Before and after science.
April 23, 2012 9:01 PM   Subscribe

Writing in the New York Review of Books, Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg discusses his reason for suspecting that advances in particle physics and astronomy will not just slow down in the coming years, but cease entirely.
posted by Nomyte (41 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Senator John Pastore: Is there anything connected in the hopes of [The Superconducting Supercollider] that in any way involves the security of the country?

Robert Wilson (scientist): No, sir; I do not believe so.

Pastore: Nothing at all?

Wilson: Nothing at all.

Pastore: It has no value in that respect?

Wilson: It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things. It has nothing to do with the military, I am sorry.

Pastore: Don't be sorry for it.

Wilson: I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.

Pastore: Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

Wilson: Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending.

posted by neuron at 9:08 PM on April 23, 2012 [34 favorites]


Well, at least you can look back on this time and think of the low taxes. That'll make it alright. Right?
posted by flippant at 9:16 PM on April 23, 2012


I was telling my fiancee yesterday: "Just imagine if we spent our military budget on culture and science?
posted by dunkadunc at 9:18 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, unless it can be weaponized or exploited for profit, there's little will in the public sphere to fund sciences. It's a shame, and it sucks, and I wish it were different, because as recent NASA has shown, we can accomplish huge things with very little money thanks to our little robot pals we can send all over the place.

Thank goodness some of the cool gadgets we already have in place will continue to serve us well for a while. But I doubt we'll see really large expenditures being made for the glory of discovery without guaranteed payoff any time within the foreseeable future. Shortsighted isn't how you describe me saying this; it's how you describe those who hold the power of the pursestrings.
posted by hippybear at 9:18 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Noah Smith had this to say.
posted by samw at 9:21 PM on April 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Very nice piece. It's good to see people realizing that science is just as vulnerable to the destruction of the public sphere as art, or culture, or education, or health care — and that science's political interest is aligned with all of ours — rather than biting their tongues in the hope of attracting some of the military-industrial money that previously was more easily shunted into basic research and technology.
posted by RogerB at 9:23 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Noah Smith is right on. We won't have many science toys to play with if the free energy runs out and we don't have a solution.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:25 PM on April 23, 2012


Depressing as hell but hey, I'm sure China and India will be happy to take over as the world's science and tech leaders. Hell, maybe they'll even outsource some jobs to us in America with our leather jackets and sawed-off shotguns and rusty motorcycles with "I <3 Jeebus" bumper-stickers.
posted by bardic at 9:26 PM on April 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Noah Smith sounded very reasonable right up until he said we need to stop putting money into "health care", scare quotes and everything, and now I don't know whether I can trust anything he says.
posted by darksasami at 9:28 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Noah Smith's argument had me until he put "health care" in quotes and listed as one area we can cut. May whatever disease he contracts be painful and lingering.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:28 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


or, what darksasami said, but less nasty. (Sorry, I've been very dependent on "health care" lately)
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:29 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, me too. Health care is fucking VITAL.

I'm not starting a family until I live in a country that treats humans like humans.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:30 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Weinberg's piece is interesting.

He says:

We will know by the end of 2012 whether the Higgs boson has really been seen.

I doubt this.

But more generally when he says we are out of discoveries because the governement budgets won't buy discoveries any longer, that is almost certainly wrong. Perhaps we are out of big budget discoveries. Maybe that is for the best. As long as we have problems to work on and curious people working on them we are going to have discoveries of one sort or another.
posted by bukvich at 9:33 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Clearly they just need a particle accelerator so big that parts of it are in at least 26 states, like the way fighter aircraft are made.
posted by Chekhovian at 9:36 PM on April 23, 2012 [10 favorites]


Obligatory scene from Lexx.
posted by dunkadunc at 9:37 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Noah Smith sounded very reasonable right up until he said we need to stop putting money into "health care", scare quotes and everything, and now I don't know whether I can trust anything he says.

