Sunday, September 23, 2007

Notes from Kelves (1995)

The excerpt from this book (readings for class) described a rise in basic physics research in the 1960s and again in the 1980s, and that this matched a similar pattern in the production of PhDs in physics.

I wonder if this was a question of people following money or one of more opportunities for people to enter into universities (thus obtaining PhDs). It is my opinion (completely unsupported) that the number of "nerdy science" types of of people are roughly a consistent proportion of a population. With the democratization of the access to science careers, it wouldn't be surprising that the total number of these inquiring minds increased. This, coupled with increasing specialization and professionalization (requiring higher level degrees to get a job in the field) found in physics of the time, led to a faster-than-expected growth in the number of physics PhDs; a legacy of baby boomers going into university. Maybe this is a reason why so many physics and engineering faculty seem to come from that period... Of course, as I said, this is my own untested conjecture.

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The discussion of the development in the 1960s of superconductivity at temperatures above 10K made me ponder the difference between utility and capability. True, with the development of greater superconductor technology, superconductivity (as a concept) became more feasible (i.e., increasing capability), but pursuing the use of superconductivity was still resource-intensive (i.e., low utility). This dichotomy speaks - I feel - to the difference between the theoretical (or barely applied) physicist's motivation against that of a heavily applied environmental scientist's. Namely, the costs of doing research in a small segment of physics was conducted once it was perceived by the practitioners as being feasible to pursue (an example of the concept of feasibility tracking directly with the concept of utility). True, there shouldn't have to be a general 'signing off' on the research requests of scientists (that is the technocrat in me), but having a disconnect between what a set of specialized elite feel is feasible in an internally-perceived fertile area of inquiry seems to me to open up the group in question to criticism from those outside their discipline (especially outside the larger group of 'scientists'); a ratio not in favor of the minority of researchers.

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High energy physicists were key figures in the nation's strategic defense and science policymaking councils. When they spoke, the American government tended to listen, mainly due to a convoluted piece of logic:

"seemingly impractical research in nuclear physics had led to the decidingly tangible result of the atomic bomb; thus particle physics had to be persued because it might produce a similarly practical surprise."

WHAT? So, just because A1 ended up causing X1, we should fund A2 because we feel that it will produce something as useful as X1? That is the same faulty logic that runs like this: We attacked Afghanistan in response to the attacks on 9/11/2001, and haven't been attacked in our homeland. Attacking Iraq in 2003 has will also also lead to not being attacked in our homeland. Okay, I digress...

Of course there was no evidence that this convoluted piece of logic would play out as intended. There is no evidence that the pursuit of physics over other science was "good" or "bad" in the past. Physics seemed to be a focus of research because the leaders of science policy were physicists. In the game Civilization III, there is a "future weapon" called an ecobomb (or something like that) which reverts an area around it "detonation point" back into a pristine condition; pre-settlement. If biologists had made an such a weapon (or something equally devastatingly analogous to the A-bomb) in WWII, would we have started the pharmaceutical revolution we now see way back in 1950?

Part of the problem with our viewpoint of science in this country was illustrated by a quote from physicist Walter Massey toward the end of the chapter:

"A major trouble ... was that people drew selectively on the past of the science to predict its future, that they started 'with World War II as if there was no science in the world or in America' before then, believing that 'the only standards' available for 'quality of life' are those that prevailed during 'the last forty years.' "

In that vein, I didn't realize that publicly funded physical science's relevance was questioned as far back in US History as the aftermath of the Civil War. However, it makes sense that the apparently esoteric research done by a minority of the perceived intellectual elite would be a target of fiscal conservatives (fearing a high-risk investment) and populists (seeing government subsidies of the rich over the poor). History doesn't quite repeat itself, but it does give out very similar story lines from time to time.

A common galvanizing call for support throughout that history is the justification of science funding because of national pride; science leadership. We wish to be leaders in science, but realize that we cannot be leaders in ALL science. Therefore, we need to choose (either implicitly or explicitly) on which science(s) we shall lead. However, once we do choose one area over another, we are going down the road of specialization, and while science (as a concept) may not proceed linearly, the people doing the science tend to stick around a long time.

By walking down the path of the SSC, the US federal government was (perhaps inadvertently) moving toward specialization. One "proof" of this was the gross difference in the amount of funding given to particle physics as compared to other fields of science: $5,000,000,000 for ~1000 particle physicists compared to ~$40,000 for areas of studies conducted outside this area. A particle physicist of the era might argue that the monetary needs of 'big science' requires a lot of money being spent. While this is true - big science costs big money - the work at issue in my previous statement is 'needs'. If physicists 'need' big science, then that need should transcend nationalism (the credo previously mentioned for continued/increased public funds). If US physicists were unable to bring the SSC adequately to completion in the US, they should cut their losses and step in to fund the more popular/cost-efficient program. Of course, what they did was try to continuously shove through more (and increased) funds for the SSC as the Cold War came to a close, as a recession hit the country, and as other Congresses were elected.

