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“I have no idea. (pause) We have no idea.”
August 2, 2014 6:04 PM   Subscribe


 
We've done pretty well economically since we started doing this science thing.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:14 PM on August 2 [6 favorites]


On February 24, 1775, Rittenhouse delivered a lecture on the history of astronomy to the American Philosophical Society, in which he linked the structure of nature to the rights of man, liberty and self-government. Rittenhouse also used the occasion to decry slavery. …in 1775?

The context for this quote is in the gist of the article, which implies that science (and of course The Enlightenment) was more important to the Founding Fathers than was being saved by the Blood of the Lamb. Not big news to most of us, nor would this article convince a Tea Party member that the USA was not founded as a Christian Nation, but, still, a great post.
posted by kozad at 6:14 PM on August 2 [8 favorites]


"What good is a newborn baby?"
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 6:36 PM on August 2 [4 favorites]


If only an economist had asked that question about staying put and growing crops as opposed to hunting and gathering. The idea would have been shot down, we'd still only have to work a few hours a day on average, there'd be no wealth accumulation by rich fuckers at the top (and no top to speak of) and oh yeah, no economists.

Sure, no technology and probably no literature either, but hey, you can't have everything. Particularly if you have nowhere to put it.*

*Apols. to Steven Wright
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:52 PM on August 2 [2 favorites]


This is an awesome FPP, and I am going to have to re-read this multiple times to point out all the things that I so utterly agree with and that are such well formed thoughts that indict any opposition to the ideas.

I hope to see more comments on this post attempting to tear it apart. As it is something that I feel is irrefutable. Please, contrarians, apply your logic.
posted by daq at 6:55 PM on August 2 [1 favorite]


I'll take a shot.

It's possible that science and technology offer diminishing returns on investment or even endanger the well-being of the planet.
posted by empath at 7:04 PM on August 2 [6 favorites]


Well, the discovery of fracking certainly did no good for the cause of alternative, non-carbon-based energy or water security and god knows what else. But that's certainly a sociopolitical and economic failure, not a counterincentive to, y'know, learn things. I suspect most such objections can be regarded the same way.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:08 PM on August 2 [3 favorites]


If only an economist had asked that question about staying put and growing crops as opposed to hunting and gathering. The idea would have been shot down, we'd still only have to work a few hours a day on average, there'd be no wealth accumulation by rich fuckers at the top (and no top to speak of) and oh yeah, no economists.

...and half our children would die before age 2, and most of us would be dead before reaching 40.

But I guess that's a small price to pay for winning the class war, eh?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:45 PM on August 2 [13 favorites]


I love this post, although I hate to see science and economics discussed in such close proximity. The proper answer to the economist's question of "what's the return on this?" shouldn't be "we don't know yet, but some amazing technology might come out of this that you can profit off of." It should be "FUCK YOU, WE'RE HUMAN AND WE WANT TO KNOW STUFF." Still, for those among us who have transcended their own basic humanity, this blog entry makes a good case for funding advanced scientific research.
posted by uosuaq at 7:52 PM on August 2 [6 favorites]


I'm absolutely for science when it's put to good use in service to humanity, but wary of it when it's put to antisocial uses. It's a tool set. It can be used to do either good things or bad things. Science itself doesn't have anything like a sense of decency, but luckily the humans who use it usually do.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:59 PM on August 2 [3 favorites]


Someone who is nostalgic for discarding technology and going back to the trees is someone who's never looked up to realize a puma's been shadowing him.
posted by happyroach at 8:07 PM on August 2 [11 favorites]


...and half our children would die before age 2, and most of us would be dead before reaching 40.

Seriously I know that sort of figure applies to agrarian and early industrial age societies as well, which covers most of human history except the last century or so in the developed world. I don't know that it's accurate for hunter gatherer cultures in prehistoric context as opposed to modern remnant enclaves.

In any event, just going by your response I'm not at all sure if you could tell that I was speaking tongue-in-cheek. (On preview, same to happyroach.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:09 PM on August 2 [1 favorite]


I'm a bit tongue-in-cheek as well. I mean I COULD have quoted that Douglas Adams line...
posted by happyroach at 8:10 PM on August 2


Science itself doesn't have anything like a sense of decency
Yeah, it's not like economics in that way.
but luckily the humans who use it usually do.
Yeah, it's not like economics in that way.
(apologies to saulgoodman)
posted by uosuaq at 8:14 PM on August 2 [4 favorites]


Science and Art give us a reason to fight for civilization. Otherwise, just sit in your squalor and knock the rocks together, guys.
posted by SPrintF at 8:25 PM on August 2 [1 favorite]


I'll take a shot.
It's possible that science and technology offer diminishing returns on investment or even endanger the well-being of the planet.


Animals wreck the environment too. Thousands of times in our planet's history, one species has destroyed another just doing what it is that they do.

Unique among animals, we are able to do this on a large scale, jeopardizing many species at once.

And unique among animals, we are able to see this happening, to see it for a tragedy, and, possibly, to prevent it. The way to doing that is through science, not fleeing into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
posted by JHarris at 8:41 PM on August 2 [5 favorites]


[T]he whole cult of conservative / neo-liberal economics thinking that demands everything be justified solely by its ability to create a "profit...." [C]apitalism remains the best form of organizing most (note: most, not all) of an economy.

Seems he got his wires crossed, or something.
posted by No Robots at 8:45 PM on August 2


Because once we have the God Particle, we can build the God Gun, duh...
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 8:55 PM on August 2 [2 favorites]


Dr. R.R. Wilson's testimony to Congress regarding authorization of funding for construction of Fermilab's first particle accelerator, April 1969:
SEN. PASTORE: Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?

DR. WILSON: No, sir; I do not believe so.

SEN. PASTORE: Nothing at all?

DR. WILSON: Nothing at all.

SEN. PASTORE: It has no value in that respect?

DR. 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.

SEN. PASTORE: Don't be sorry for it.

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

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

DR. 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 help make it worth defending.
posted by Rhaomi at 9:03 PM on August 2 [78 favorites]


The classic answer to "How does this assist the defense of this country?" is "It helps make the country worth defending."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:19 PM on August 2 [13 favorites]


Dr. Wilson sounds like an amazing man. We need more scientists that can speak so eloquently to the need for scientific advancement.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 10:28 PM on August 2


It's worth mentioning that Particle Fever, the film under discussion in the article, is available for streaming on Netflix.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:33 PM on August 2 [2 favorites]


The blog post doesn't mention this, but there's a key moment prior to the economist's question where Kaplan, in discussing the origins of the LHC, mentions that "the World Wide Web was invented at CERN so that physicists all over the planet could share the data."
posted by arialblack at 10:43 PM on August 2 [4 favorites]


I'd like to defend the economist's position. Put the question this way: is fundamental particle physics the best possible use of a couple of billion dollars, in a world where so many lack clean water, medicine, and everything else? Of course not. LHC fans must deal with this fact: It is a statistical certainty that there were children who died of some horrible disease, who would have lived if the funding for the LHC had gone to UNICEF instead. There is a certain "Whitey on the Moon" aspect to a world where some people make triumphant discoveries about the nature of reality with expensive machines and others die of malaria. It is completely natural and decent to be uneasy about this.

The conflict is especially sharp in the case of fundamental particle physics, because to my knowledge no scientist has ever proposed any idea for a technological application of high-energy physics, even in principle. In fact there are very good reasons to believe that none are possible. High-energy particle interactions do not provide energy like nuclear fusion; all energy for the interaction is provided by the initial kinetic energy of the beams. All the particles produced are extremely short-lived (or long-lived but impossible to capture, like neutrinos or dark matter particles), and that means this doesn't give us new materials, and it is impossible to incorporate the particles into any kind of device. All the interactions are either extremely short-range (like the Higgs interaction) or long-range but extremely hard to detect (like neutrinos), so they could not be used for communication. We could sort of imagine the very high speed of the interactions being useful for computing; maybe the shape of the proton beam could be the input, and the Higgs interaction could perform a computation, which would scatter particles in a pattern that would be read as the output. But any "interesting" high-energy interaction is so rare that you have to run collisions literally for years to build up enough statistics to even make sure that it happens at all. Which, you know, isn't ideal for high-speed computing. Plus the output still needs to be detected and read off by regular old silicon-based electronics anyway! So no computing with the Higgs interaction.

So we are pretty confident that new energy, new devices, new materials, and new ways of communicating or computing are not in the cards. That covers basically all of technology as far as I can tell. This makes the article's comparison with radio waves misleading. Many times in history scientists made a fundamental discovery and didn't understand how to use it, but eventually people found applications. That is a completely different situation from now, which is that we have actual good arguments ahead of time for the idea that all possible new discoveries consistent with what we know now cannot yield practical technology, even in principle. It's the difference between a Victorian scientist scoffing at the idea that Man will ever fly like the birds, and a modern physicist explaining why travel faster than the speed of light is not possible. We have well-articulated theories now that sharply curtail the possibilities for what's out there, much better theories than in the past (and yes, we had those theories before the LHC was built; it wasn't needed to confirm them).

