The Astronomical Cost of Playing the Lottery

Two things came to my attention recently. First, the James Webb Telescope is on the chopping block. And second, Americans spent $70 billion on lottery tickets last year (yes, “billion” with a “b”). That’s a big number. How big is it? It’s so big…

…well, you know that James Webb Telescope? You could pay for ten of them. That’s ten James Webb Telescopes worth of lottery tickets every year.

…or how about the Keck observatory? You could pay for Keck 1 and 2…

…and throw in Kecks 3 through 700.

…or maybe something like those Galileoscopes the AAS was promoting for IYA2009? You could give every kid in America aged 10 through 19 a set of thirty five of them.

…but that would be ridiculous. What would a kid do with 35 telescopes? OK, instead of that, how about one, oh, slightly bigger telescope? Let’s look on Amazon and see what you can get for $1750…

Yeah. So, for the amount Americans spend on lottery tickets in one year, you could buy a Celestron S11740 Sky-Watcher 12-Inch Dobsonian Telescope for every American kid between 10 and 19. And next year, you could buy them each another one.

But the James Webb Telescope is just too expensive to keep in the federal budget. As of this writing, though, it isn’t officially dead yet. Maybe we’ll get lucky.

Steve DeGroof

Steve consists of approximately 60% water and 40% organic molecules, arranged in a configuration that is, among over things, capable of describing itself in this manner.

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  1. I have never been one to buy lottery tickets, But we had an intern at my work and he bought a lottery ticket every week for a year and then checked all 52 of them on the last day of work. In the end he won 38$ and had spent over 520$. I was with him when he checked them and as much as I felt bad he lost so much, it was the best re-enforcement of what I knew in theory I could ever experience.

    Moral of the story, don’t pay the stupid tax!

  2. Astonishing stuff.

    I heard on a radio programme a while back that the most popular purchase for a female lottery winner was a gastric band, and for a male: a gastric band for his partner. Number 2 top purchase was a BMW.

    I’d definitely be buying the 35 Galileoscopes.

  3. I’m not sure that I follow the argument of this article? Unless the lotteries in the US are significantly different than in Canada, those lottery tickets are already paying for telescopes.

    Lotteries are a way to trick the uninformed into paying more tax.

    Really what we should be doing here, is instating a NASA lottery. However the branding would be an issue cause NASAL isn’t all that appealing.

  4. There was a great Freakonomics episode where they reported on banks overseas running “savings account” lotteries to encourage saving. You’d open an account, and every month an account holder would be picked at random to win a cash prize.

    It’s a great way to get people to save money instead of piss it all away on stupidity tax, but state governments have a monopoly on lotteries and thus far have blocked all efforts to institute bank lotteries. Why should the poor save money, after all? 😛

  5. as mentioned above, not every $ spent is wasted.

    using the UK lottery as an example:

    50% goes back into the prizepool. so for every $1 you spend you get 50c back on average.

    28% goes to good causes (charity)

    12% goes to the government

    10% profit for the lottery company and distribution outlets

    so this $70b argument doesn’t really hold water. you could only really argue that $7b is wasted that could be spent on satelites and telescopes, as all the rest of the money either goes to charity, government or indirectly back to the buyer.

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