Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.
Just to your second paragraph. Sure I think somebody else would have come up with something similar some years later. But I think the difference in economic impact if the www would have been invented 5 years later is already very big.

And on what project do you think these 1000s of smart people would have worked? Financial innovations? Micronukes?

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers

by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu Feb 21st, 2008 at 03:09:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think they'd probably be working that fart problem Pierre mentioned. It sounds pretty serious, to me.

Il faut se dépêcher d'agir, on a le monde à reconstruire
by dconrad (drconrad {arobase} gmail {point} com) on Thu Feb 21st, 2008 at 03:30:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You are not seriously claiming 1000s of smart people wouldn't have had anything useful to do? What would have happened if LHC funding didn't go through? I am quite sure the people involved had other plans, not just the people directly involved but also all the people working for companies that supply to LHC.

As for HTML, why not invert that idea? Perhaps without CERN it would have been invented earlier... The point is that there is so little relationship between CERN's activities and HTML that it seems too strong to claim that without CERN, the WWW would have taken 5 years more.

After all, the Web depends not not just on HTML, but on a whole lot of interdependent technologies, both in hardware and software, that were growing in the 80's.

by GreatZamfir on Fri Feb 22nd, 2008 at 05:16:56 AM EST
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You underestimate the importance of HTML in creating the web.

Particle physics had progressed so fast since the 1940's that the particle physics community had developed a system of "preprints" in which people circulated drafts of their papers to colleagues at their institutions and others months before they were published in journals. The story goes that Tim Berners Lee got tired of e-mailing documents back and forth to colleagues at CERN and decided to invent HTML and code a bare bones browser to allow him to (we would today way) webcast his research. There is something about the pace of information exchange within CERN and in the particle physics community that supports the idea that HTML might have taken 5 more years to be developed elsewhere (and it would have been some university or other: USENET and the text-based tools to go with it, and GOPHER, developed in that environment).

The large particle physics laboratories do employ thousands of physicists, engineers and programmers specifically for particle physics experiments purposes, and that is a nonnegligeable fraction of the respective academic communities. If the large labs didn't exist these people would be competing for academic jobs elsewhere and it would result in more people going to industry, as well as fewer people getting doctorates.

If LHC funding hadn't gone through, CERN would have stagnated and maybe shrunk. You need far fewer people to run the existing facilities than you do to develop a new facility, and the LHC research programme is much more intense that what can be carried out at the existinc facilities (not that that isn't useful, too, but it's on a smaller scale in terms of people and resources).

Consider CERN and the LHC a Keynesian stimulus package for physics and engineering.

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Feb 22nd, 2008 at 05:26:34 AM EST
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The key thing about CERN was that the people who work there are spread across the planet a lot of the time: HTML - and more importantly HTTP - were designed to solve exactly the problem of sharing information with a widely dispersed geographical community all of whom would be publishing data. It followed on from gopher in some pretty obvious ways but was much less structured, which is its main beauty.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri Feb 22nd, 2008 at 05:33:14 AM EST
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As an aside, it's only now, with people producing content all over the place that the original vision for the web is being fulfilled - the phase of company brochure sites was painful to watch.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri Feb 22nd, 2008 at 06:02:16 AM EST
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And we're doing it by working around the shortcomings of the current publicaiton model, as well.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri Feb 22nd, 2008 at 06:02:55 AM EST
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Thanks for these elucidations. To make it more general, could I say the idea is more or less "fundamental, difficult research is likely to encounter problems ahead of the rest of society, and is therefore relatively likely to find useful spin-off solutions" ?

After all, it is possible to predict in hindsight that CERN would be perfect to develop a useful hypertext sytsem. But if one wants to use the unexpected, unpredictable benefits of a project as one of the arguments for funding, there has to be a rationale why this particular project or field is especially likely to lead to unexpected benefits.

by GreatZamfir on Fri Feb 22nd, 2008 at 05:56:57 AM EST
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In addition, "big science" projects tend to have engineering specs just outside what is possible when they are designed. LHC (and, before, LEP) have required faster electronics than existed at the time they were designed, efficient cryogenics, superconducting magnets, and so on. In that way, CERN drives technology development just like, say, the specs for the next generation of high-speed trains or the Shinkansen do. The same is true of NASA's plans for the next generation of space telescopes (including gravitational wave detectors).

So, big science drives technological developments in established fields, as well as occasionally resulting in new technology. [I distinguish two basic modes of technological progress: secular improvements in technology and new technologies - only the latter qualifies as "innovation" IMHO, and that is not predictable in the way that one can use, say, Moore's law when designing the specs of a computer system to be deployes 5 years in the future.]

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Feb 22nd, 2008 at 06:03:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A bit off-topic, but the improvement/innovation distinction is another view I am rather sceptical about. If you zoom in on the 'improvements', you usually see the same picture again: Some of the improvements are seen as radical changes in the field itself, some still look as gradual improvements. Zoom in on the gradual improvements, same picture: what looks as gradual improvement from the outside, is unexpected innovation closer up.

I would argue it's innovation all the way through. Some improvements change a subfield, and from the outside it looks as gradual, expected improvement. Some change a field, and the outside world can notice it and say it's something fundamentally different.  

by GreatZamfir on Fri Feb 22nd, 2008 at 07:07:32 AM EST
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Well, actually, from the point of view of I/O models of the economy there's a distinction between whether an advance just changes the productivity/cost coefficients of the model, or changes its dimensionality by adding a new process or a new product.

The difference between the dynamical systems we are used to considering in physics and biological or economic evolution is the possibility of the system of differential/difference equations changing dimensionality in response to processes within the system itself.

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Feb 22nd, 2008 at 07:30:00 AM EST
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I would consider this more an artifact of the modelling than a fundamental point about reality. After all, how do you determine when a new product adds a dimension, or changes existing coefficients? As long as a product is perfect replacement of some existing product, only better along an existing axis, that's easy.

But in reality, new products/inventions, even improvements on existing ones, are usually not that simple. They add an extra dimension, more freedom to find better solutions to problems. But in a high-level, low dimensional description, this freedom can be collapsed into a change in parameters, or really added as extra dimension, if the effects are important enough.

Funny thing is, I am currently working on shape optimization, where it is completely natural to change the number of parameters used to describe the shape, and thus the dimension of the problem.

A related field is order reduction, where you try to (locally) approximate a physical phenomenon by its most important modes. If there is a change in the physics, you can either modify the modes, but keep the same number of them, or you might find that for the new situation more modes are required to describe it well enough.

I would suggest this is a good analogy for your innovation/improvement distinction

by GreatZamfir on Fri Feb 22nd, 2008 at 08:07:51 AM EST
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Well, a new dimension corresponds to a new manufacturing process, with different inputs. As long as there is substitutability you don't have "true" innovation.

I am familiar with dimension reduction (proper orthogonal modes, principal componets, factor analysis...) and you're right, at some level the number of variables is a matter of choice. But you still have to be able to close the system of equations. You can always ascribe the effect of all the neglected modes to "noise", though.

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Feb 22nd, 2008 at 03:10:26 PM EST
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