Yes, okay, we cannot be completely, mathematically certain that no good applications will ever come from particle physics. But at a certain point it's just a bad idea to spend your rent money on lottery tickets, no matter how big the jackpot is.

I'll eat my words if someone can find a single coherent proposal, no matter how speculative, by any scientist on possible technological applications of high-energy particle physics. I have never heard of one and would be very interested.

So if technology is out, then we're just left with kind of mystical ideas about the value of pure discovery and the destiny of humankind and stuff. And I question how much we actually value that in real life. Most laypeople do not spend a lot of time and resources learning about particle physics. How many people reading this could solve a textbook problem about the Higgs interaction? How many people have even read an entire popularized book about particle physics? Not many. So it must not be really that important to most of us. We just kind of get a warm fuzzy feeling from time to time when we're reminded about it in the news. That vague, small, vicarious nice feeling cannot actually be worth all that much. If all the money meant for the LHC magically went to UNICEF instead, I think most of us could somehow soldier on without the inspiration it provides. I mean honestly, listen to Bach or climb a mountain or something.

I'll end with a concession. People who object to this kind of calculation are not totally wrong. They are picking up on something important, which is that although fundamental particle physics is not the absolute best use of a few billion dollars, it is far from the worst. Far, far more money than the LHC budget gets routinely pissed away on meaningless consumer products that don't really do anyone any good, status displays, military boondoggles, bureaucratic waste, Wall Street predation, and inefficiency, selfishness, and folly of all kinds. Although particle physics isn't the very most optimal way to spend money, it is a far, far better use of money than average. So in a sense it is unfair and perverse to pick on particle physics, when there are so many better targets. That means that we should be suspicious of someone who specifically decides to go after particle physics as a waste of money; how did he even pick that as a target in the first place? There are probably indeed ulterior political motives, and maybe ones worth opposing.
posted by officer_fred at 10:49 PM on August 2 [13 favorites]


So we are pretty confident that new energy, new devices, new materials, and new ways of communicating or computing are not in the cards.

I don't know where you got that idea. The search for the Higgs Boson is extremely important because it's an attempt to understand what mass is, and why different particles have mass, and how much.

Which could lead to us learning how to do controlled conversion of mass into energy without all the round-about crap we have to do now (atomic fission etc.).

So-called "Pure Research" is research which at the beginning doesn't obviously have any use -- but nearly always does have, eventually. If the history of science tells us anything, it tells us that it all is useful, eventually. But you can't necessarily predict when, or how.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:12 PM on August 2 [14 favorites]


Freedom promotes science, but freedom is not exclusively republican or American. The desire of some people to relate every damn thing to the Declaration of Independence approaches the deluded monomania of old-fashioned Marxists.

It should only take a moment's thought to realise that the monarchical British society America rebelled against went on, in the nineteenth century, to be perhaps the most productive scientific culture the world had ever seen, its progress presided over by a Royal Society. Peter Higgs, celebrated here, worked all his life in a monarchy.

It's not that science has special importance in a republic. It's important in any modern economy, and it requires certain freedoms; it does not require a republic.
posted by Segundus at 11:29 PM on August 2 [4 favorites]


I'll eat my words if someone can find a single coherent proposal, no matter how speculative, by any scientist on possible technological applications of high-energy particle physics. I have never heard of one and would be very interested.
I would wager, then, that you haven't looked very hard. The cyclotron was invented and developed by people doing particle physics, and has been used to, among other things, treat cancer, make relatively cheap short-lived radioisotopes for diagnostic imaging, etc. That's just the first example that came to mind.
posted by introp at 11:30 PM on August 2 [13 favorites]


I'll eat my words if someone can find a single coherent proposal, no matter how speculative, by any scientist on possible technological applications of high-energy particle physics.

There's a fundamental logical misstep in this construction. Let's put it this way: If you look at any current human industry, product or activity, not one of them involves people going to the moon, right?

But this is a completely different thing than saying that the Apollo program did not yield things of practical value, because of course it did, in droves.