Yeah, I assumed Noah Smith was snarking about the state of the US healthcare system. (I.e. If we could just fix the healthcare system, we'd save so much that we could fund some big projects.) I'm not sure what to make of that particular part of his post, otherwise. It was a bit of a throw-away comment, anyway; I don't think it really affects his point.
posted by samw at 9:48 PM on April 23, 2012


Noah Smith's argument had me until he started talking about all of those brains "shunted" into the careers in theoretical physics. I'm an astronomer, and while I think that the energy crisis is important, I don't think that physics graduate students are being shunted anywhere. There is a lot (a LOT) more money in energy research than in other branches of physics that Noah Smith feels are unimportant. I chose astronomy because it's my passion, and because I'm a human being, and I can do what I want to do with my life. Maybe I won't solve the energy crisis, but I don't think my work is wasted just because I'm not making an attempt.
posted by RubixsQube at 9:48 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I saw this a few days ago. And for all that Weinberg was one of the first contemporary Nobelists to really impinge on me (he got while I was in high school), I think now what I thought when I first read it: 56 years later, reality has come to match the scenario in Jim Blish's They Shall Have Stars. And Blish was cribbing from Spenlger in a similar way to Asimov's cribbing from Gibbon.
posted by aurelian at 9:52 PM on April 23, 2012


It's possible Noah Smith has been persuaded by Ivan Illich and Illich's ideas about the creation of needs. See Illich's Medical Nemesis, for example. Wikipedia says:
"(Illich) argued that the medicalization in recent decades of so many of life's vicissitudes—birth and death, for example—frequently caused more harm than good and rendered many people in effect lifelong patients. He marshalled a body of statistics to show what he considered the shocking extent of post-operative side-effects and drug-induced illness in advanced industrial society. He introduced to a wider public the notion of iatrogenic disease which had been scientifically established a century earlier by British nurse Florence Nightingale (1820–1910)."
I'd say that's a fair reading of Illich.

I may be wrong -- but if someone's putting "health care" in scare quotes, that's the direction I'd think they'd be going in.
posted by aurelian at 9:58 PM on April 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Noah Smith sounded very reasonable right up until he said we need to stop putting money into "health care", scare quotes and everything, and now I don't know whether I can trust anything he says.

He actually clarifies this a bit further down: (Update: Some people have taken issue with me putting "health care" in quotes and saying we need to cut it. Actually I think we should nationalize healthcare, drive costs down, and implement a system where doctors are incentivized to improve health outcomes, not increase the number and cost of procedures...hence the scare quotes.)

(that's also exactly how I read it: as a snark about the healthcare system not providing actual (preventive) care but just reacting to when things go bad.)
posted by daniel_charms at 9:59 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Large Hadron Collider cost $9 billion to build. The B-2 Stealth Bombers were $2.1 billion each, and 21 were built, for a total cost of $44 billion. I will note as well that the LHC has the added benefit of never having dropped explosive ordnance on anyone.
posted by dephlogisticated at 10:01 PM on April 23, 2012 [15 favorites]


I think that, going forward, our only choice is to weaponize microscopic black holes.
posted by Nomyte at 10:05 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Noah Smith's argument had me until he put "health care" in quotes and listed as one area we can cut.

Think about it this way. France spends about 2/3 per-capita what we do on "health care" and covers everyone in their country(vs. about 80% here), leading to longer life expectancies, lower infant mortality, etc.

The United States government funds "health care" to care for your health in the same way it funds "defense" to defend you from physical danger or "farm subsidies" to put food on your table
posted by crayz at 10:07 PM on April 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


The other option, if HEP theory guys can predict some sort of rare particle that will give the baby boomers an extra year of life, then the unlimited money will flow.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:11 PM on April 23, 2012


None of this will change until men and women in this country begin thinking of "wealth" as things held in common and for the common good, and until they redefine capital acquired without effort and hoarded without donation as theft from our children.
posted by R. Schlock at 10:27 PM on April 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


I will note as well that the LHC has the added benefit of never having dropped explosive ordnance on anyone.

Yet!
dun dun DUN!
posted by joe lisboa at 10:38 PM on April 23, 2012


Funny, I just said this:
and remember that there was a time when we dreamed big in America.

If there was a definitive ending to that era, it was the cancellation of the Supercollider.

posted by dhartung at 10:46 PM on April 23, 2012


Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets?

