PT 86 LSAT Writing: Astronomy

The Prompt

The astronomy department at a university is building an observatory. It will build either a visible-spectrum observatory, which uses an optical telescope, or a radio observatory, which uses a telescope built to detect radio waves from space. Using the facts below, write an essay in which you argue for building one type of observatory over the other based on the following two criteria:

  • The observatory should be useful for productive scholarly research conducted by the department's faculty that will contribute to the field.
  • The observatory should be useful as an educational tool.

Most faculty members in the department do work that could make use of a visible-spectrum observatory for research projects. These faculty collectively publish a large number of research papers. There are a large number of visible-spectrum observatories around the world being used for scholarly research. A visible-spectrum observatory could be used as part of most astronomy classes. Many graduate students in the department work in areas that would not make use of a visible-spectrum observatory.

It is relatively easy for researchers at radio observatories to collaborate with other radio observatories to conduct large, groundbreaking projects. Such projects can monopolize the use of an observatory for extended periods of time. One of the university's most famous faculty members specializes in radio astronomy. Many graduate students in the department came to the university to study with this professor. Few other faculty members would use the observatory for their research. A radio observatory could attract new faculty members who use radio telescopes in their research. A new radio observatory would be difficult to integrate into the astronomy classes of most students.

My Essay

The question of whether to build a new visible-spectrum observatory or a new radio observatory boils down to a question of whom the astronomy department should prioritize: the majority of its faculty members or one of its most prominent professor. Given that the majority of the astronomy department's faculty members could use a visible-spectrum observatory but would not use a radio observatory, it's clear that the department should build a visible-spectrum observatory, the choice most likely to maximize the department's research output. Indeed, we are told that the astronomy department's faculty are, collectively, very prolific, whereas we are not told that the famous faculty member—the one who would use the radio observatory—is a productive researcher. A visible-spectrum observatory, unlike a radio observatory, would also be easy to integrate into most of the department's classes, meaning that it would be a greater boon to the department's pedagogy and have more educational value.

It's true that one of the university's most famous professors focuses on radio astronomy, and true that this professor's graduate students would, like the professor, put a new radio observatory to use. But if the university were to build a new radio observatory on such grounds, it would expose itself to key-man (or key-woman) risk. What would happen if the famous professor were to retire or join another university, possibly taking his graduate students with him? Our university would be left with a costly new research tool that benefits very few of its researchers. Even if the professor were to stay, we have no reason to believe that he and his students would perform more useful and productive scholarly research than the rest of the astronomy department combined.

The radio observatory has one more apparent advantage: it's conducive to large, ground-breaking research projects. But such projects tend to monopolize the use of the observatory for extended periods of time, which has the same drawback we've seen over and over again: it prioritizes one project and one professor at the cost of many.

A choice to build a new radio observatory is tantamount to an imprudent all-in bet on the productivity of a single researcher. The university should prioritize the needs of the astronomy department as a whole and the vast majority of its astronomy classes by building a visible-spectrum observatory.

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