The purpose of high energy physics is not to get better at high energy physics so that you can use high-energy physics in your kitchen blender; it is to discover the nature, composition and characteristics of matter and energy itself. If you can't provide the imagination to see potential value in that, be sure that others can and will.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:39 PM on August 2 [6 favorites]


I love it when I spend five minutes refuting someone in the comment form (without posting), then do something else for a while, and when I come back people have effectively refuted him better than I would have. Yay Team Science!
posted by JHarris at 11:49 PM on August 2 [4 favorites]


An issue I have with what is otherwise a good article is that it avoids discussion of social inequality -- particularly about the role of slavery as a central component of the republic's wealth and economy for its first few generations; and about the expansion of the term 'General Welfare' to include peoples who were previously excluded (which would add another dimension to the character of the opposition to it). Perhaps the author believes that social progress is inevitable as a society advances in the scientific realm, which I am led to think by this quote:

So, in a republic, the highest duty of a statesman is to understand the present frontiers of science of technology, and where the boundaries of those frontiers must be expanded in order to find the answers to looming, as well as existing, economic and social problems.
(emphasis in the original)

Social problems being more readily solvable through scientific advance is an idea that this article seems to tenuously imply but leaves undeveloped. I would place social progress as a third, central goal alongside scientific progress and economic progress, not always acting in concert with the others, and that progress on social issues can have a positive feedback on both scientific and economic prosperity.
posted by all the versus at 12:29 AM on August 3 [2 favorites]


I love throwing money at pure science and everything, but I feel it must be said that Particle Fever is a terrible, dull documentary, probably because the makers felt they needed to add more of a human element & ended up showing us a lot of footage of one particularly annoying scientist rather than covering the science.
posted by univac at 3:53 AM on August 3


Yeah, the format of Particle Fever was not very good. If you want your movie to show the success of the LHC, then you need to have a build-up to that point that actually shows the difficulty of the undertaking. Instead the movie was "Here are some theorists giving the standard public-level spiel, oh look the machine turned on and was a great success be excited!" (also didn't help that the theorists weren't particularly compelling.) I kind of think that the movie could have either done 1) the Higgs or 2) the LHC, but attempting to do both makes it fall really flat.
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:18 AM on August 3


I came across a quote the other day from a man with a decidedly different opinion, St. Bernard:
To learn in order to know is scandalous curiosity.
I'm pretty sure it was the man, anyway. I suspect the dog St. Bernard would've been more generous and flexible in his opinions.
posted by clawsoon at 7:39 AM on August 3 [2 favorites]


> I don't know where you got that idea. The search for the Higgs Boson is extremely important because it's an attempt to understand what mass is, and why different particles have mass, and how much.

Which could lead to us learning how to do controlled conversion of mass into energy without all the round-about crap we have to do now (atomic fission etc.).


My impression as an outsider is that this is not considered likely. Both of the stable massive particles (proton and electron) are already the lowest-mass carriers of a conserved quantum number, which is of course why they're stable. Specifically, electrons are the lightest charged particles, and protons are the lightest baryons. To destroy an electron or proton and extract the energy, then, you would need to violate charge or baryon number conservation. But we have very high lower bounds on the lifetimes of those particles which correspond to very high lower bounds on the energies needed for charge or baryon violation, if it's possible at all. "Very high energies" in this context denoting particle accelerators the size of the galaxy. Impossible, in other words.

It's important to understand that this argument is rock-solid, based on what we know already. Future discoveries at the high-energy frontier will be about the details of interactions at high energies. Those details cannot be outside certain boundaries set by the nature of the low-energy physics that we understand now. For example we know that protons are stable, so therefore it must take at least a Galactotron to destroy them, and the fact that we don't know the details of how a proton would be destroyed does not change this. The high-energy details we might discover in the future are constrained by boundaries that we know right now.

> So-called "Pure Research" is research which at the beginning doesn't obviously have any use -- but nearly always does have, eventually. If the history of science tells us anything, it tells us that it all is useful, eventually. But you can't necessarily predict when, or how.

I've tried to argue that the situation is not like it was in the past. Instead of just being ignorant, we have known, specific, hard boundaries on what is possible. This is a strange, new situation in the history of science, pretty much unique to fundamental particle physics. This should be comforting -- my argument doesn't "threaten" all of basic science, just this narrow subfield.

> I would wager, then, that you haven't looked very hard. The cyclotron was invented and developed by people doing particle physics, and has been used to, among other things, treat cancer, make relatively cheap short-lived radioisotopes for diagnostic imaging, etc. That's just the first example that came to mind.