Sorry, the SSC has nothing to do with it being good painters. I mean, I'm a painter and I'm even interested in particle physics, but nothing the SSC could do would ever make me a better painter or give me better ideas or subjects to paint.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:03 PM on April 23, 2012


> As long as we have problems to work on and curious people working on them we are going to have discoveries of one sort or another.

No doubt, but they will be small discoveries, and certainly not in particle physics or astronomy, unless we are willing to invest money in them.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:04 PM on April 23, 2012


> Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets?

Sorry, the SSC has nothing to do with it being good painters. I mean, I'm a painter and I'm even interested in particle physics, but nothing the SSC could do would ever make me a better painter or give me better ideas or subjects to paint.


No. What he meant was that being a nation that builds a huge particle collider would be comparable to being a nation of good painters, poets, etc, in that it would have just as little military value. Ok, maybe just a fraction more, since you could lock your enemies down there and bomb them with high energy particle beams until they die...but then I guess you could also stab them to death with a pen if you tried hard enough.
posted by daniel_charms at 11:32 PM on April 23, 2012


No doubt, but they will be small discoveries...

Just because Tabletop Physics occurs in small rooms for small amounts of money does not mean the discoveries themselves are small!
posted by Chekhovian at 11:54 PM on April 23, 2012


Weinberg and Smith have intelligently framed the debate so we can narrow blame for the failings of future research to either the intrigues of fractious foreigners or the needs of diseased peasant ingrates.
posted by mobunited at 12:24 AM on April 24, 2012


Sorry, the SSC has nothing to do with it being good painters. I mean, I'm a painter and I'm even interested in particle physics, but nothing the SSC could do would ever make me a better painter or give me better ideas or subjects to paint.

OK, first and foremost, let me hope that your stated interest in particle physics goes beyond having read Brian Green because, to be quite honest, the guy is a complete hack.

Second, please extend the analogy. Does the existence of good sculptors make you a better painter? I feel your answer might be a yes: formally trained painters and sculptors often study the same introductory courses, and much work can be translated between the two media, at least to some extent. If not, would you disparage sculpting?

What then about good poets? Do they make you a better painter? How about textile artists? Or architects? Or percussionists? Or anything else you can get a BFA in? How about a plain BA? Howabout then a BS?

The point of the article is that the fruits of human labor are often of worth of their own accord, and regardless of their external impacts. Several famed techniques of 20th century painting were directly enabled by contemporary scientific discoveries: stroboscopic motion and acrylic media being two of the most obvious examples. These and related techniques have resulted in many other benefits, both theoretical and practical. If you're so quick to dismiss them, and their present-day analogues, by holding painterly benefit to be the highest good, per se, I'd encourage you to look for a new yardstick.
posted by 7segment at 1:30 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


It pains me to say it, but I think cheap, non-polluting energy really is more important at this stage. (Setting universal health care aside because I think that's a basic human right.) If we had cheap, safe, and non-polluting energy, we'd be far better off in a myriad of ways. Once you get everyone on the planet access to cheap energy, then the food and water crises should be relatively simple to solve. Then you go after the infinite growth on a finite planet nonsense, and most problems are gone. After that, why would anyone want to go to war if everyone has enough energy, food, and water?

Not much is going to truly change until we find a way to make war obsolete.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 1:31 AM on April 24, 2012


why would anyone want to go to war if everyone has enough energy, food, and water?
Traditionally, religion and real estate.
posted by bystander at 1:41 AM on April 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think you have to accept that it isn't going to be possible to go on building ever-bigger particle accelerators for ever and ever. That's not the result of short-sighted funding decisions, though they may also occur, it's just one of the constraints we have to live with, like only having at best a few centuries of data and only being able to see the view of the universe from essentially one point.

In fact you could argue that the sums already spent on these projects show a pretty good commitment to theoretical physics on the part of politicians, all things considered. The mind boggles at the thought of the national poetry project you could run for two billion dollars.
posted by Segundus at 2:05 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


The mind boggles at the thought of the national poetry project you could run for two billion dollars.