Soon "missing at the national level was what made physics ... so important since World War II - real or imagined service to national security."

In other words, as money spent increased, spendable moneis decreased, voters waited for the promises of the science given over a decade earlier. At the end of the project (1993), the political dynamics of the SSC had become divorced from tional security, and therefore became bait for domestic political attacks.

"Proponents of the SSC are from Texas, Texas, Texas, Texas, and Louisiana, and maybe someone from California. But my colleagues will also notice that the opponents are ... from all across the country." (Rep. Boehlert)

The death of the SSC was not caused by an unenlightened public, nor was it really caused by the ending of the Cold War. It was primarily killed by an unenlightened segment of the physics community that was unable to realign itself with the social and political realities that it faced. The development of the CERN facility in France/Switzerland is a testament to a well-packaged sale of a bill of goods to the relative countries that didn't have to be constantly re-justified at every turn and bouyed up by false (or still-unproven) promises. Harsh, perhaps, but there is a reason why there is no FermiLab counterpart to CERN, and much of it comes down (at the end of the day) to politics, politics, and politics.

2 comments:

Francois said...

"the number of "nerdy science" types of of people are roughly a consistent proportion of a population." -don't think so; this is tied to another issue in your paper; the rise of physics researchers in the '60s can be directly linked to much higher credits for physics research due to the cold war and, indeed, the success of physics with the nuclear bomb. There are very smart people that can be equally as practical as nerdy, to put it in some way, and that would not go into (pure) science unless there was some guarantee of a reasonable quality of life outcome.
Re. the convoluted piece of logic: I don't think that the government listened to the physicists; and the warped logic behind some of the funding was rather due to the fact that there were some notable imbeciles on committees like Lewis Strauss at the AEC that combined with some ambitious, egotistic and power-hungry scientists like Teller to justify grand-scale research into anything. Also, remember that at the level of the budgets you're looking at, anything however remote might be funded anyway. Both the fission and the fusion bombs were ran as crash programs, and (esp. for the former) that meant trying out all possible options simultaneously.
Finally, on the current funding of particle physics, have you taken a look at the recent vocal anti-String movement (Smolin and Woigt)?

Umlud said...

Ahh, but Francois, check what I wrote again (although I might not have been crystal on the point): the number of "nerdy" types (as a personality type) is (IMHO) roughly consistent through time as a proportion of a population. However, the total number of "nerdy" types in science would have increased since the 1960s, partially due to increased funding in maths and sciences (e.g., physics), partially due to the massive number of baby boom children, and partially due to access to universities.

I agree with your assessment that practical smart people may tend to stay away from (pure) science. However, practical smart people are not what I define (in my own unstated definition) of "nerdy", and are therefore not considered (plus, I don't know if a practical smart person would really like their expected QoL working around people with orthogonal priorities in potentially key areas of how to conduct themselves from their own. (Now, I'm sure that I'll get someone saying that I should be calling these people "dorks" or "geeks" something else, but for this case, these are all synonymous for the purposes of my point.)

The convoluted piece of logic, I believe, holds true. The vast majority of 'big science' funding (post WWII) hinged on some hope of a homologous promise to that of the A-bomb, mainly being fed by the paranoia surrounding Cold War strategic planning. Once the Cold War ended, the 'big science' projects of the Cold War era needed to re-invent the reasons for the existence. The SSC project (headed up by Cold War era scientists and politicians) was not able to do this. If the US was not struggling with a recession, unemployment, lack of government assistance, etc, then it likely could have continued. However, the overriding need was no longer the Soviet "Red", but the bottom line "red".

As for discrediting string theory, I have no comment (mainly because I don't really know much about string theory, or the anti string movement of which you speak). I am of the personal opinion that if physicists and mathematicians worked less on esoteric theoretical stuff, and more on practical save-the-world-on-which-you-live (so-people-like-you-can-do-more-theoretical-research-later) research, the populace (who don't really have time to figure out what all that esoteric theoretical stuff the white lab coat people do) won't be so hammed off with the white lab coat people, since (as is my central thesis) many in the populace have a construct of the white lab coat people as bringers of a better life through high technology, rather than a bunch of brains looking at theoretical issues so far removed from everyday life as to make the average person weep with wonder (if not think, "Why is my tax money going to fund this joker?").