That's not what I meant. Particle beams have some applications, but that's different from the physics itself. I'm saying that there are no new technologies that depend crucially on the details of high-energy particle interactions.

> There's a fundamental logical misstep in this construction. Let's put it this way: If you look at any current human industry, product or activity, not one of them involves people going to the moon, right?

But this is a completely different thing than saying that the Apollo program did not yield things of practical value, because of course it did, in droves.


I see this argument all the time, and it is so deeply weird to me. Big blue-sky type projects like Apollo produce some spinoffs, but surely it would've been more efficient to just do basic research with the goal of producing some interesting new technologies, without having to actually go to the moon also. I'm suspicious that people who argue like this weren't actually convinced by the spinoff applications that Apollo was worth it; instead they already decided they like Apollo for other reasons and are just reaching for arguments to support it. If someone changed their mind about spinoffs somehow, they'd just switch to something else, because the bottom line is that they are just determined Apollo fans. Does that describe you at all or am I off base?

> The purpose of high energy physics is not to get better at high energy physics so that you can use high-energy physics in your kitchen blender; it is to discover the nature, composition and characteristics of matter and energy itself. If you can't provide the imagination to see potential value in that, be sure that others can and will.

If you had an actual idea for an application, that would be impressive. But vaguely imagining that there could be applications, because science is cool, is not impressive. I'm the one asking tough questions.

> I love it when I spend five minutes refuting someone in the comment form (without posting), then do something else for a while, and when I come back people have effectively refuted him better than I would have. Yay Team Science!

I don't think I've been effectively refuted at all, so I'd be interested in that comment if you still have it.
posted by officer_fred at 8:05 AM on August 3 [2 favorites]


I'll eat my words if someone can find a single coherent proposal, no matter how speculative, by any scientist on possible technological applications of high-energy particle physics.

Since we do not yet have a theory of everything our physics cannot now rule out:

new material science which could make virtually free energy from solar;

new material science which could make virtually free energy transmission from ambient temperature superconductivity;

new material science which could make virtually free sea water desalinization.

Would high energy physical force unification produce any of these as byproducts? I consider that highly unlikely but we don't know. As far as government jobs programs with high potential for tech byproducts go particle accelerators has got to be ranked up there with space exploring. Anyways officer-fred you wrote a helluva buzzkill comment there!

The two minute trailer looked great but I don't think I would be up for an hour of it. When I googled for higgs boson republic the top search result was dailykos where they reproduced the blogspot in full. I didn't know that dailykos was doing that.


As for Higgs experiment questions, I have two which I got from watching Margie Shapiro's google talk from 2007. (Actually I have one of my own, but another which was asked at the end of her talk by someone in the audience.) (1) (from the audience) The public pays for the experiment but has no access to the data which is controlled by the physics consortium members. What is to lose from opening up public access to the data and letting all the poor unaffiliated physics hobbyists see if they can find something in there? and (2) This is a lot of data. (petabytes? do the prefixes even go high enough for the amount of data ultimately created?) They filter the shit of the data stream before writing it to disk to restrict the amount to manageable levels. It has been awhile since I watched the talk, but I am pretty sure it is well over 99.9% of the data that goes straight to /dev/null. They rely on the reliability of extant theory to restrict themselves to the useful portion of the data to record. This is circular reasoning! Obviously they are very confident there is nothing of interest in the unrecorded data. Why should the public be so very confident they know they have that part of it right?
posted by bukvich at 8:26 AM on August 3 [3 favorites]


""Cherish the interests of literature and the sciences"! Compare that to the anti-science political hooliganism of conservatives, Tea-baggers, and Republicans today."
[...]
[Seems an odd beat to touch on "agricultural machinery".]
[...]
"...the Enlightenment was based on the belief that God was not arbitrary and capricious, and the universe was therefore created lawfully [...] This capacity for reason and understanding creation is what makes each individual precious and unique. It is why we assert that "all men are created equal.""
posted by xtian at 8:48 AM on August 3


If you had an actual idea for an application, that would be impressive. But vaguely imagining that there could be applications, because science is cool, is not impressive. I'm the one asking tough questions.

The tough question reduces to "prove to me that there will be (e.g.) new inventions by telling me what they are." If I knew that I'd have invented them, so if you mean specifically, that's an impossibly high bar, deliberately set impossibly high. So let me turn it around. Would the inability for a given person to predict the benefits of knowing the actual elements of the periodic table during, say, classical Greek times, have constituted a valid argument against spending time and effort studying metallurgy and chemistry?

But I will attempt one generalization -- exotic matter can be expected to confer advantages over conventional at least to the degree that synthetic materials invented largely during our present industrial era have, and probably vastly greater. If we know how matter is constructed, it doesn't follow that just because we had to use high-energy physics to discover it, that we need to use it to exploit the knowledge. Any more than we need to create huge high-voltage sparks to exploit radio, or a city-wrecking bomb to exploit knowledge of nuclear energy.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:52 AM on August 3 [2 favorites]


Big blue-sky type projects like Apollo produce some spinoffs, but surely it would've been more efficient to just do basic research with the goal of producing some interesting new technologies, without having to actually go to the moon also.

It seems that you're now reversing your position in re basic research, given that's what the LHC is.

Okay, I'll pivot alongside you. Setting yourself substantive objectives and real-world problems to solve is key to getting useful results over unuseful ones. If the researchers looking to sequence Neanderthal DNA -- a difficult problem that took years just to overcome the physical obstacles of degraded and massively biologically contaminated samples -- had not had very specific research objectives as opposed to "let's take neanderthal bones and throw them in test tubes with other stuff and just do arbitrary things and see if we learn anything", they almost certainly wouldn't have learned anything. And what they did learn tells us things we didn't know about where we came from, and implications in immunology and medicine are already starting to turn up.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:08 AM on August 3 [1 favorite]


That's not what I meant. Particle beams have some applications, but that's different from the physics itself. I'm saying that there are no new technologies that depend crucially on the details of high-energy particle interactions.
Neutrino communication where RF can't propagate. Neutron therapy (using, not surprisingly, kin to the proton beams you find in the LHC) for treating cancer. Antineutrino beams to perform deep-earth imaging to understand (and possibly better predict) volcanism, earthquakes, mineral and oil development, etc.

None of these require an LHC-sized accelerator to do, but the things we've discovered at Fermilab, the LHC, etc., allow us to understand particle behavior well enough to make the above things.

This is stuff that is figuratively on the top of my mind after thinking about it for an entire 30 seconds. If you're unaware of the benefits of high-energy particle physics research, that's because you're ignorant of the field, not because those benefits don't exist.
posted by introp at 9:09 AM on August 3 [6 favorites]


If we learn the deep truth about mass, we may also learn the deep truth about what anti-matter is. Maybe there's a cheap way to change a proton into an anti-proton which will come out of all this research. And if so, then it annihilates a proton and you get two proton's worth of mass converted into energy.

Impossible, you say? Based on what we know now, yes. But we don't know it all. As we learn more, maybe there's a way that will emerge.

A 19th Century physicist would say that lasers are impossible. But he didn't know about quantum theory. And now we produce millions of lasers every year.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:21 AM on August 3


I'm the one asking tough questions.

Yes, you are truly a national treasure.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:25 AM on August 3 [3 favorites]


On the flipside these arguments did succeed in wiping out the Waxahachie collider. From the article:

At six minutes into Particle Fever, Levinson and Kaplan include two clips of Republican Congressmen, Sherwood Boehlert and Joel Hefly, speaking on the floor of the House in 1992 against the Superconducting Super Collider, then in process of construction near Waxahachie, Texas. The Superconducting Super Collider had a planned ring circumference of 54 miles, and would have collided particles with an energy of 20 terravolts per proton, nearly three times the level possible with the Hadron Large Collider at CERN. But the US Congress voted to cut all funding for the Superconducting Super Collider in 1993, and it was abandoned long before being completed. It would, of course, have come online and made possible the Higgs boson experiments probably a full decade before the CERN HLC. Of course, no one talks about a "lost decade" of basic research in particle physics.

(Bruce Sterling's Dead Collider is a fantastic read if you have never seen it.)
posted by bukvich at 9:34 AM on August 3 [1 favorite]


I think we've shown that there was no value in exploring the world in wooden ships, since we do not now produce significant value by continuing to explore the world in wooden ships. So it must have been a waste of time and money.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:39 AM on August 3


bukvich, here are a couple of good articles from Matt Strassler about how great pains are taken to avoid that kind of circular reasoning in filtering the LHC data, by considering what might happen if the theory is modified in one way or another: 1, 2.
posted by mubba at 9:44 AM on August 3




There are science advocates who routinely deny the cultural value of spirituality, philosophy and mysticism. And yet, these individuals seem to be the first to demand that their own projects be exempt from the kind of hyper-empiricism that they demand of others. Is it any wonder that the general populous is unwilling to wax enthousiastic about science for the sake of science? Payback's a bitch.
posted by No Robots at 10:58 AM on August 3 [1 favorite]


Payback's a bitch.