Yeah. And not in a good way.
posted by R. Schlock at 2:30 AM on April 24, 2012


Noah Smith is right on. We won't have many science toys to play with if the free energy runs out and we don't have a solution.
Uh what? How do you think we got that energy in the first place! Solar panels work because of the photoelectric effect, for which Einstein got his Nobel prize, which he discovered by trying to understand quantum effects. Nuclear energy, obviously, has a lot to do with 20th century particle physics. And there's the question of fusion energy around the corner using reactors Tokamak and other reactor designs.

Doing science, and high energy physics is the way we'll continue to have free energy.
I think you have to accept that it isn't going to be possible to go on building ever-bigger particle accelerators for ever and ever.
As long as GDP continues to increase, and you allocate a fixed percentage to particle accelerators, then you can indeed continue to build bigger and bigger ones. If set GDP growth to zero, you can still build larger and larger ones.

As far as healthcare is concerned, particle physics gave us the X-Ray, and now the MRI. Quantum physics gave us computers, which in turn gives us lots of helpful stuff with regards to health care, everything from little robots to electronic health care records. I don't know if the research we're doing on particle physics today would be that helpful because it's all high energy stuff. But if we do learn more about fundamental physics, there may be medical applications eventually.
posted by delmoi at 2:36 AM on April 24, 2012


mmhmm:
Space-based astronomy has a special problem in the US. NASA, the government agency responsible for this work, has always devoted more of its resources to manned space flight, which contributes little to science. All of the space-based observatories that have contributed so much to astronomy in recent years have been unmanned. The International Space Station was sold in part as a scientific laboratory, but nothing of scientific importance has come from it. Last year a cosmic ray observatory was carried up to the Space Station (after NASA had tried to remove it from the schedule for shuttle flights), and for the first time significant science may be done on the Space Station, but astronauts will have no part in its operation, and it could have been developed more cheaply as an unmanned satellite.


Also:
I heard a congressman say that he could see how the Space Station would help us to learn about the universe, but he couldn’t understand that about the SSC. I could have cried. As I later wrote, the Space Station had the great advantage that it cost about ten times more than the SSC, so that NASA could spread contracts for its development over many states. Perhaps if the SSC had cost more, it would not have been canceled.
Heh. That said, you know the LHC actually crosses national boundaries. Half in France, half in Switzerland.

If we want a super-colider here in the U.S, perhaps it should straddle some state borders. The corner between California, Oregon and Nevada would be a good spot (CA is high population, plus you'd have six senators in the bag)

Or you could put it at the intersection of Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin. Now granted, that's in the middle of lake Michigan, but what's important is political practicality, not actual practicality. Of course you could also do MN,IA, IL or MN, WI, IL as well. MI, RI, CT would also probably get you a lot of political support.
posted by delmoi at 4:16 AM on April 24, 2012


Steven Weinberg prebutts that Noah guy:
Big science is in competition for government funds, not only with manned space flight, and with various programs of real science, but also with many other things that we need government to do. We don’t spend enough on education to make becoming a teacher an attractive career choice for our best college graduates. Our passenger rail lines and Internet services look increasingly poor compared with what one finds in Europe and East Asia. We don’t have enough patent inspectors to process new patent applications without endless delays. The overcrowding and understaffing in some of our prisons amount to cruel and unusual punishment. We have a shortage of judges, so that civil suits take years to be heard.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, moreover, doesn’t have enough staff to win cases against the corporations it is charged to regulate. There aren’t enough drug rehabilitation centers to treat addicts who want to be treated. We have fewer policemen and firemen than before September 11. Many people in America cannot count on adequate medical care. And so on. In fact, many of these other responsibilities of government have been treated worse in the present Congress than science. All these problems will become more severe if current legislation forces an 8 percent sequestration—or reduction, in effect—of nonmilitary spending after this year.

We had better not try to defend science by attacking spending on these other needs. We would lose, and would deserve to lose.
---

Also, Mr. Smith updated his blog:
(Update: Some people have taken issue with me putting "health care" in quotes and saying we need to cut it. Actually I think we should nationalize healthcare, drive costs down, and implement a system where doctors are incentivized to improve health outcomes, not increase the number and cost of procedures...hence the scare quotes.)

There is certainly a lot of wasted money in the healthcare system.
posted by delmoi at 5:00 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Put the collider in the 4 corners region and you can get 4 states.
posted by feloniousmonk at 10:20 PM on April 24, 2012


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