratic nation.

One major distinction between the realm of politics and the scientific realm is that the political arena is dominated by matters that are fundamentally variable, something that is not true in the realm of science. Additionally, political decision-makers by definition are persons of practical action who are expected to deliberate and issue commands whereas scientists are not obligated to take action or issue commands.

Political officials who are reputed to be “prudent” are persons who excel at adjusting policies to changing circumstances, including changing public opinions, and who recognize that “contingency” is a characteristic of political life. The prudent decision-maker understands that promoting the common good requires the continuous adjustment of a complex array of matters (e.g., political, economic, cultural, etc.) that are highly variable in nature.  

The most esteemed political decision-makers are persons who are adept at adjusting policies in such a way as to promote what is good for human beings, which requires a recognition that some ways of behaving and conducting human affairs are better than other ways. Knowledge of this kind benefits more from good intuition and extensive experience than from the mastery of some body of scientific knowledge. 

Admittedly, national and state officials who seek to act prudently need the knowledge that scientists possess in order to give people a good shot at enjoying the full benefits of living in a modern, right-oriented democracy. Political decision-making, however, ultimately should prevail in a democracy over the knowledge of scientists when it comes to matters bearing on the quality of life of the people, for example, deciding whether churches provide “essential” services.

A political community that abdicates decision-making to experts on fundamental issues related to the way of life of the people is no longer a democratic community. Additionally, the kind of knowledge required to make intelligent decisions about what constitutes a healthy life for human beings (e.g., risk taking as community service and as a source of personal distinction) transcends the realm of purely scientific knowledge in the direction of morality.

While good scientific knowledge may help when it comes to knowing how to survive, the consummate political knowledge of a George Washington or Winston Churchill makes survival with dignity possible. Consider how Founding-era Americans distinguished themselves for all time by following the prudent counsel of Washington and James Madison. 

All of this accentuates the enormous responsibilities that fall to the people in a democracy. Nurturing a citizenry that is up to the task of selecting persons for public office who are capable of deliberating and acting prudently when it comes to the common good is enormously difficult. It was among the greatest challenges facing the Founders.  

Carrying out this task well requires that citizens appreciate the extremely complex decision-making that is required to protect, restrain and/or balance diverse religious, racial, ethnic, economic and political interests, while also recognizing that political decision-making at its best should satisfy human longings that transcend creature comforts and mere survival.

Despite the protestations of many journalists and political pundits, nothing about all of this is easy. Preserving the integrity and vitality of the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic will require that the American people possess the knowledge and the courage to insist on a prudential relationship between science and politics that preserves the democratic bona fides of our constitutional republic and also points us in the direction of rational, dignified existence — an existence that requires the discipline to control our fears and face adversity with the dignity appropriate to a free people — at this point, we have left the realm of scientific knowledge.     

• David Marion is Elliott Emeritus Professor of Government and a faculty fellow at the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest at Hampden-Sydney College.

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Millions of masks produced in record time as new rules unveiled

Cream skimmed from milk may be called “sweet cream” to distinguish it from cream skimmed from whey, a by-product of cheese-making. Whey cream has a lower fat content and tastes more salty, tangy and “cheesy”. In many countries, cream is usually sold partially fermented: sour cream, crème fraîche, and so on. Both forms have many culinary uses in sweet, bitter, salty and tangy dishes.

Produced by cattle (particularly Jersey cattle) grazing on natural pasture often contains some natural carotenoid pigments derived from the plants they eat; this gives it a slightly yellow tone, hence the name of the yellowish-white color: cream. This is also the origin of butters yellow color. Cream from goats milk, water buffalo milk, or from cows fed indoors on grain or grain-based pellets, is white.

Cream is used as an ingredient in many foods, including ice cream, many sauces, soups, stews, puddings, and some custard bases, and is also used for cakes. Whipped cream is served as a topping on ice cream sundaes, milkshakes, lassi, eggnog, sweet pies, strawberries, blueberries or peaches. Irish cream is an alcoholic liqueur which blends cream with whiskey, and often honey, wine, or coffee. Cream is also used in Indian curries such as masala dishes.

The Secret Life Of Benjamin Franklin

Both single and double cream (see Types for definitions) can be used in cooking. Double cream or full-fat crème fraîche are often used when cream is added to a hot sauce, to prevent any problem with it separating or “splitting”. Double cream can be thinned with milk to make an approximation of single cream.

The French word crème denotes not only dairy cream, but also other thick liquids such as sweet and savory custards, which are normally made with milk, not cream.

Different grades of cream are distinguished by their fat content, whether they have been heat-treated, whipped, and so on. In many jurisdictions, there are regulations for each type.

The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code – Standard 2.5.2 – Defines cream as a milk product comparatively rich in fat, in the form of an emulsion of fat-in-skim milk, which can be obtained by separation from milk. Cream must contain no less than 350 g/kg (35%) milk fat.

Canadian cream definitions are similar to those used in the United States, except for “light cream”, which is very low-fat cream, usually with 5 or 6 percent butterfat.

Regulations allow cream to contain acidity regulators and stabilizers. For whipping cream, allowed additives include skim milk powder (0.25%), glucose solids (0.1%), calcium sulphate (0.005%), and xanthan gum (0.02%).

Russia, as well as other EAC countries, legally separates cream into two classes: normal (10–34% butterfat) and heavy (35–58%), but the industry has pretty much standardized around the following types:

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