Not everything is politics, and that kind of scorched-earth "payback" hurts everyone. "You won't indulge my voodoo astrological homeopathy project? Then I'll cut off your immunology and cancer research funding! Ha. Showed you."
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:11 AM on August 3 [6 favorites]


I have never agreed with the interpretation of American history, most popular on the left, that the United States was founded as an irredeemably oppressive and exploitative capitalist system.

(minor interesting fact: over ten percent of the population was literally enslaved)
posted by Greg Nog at 11:30 AM on August 3 [6 favorites]


Terrific article. Thanks for sharing.

I also would like to point out that in Rhaomi's link above, Senator Pastore was absolutely in support of the particle accelerator, in case the snippet didn't make that clear.

That same year, Pastore was part of a Senate committee that was concerned with dealing with Nixon's desire to cut funding to NET (now PBS), and Fred Rogers himself testified to save that funding, and Pastore was wowed by Mr. Roger's testimony. Sadly it is rare nowadays to have a politician be open to new ideas or modes of thinking that aren't necessarily tied to hard results or immediately tangible net benefits (which is I think a component of what the FPP is talking about).

Science and the arts are ways for us to explore and understand the universe and each other, and it is a detriment to society when they aren't allowed to blossom and thrive.
posted by theartandsound at 11:30 AM on August 3


On the public interest line, the general public might not care much for particle physics, but people do have a keen interest in astronomy and cosmology. The discoveries of high-energy particle physics are very important to our understanding of the early history of the Universe. It helps us understand why the Universe is the way it is, and other important questions along those lines that I think many laypeople are very interested in and also find significantly more relatable than the fine details of particle interactions.

The particular project of the Higgs Boson is about nailing down the physics of this previously theoretical particle. What mass does it have? What are its decay products? These things have very large implications for the structure of physics itself in our universe. It is not a small thing. The limits you cite against practical application are real things, for the most part, but your thinking is too narrow. This will not have direct practical applications itself, but it is part of much broader project, and it is an integral part of that project. This is how basic research works, and I am entirely unconvinced by your argument that this one project is special in its uselessness.

"We have no idea" is absolutely the right answer.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 11:40 AM on August 3 [2 favorites]


The argument that this work is "clearly" never going to have practical applications is one that could have been advanced about almost any scientific area in the first few decades of its existence.

Even projects which attempt ambitious technical goals and fail have had huge benefits. The space program was amazing - I consider the moon landings to be the best candidate for "greatest accomplishment of humanity so far" - but it actually failed pretty decisively in its main goal, the colonization of space, which might be hundreds of years away or even never happen (and will almost certainly never "pay off" in terms of bringing back huge quantities of riches to Earth or resettling a lot of its population...)

But what did we get out of it? Communications satellites had been predicted, but who would have thought how much of an effect weather satellites would have? Or the microprocessor? Teflon, rechargeable batteries?

Now, one pretty good argument is that it seems quite possible that there will be a point of diminishing returns for science and technology.

I don't think that's a complete given, but even if it were true, it is a certainty that we won't reach this in the next couple of generations. In so many fields, from nanotechnology through power generation through computation and even hard-core engineering disciplines like materials science, we have a pretty good idea what is theoretically possible, and it's going to be decades before we get anywhere within sight of these limits.

Even in those cases, the whole "science and technology" bet has paid off so well over the millennia that you rationally should keep better heavily on it until it finally fails. The small cost of the last lost bet is far, far less than the opportunity cost of missing out on "yet another breakthrough".

There's a whole separate question of sustainability - that we've created this tremendous Juggernaut that is rapidly consuming the world's resources and turning them into dangerous waste. It's hard to argue with that - the evidence is plain for anyone to see - but it isn't going to get fixed by getting people to give up technology. If humanity stops advancing scientifically and technologically it will be because we hit some resource brick wall and billions of people will consequentially suffer misery and untimely death.

For better or worse, if we're going to leave this party alive, we're going to have to leave with the date that brought us here. We desperately need to protect our environment, we need to not despoil the earth, but the way through this bottleneck will be through more and better technology.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:24 PM on August 3 [2 favorites]


I have never agreed with the interpretation of American history, most popular on the left, that the United States was founded as an irredeemably oppressive and exploitative capitalist system.

There's a lot to be said on both sides of this because it wasn't just one thing. But on your side of it it must be said that the British rule we rebelled against could be more fairly described as Corporatist than Royalist.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:50 PM on August 3


Beyond the immediate technologies used (say accelerators), expanding the boundaries of knowledge in particle physics -- that is to say, the fundamental, theoretical science -- has repeatedly and continually trickled down to applications and new engineering. The classic example is, of course, quantum mechanics. When it was being postulated and formulated in the mid-1920s it was about basic questions of science-- obviously of no practical consequence. Wrong. The internet, your computer, everything depends on us understanding the basic science of quantum mechanics.

Which is to say, tomorrow's materials science -- and eventually, technology -- depends on new fundamental knowledge generation today. Recent examples including topological insulators (and 2D materials in general), majorana fermions in semiconductor nanowires and superconductors and of course quantum computing. Knowledge generation at the boundaries of fundamental physics begets knowledge generation in more applied fields which leads to advances we cannot foresee. So, even if your idea of a society worth living in doesn't include one that invests in understanding its context and universe, there's a good reason to care about expanding the boundaries of knowledge in and of itself.
posted by strangeloops at 2:40 PM on August 3 [1 favorite]


I hope to see more comments on this post attempting to tear it apart.

Well I don't think I have time to properly tear it apart, but it strikes me as verbose and shallow.

There is an evident lack of any understanding of economics. Apparent ignorance of the fact that Japan right now has a trade deficit problem of its own stands out, as does the blithe dismissal of the not-insignificant subset of economists who do actually attempt to apply scientific principles to their work. Basing the argument for the importance of science and technology on its material return to "general welfare" is, when you get down to it, the very same thing as basing it on expected benefit to the economy. Economists are the exactly the ones who are supposed to be, and sometimes are, thinking deep thoughts about what that phrase might mean and how to enhance it. The discipline certainly has its failings, but this article does nothing to examine them.

The question of whether building a giant expensive particle accelerator is worth the cost is inherently a political one. You can't decide it simply by claiming that all scientific and technological development projects are always worth spending money on. If you think they are, I'll have a couple million dollars please, to attempt to develop a general-purpose robot (inspired by the earlier post on medieval armour) which would be inexpensive to manufacture and program, and would have sufficient manual dexterity to make chain mail. I believe it was generally more worthy projects than that, of a more scientific nature, that were used by the US congress members to argue that they had better things to spend money on.

As to the potential utility to general welfare of the LHC, I have no idea. Personally I think it's a great thing, but I've no idea how you would go about evaluating a ratio of its cost to its expected benefit in terms of technology that would keep civilization from bringing about its own demise due to environmental limitations. Is it somehow going to make it easier to build tractors and distribute condoms? It seems like an intellectually necessary thing to build powerful particle accelerators, because that's where the limits of understanding that part of the universe are at these days. Pushing against those limits has often enough led to world-changing technology, but might we not find some nearer and less-expensive limits to test instead? It's inevitably down to politics, which like economics is sometimes actually involved in doing the thing it's supposed to do, in this case making tough decisions that decide between competing interests, such as between particle physicists and NASA projects. I suspect there might be grounds to argue that the way they came to the decision not to build the Super Collider was ridiculous, but arguing that it was the wrong choice for the material well-being of the citizens would require more knowledge of particle physics than I've got, much more than the linked article provides, and indeed probably more than anyone can possibly have at present.
posted by sfenders at 5:01 PM on August 3 [2 favorites]


There are science advocates who routinely deny the cultural value of spirituality, philosophy and mysticism. And yet, these individuals seem to be the first to demand that their own projects be exempt from the kind of hyper-empiricism that they demand of others. Is it any wonder that the general populous is unwilling to wax enthousiastic about science for the sake of science? Payback's a bitch.

What a despicable thing to say.
posted by odinsdream at 7:15 PM on August 3 [1 favorite]


Science is expensive?

A million dollars isn't cool. You know what's cool? A billion dollars.

The LHC isn't expensive. You know what's expensive? The Iraq War.
posted by Monochrome at 10:06 AM on August 4 [1 favorite]


The real problem is with science that does make money: fracking, gmo, weapons systems. But the populous has no chance of throttling that.
posted by No Robots at 7:41 PM on August 4


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