Sunday, April 29, 2012

Weinberg on the Big Science Crisis

I was directed to an article by the acclaimed physicist Steven Weinberg through a link in this blog. In the article Weinberg is arguing that in the USA Big Science has already missed some golden opportunities, including building a collider much more powerful than the Cern Large Hadron Collider. The story in about that funding fiasco is sad but common, once again indicating that political concerns too often dominate spending decisions.

The picture is not a pretty one but what really surprised me is that towards the end of the article Weinberg lays out his cards in no uncertain fashion. He is not happy with the economic settings of the USA. Thus ...
I am not an economist, but I talk to economists, and I gather that dollar for dollar, government spending stimulates the economy more than tax cuts. It is simply a fallacy to say that we cannot afford increased government spending. But given the anti-tax mania that seems to be gripping the public, views like these are political poison. This is the real crisis, and not just for science.
It is a difficult issue because the dividends of Big Science can be far into the future. A good example of this is the concept of "spin" in quantum mechanics. During the mid-20's the bods in Copenhagen did realise that they needed more metrics to understand the behavior of an electron and so did find a little known branch of mathematics praise be to drunken Irish mathematicians that allowed them to come up with the property of "spin". Some 60 years later a bod realises that we can use the concept of spin to creating an imaging device that will revolutionise modern medicine, as it has done. MRI is impossible without the concept of "spin".

Read the article by Weinberg. He goes through a long history of major breakthroughs in science and highlights the changing nature of the challenge over the century. This is not the economic time to establish Big Science projects but if we tarry too long that is time irreversibly lost. It reminds me of the challenge to the meta-mathematician Paul Erdos, who used amphetamines for the last 20 years of his life because claimed he could not do mathematics without those drugs. A friend challenged him to stop for one month on the grounds that he had become addicted. Paul Erdos immediately and easily met the challenge. His response to his friend was: you have put off the progress of mathematics by one month. You'll find that story in a great biography of Paul Erdos, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. How long can we wait? I don't know but I have a sneaking suspicion it could be a very long time because in the coming decades our intellectual energies will be directed to more immediate practical concerns.

No comments: