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A very interesting perspective, but I'm not sure I agree with the premise implied by the title.

Applications are good and all, but research into basic science should be motivated by the question 'is this scientifically interesting?' rather than the question 'is this going to be useful?' Overwhelmingly, history shows that successful scientific theories eventually find practical applications, so I say let the engineers worry about that.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu Feb 21st, 2008 at 06:52:50 AM EST
Agreed. Why can't satisfying human curiosity be an end of its own? Furthering our understanding of "how things work" sounds plenty useful to me.

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde
by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Thu Feb 21st, 2008 at 07:19:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Even if curiosity is a good goal completely separated from application, something I personally do not believe, than it is still worth wondering if the LHC and high-cost particle physics gives the most important knowledge per dollar spend.

I remember reading a book by E.O.Wilson, in which he mentioned that a total inventarisation of world biodiversity, including all organisms in the rainforests, would cost on the order of 300 million dollar, an amount  incredibly high for ecologists. But LHC spends several times such a number per yearly.

It seems to me LHC and fundamental physics in general receives its spending still relatively easy as a leftover from the high days of fundamental physics around the middle of the previous century, when the strangest avenues of fundamental research would quickly result in applications.

So, funding for large-scale physics is partially a thank-you for the field that lead to electronics and nuclear power, and partially a hope for more such gifts.

by GreatZamfir on Thu Feb 21st, 2008 at 09:07:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Even if curiosity is a good goal completely separated from application, something I personally do not believe, than it is still worth wondering if the LHC and high-cost particle physics gives the most important knowledge per dollar spend.

Indisputably so, but that is an entirely different line of argument. Which is not, IMO, served very well by conflating it with a narrowly technological cost/benefit analysis.

There is indeed a case to be made that high energy physics and space exploration aren't sufficiently scientifically interesting to warrant the budgets they have, and if that is the case, then evaluating the applications makes sense, because then you need to sell it directly to industry.

But I will maintain that that's a different kind of analysis.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu Feb 21st, 2008 at 10:53:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
High energy physics is close enough to dying of success that the LHC should have been built because it can and just in case it shows that an essentially correct theory of matter at the regimes that can be probed experimentally in the foreseeable future has been known since the 1970's.

We have met the enemy, and he is us — Pogo
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Feb 21st, 2008 at 04:13:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
l receives its spending still relatively easy as a leftover from the high days of fundamental physics around the middle of the previous century
I don't think so. Receiving spending isn't easy, but quite a fight. The reason it is still financed is the result of excellent lobbying and PR.
Some colleagues here are working on an experiment which shall go to the ISS with a space shuttle. When after the accidents it was unsure if the experiment will get a flight, students were send to the US congress to directly convince representatives and senators.
Recently a laboratory in South Dakota managed to get a 7 million donation from a private person, just because he thought detecting neutrinos is cool.

When judging spending on particle physics one should as well consider, that a huge machinery will die and it is very difficult to reestablish it. If you stop research now, and in 200 years one would like to restart it, one would have to redo a lot of work and rebuild knowledge, which will be lost.

With ecologists its a special story. First I think that spending for ecologist projects and physics are not at all exclusionary. The spending on science is not so high that a bit more would do any damage to the society. But ecologists really are bad organised. When some astrophysicists had a project in the Adria (ANTARES, listen to high energy neutrinos) they asked some ecologists if they didn't want to participate and put some instruments on the chains to have long term Adria watching deeply under water. They hadn't and that is typical. In physics people usually come up with a huge number of projects once you have some type of large experiment.
Ecologists are not enough connected with each other to lobby for a big project. 300m really is peanuts for a developed world society with a yearly GDP of maybe 30 trillion.

The most important development of particle physics was html, and like this probably spin-offs really will exist in the future. If they are of such enormous reach is unclear, but for more specialised applications it will be good enough.

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers

by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu Feb 21st, 2008 at 01:36:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hmm, I don't know about the 'not at all exclusionary' argument. Even if it is true that both need more spending at this moment, there is eventually a limit on the amount of money that can and will be spend on 'knowledge for the sake of knowledge'. At some point you still need to argue that spending a marginal extra euro on particle physics is better than spending it on, say, pure mathematics, or  archeology, or ecology.

As for the PR: of course it's true, but it worth considering that most fields wouldn't even dream of trying to get these amounts of money, because no one would stop and listen to their arguments why they need billions of euros, no matte how good their PR would be.

In the end, I would argue that past applications really are a large reason particle physics can even consider to have a PR-fight for billions.

by GreatZamfir on Thu Feb 21st, 2008 at 02:52:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Inventarisation of biodiversity isn't 'knowledge for the sake of knowledge'.
If it would be done once, then yes, but done every ten or twenty years it would provide a lot of data to judge how important specific measurements of protection are. At the moment we are driving on a straight road in the night without light and don't know when there will be a curve, although it is very likely that there is one.

On the issue of deciding where to invest money for 'knowledge for the sake of knowledge', I would suggest let scientist decide, what they like to do most. And of course there is a level of saturation and a minimum level below which a branch of science can't operate anymore at all. This minimum amount is unfortunately in particle physics relatively high, as you want to have at least one high energy collider in the world.

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers

by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu Feb 21st, 2008 at 03:04:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It wasn't a premise, that research must serve a technical purpose. For me knowledge is one of the most noble things we can get. If it were for technical purposes the spin-offs of the attempts to get the difficult task done are anyhow much bigger than what I ever expect from the real physics.
But if you read in the media about LHC they will usually write about Higgs, extra dimensions, string-theory, sometimes Susy. But there are other interesting things as well and as a physicist working on bread and butter issues like meson spectroscopy I want to write about interesting stuff you can't read everywhere.

And selling is very important ;-)
Some time ago I read in the newspaper a discussion about humanities (word sounds strange, but that's what my dictionary gives me for 'Geisteswissenschaften') and science, where the author challenged the claim by humanists, they would be underfinanced due to the lack of economic useful results, as a myth. He wrote astronomers and particle physicists as well don't produce much more useful results, but are excellent at selling their work as important, while humanists lack any good PR for their subject.

Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers

by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu Feb 21st, 2008 at 01:12:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sorry, are people calling supersymmetry "Susy"? I hadn't heard that before. (I follow developments in this area, but only very infrequently and from afar.)

I agree that there should be research for the sake of research, but I don't think there's anything wrong with speculating about what practical benefits may accrue from the research, as long as it isn't argued that the research is conducted solely for those practical reasons. We can look for them, and even try to anticipate what they may be, but we must not allow them to become the raison d'être for research.

As for the humanists, their subject of study just isn't all that popular with people. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say. ;)

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 03:27:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yep, susy is the shortform of Supersymmetry and used pretty often even for conferences.


Der Amerikaner ist die Orchidee unter den Menschen
Volker Pispers
by Martin (weiser.mensch(at)googlemail.com) on Thu Feb 21st, 2008 at 03:46:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, they've been calling it that for over 20 years.

There was a time when supersymmetric models were all the rage. Now supersymmetry is a requirement to make string theory consistent and string theory is all the rage, so SuSy lives on, even though people have burned the original SuSy papers they wrote in the 1980's.

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

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Feb 21st, 2008 at 04:06:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Martin:
He wrote astronomers and particle physicists as well don't produce much more useful results, but are excellent at selling their work as important, while humanists lack any good PR for their subject.

Except for the economists - arguably not so human at all, but easily the most successful of the humanities.

PR is usually seen as 'public education' - it's not usually acknowledged that it has a direct influence on research funding and future research directions.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Feb 22nd, 2008 at 08:23:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah, but isn't the big PR point of economics that it sells itself as not a social science or liberal arts field?

More specifically, they claim they understand their subject well enough, at a quantitive level, to do detailed prediction and policy prescription, something the humanities in general are very reluctant about.

by GreatZamfir on Fri Feb 22nd, 2008 at 08:32:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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