Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What is all the thinking good for?

The other day I had to write a text explaining the importance of theoretical high energy physics and quantum gravity for the future of mankind. In layman's terms and less than two paragraphs.

I volunteered to do this because my frontal lobe starts shriveling whenever I have to endure somebody working in this area trying to justify their existence by confidently explaining that spin foams will one day dramatically improve the iPhone or so.

Okay, I'm exaggerating. But as I wrote previously it saddens me considerably that knowledge for the sake of knowledge doesn't seem to count as progress anymore. It's not that I don't value technological progress, I just don't think that's all that can “benefit the future of mankind.” As much as I criticized Slouka's article “Dehumanized”, I agree with him that we should stand our ground rather than adapting to external pressure that asks for material short-term outcomes. I finally wrote the following.

“What are we made of?,” “Where do we come from?,” and “What are the laws of Nature that we conform to?” are fundamental questions about our existence that scientists have studied for thousands of years. The quest to answer these questions and to understand the place of mankind in the vastness of the cosmos has lead to a great many of technological improvements. Material prosperity is a, welcome and desired, result that better knowledge of the fundamental laws of Nature brings. But knowledge by itself has also an immaterial value that feeds our desire to understand the world which brought about planet Earth and conscious life on it.

In the last century we have made dramatic progress with our understanding of space, time and matter, but open problems in today's best theories tell us that our knowledge is incomplete. New observations that can guide our learning have moved to very high energies and large distances. It is subject of our research in the areas of high energy physics, quantum gravity, and cosmology to combine the requirements of mathematical consistency and compatibility with observation to learn about the earliest moments of the universe, the elementary constituents of matter, and the structure of space and time itself. Among the most exciting and unforeseen recent insights is the connection between this research and condensed matter physics that is one of the focus areas at Nordita.

Nordita's website btw has undergone a general overhaul and is now remarkably improved.

You can go and shatter my world view by telling me the actual reason you're working on quantum gravity is that you want to become a billionaire with a new and improved GPS that locates your car keys with a precision of a Planck length.

30 comments:

Thomas Larsson said...

The practical utility of HEP and QG in less than two paragraphs:

"None."

You can of course argue that the science may lead to unexpected spin-off inventions like WWW. Like the invention of arpanet/internet is a good reason for military spending. But the science itself is practically useless. The energy scales are simply not relevant for terrestial phenomena.

Bee said...

But who knows what will become practical once mankind has successfully populated the galaxy?

Giotis said...

More than that a healthy civilization advances on all fronts. It can't be otherwise. You can't have a civilization highly advanced in technology and primitive in other disciplines (like fundamental physics or cosmology). A robust society should know its limits and boundaries on a given epoch on all fronts of progress; what is achievable, what is beyond reach, how far we can go. It must be self aware of its powers and weaknesses.

Uncle Al said...

Fundamental studies discover what we do not seek. The future is a pursued accident. Nobody wants our slums pursuing it alone. Managers cannot manage discovery, they can only manage to end it.

Gravitation and particle theories imply leaving Earth with a power source. Forty years of theory have zero empirical validation. There is a defective assumption. Columbus was a bust... but spreadsheets recovered after he was fired.

Jochen said...

When asked this question, I usually point out that actually, most things we do, we don't do because of their utility (and it'd be a sad state of affairs if we did). You don't climb a mountain because it'll help you find a new energy source, you don't make love to bring a new human being into the world to raise the GDP. Even the things that have uses, we generally don't limit to them -- eating serves to keep us alive, but in order to do so, we could sustain ourselves with some nutrient-rich, tasteless sludge. But we don't; rather, we eat things that taste good for the sheer pleasure of it.

Ultimately, doing 'useless' things is a large part of what defines us as human beings -- that we can take pleasure in such activities and pursue them for their own sake, rather than limit ourselves to mere necessity. Moreover, there are people making a living from doing such useless things, such as sports, simply because other people enjoy their output (though there's no use to that, either), which is certainly true of physics, as well (which has the perk that the fanclubs aren't as obnoxious, though also a bit smaller).

So if David Beckham makes umpteen millions doing useless things, surely there's some funds available for a pencil and some paper somewhere...

Anonymous Snowboarder said...

Bee - I think the issue is two fold. One, the cost of much of today's research (ie LHC) is enormous. Can we afford it? Are there better ways to pay for it? and..two, what is the rush? There has been many a tear shed over the possible cancellation of the hubble replacement due to the cost overruns. While it may be a personal tragedy to the community building it and perhaps using it down the road, is it a societal tragedy? Suppose 20 years from now a similar (and much improved) telescope is launched. Is the delay a problem in the long run?

One day perhaps I'll put all my thoughts on the topic down on my own blog but for now I think science, and big science in particular, must find a way to deal with economic climate and the fact that for many people in the world a slow down or even cancellation does not matter at all. [I personally am somewhere in between the extremes]

Arun said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Arun said...

Exactly, the question boils down to how much can we afford (or how much will stinginess hurt us) to engage in this exploration?

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

I think what you say is probably true, but it is also difficult to prove. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Jochen,

You said that very well. But now tell me, what replies do you get? Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Snowboarder,

Yes, fundamental research is an investment of our societies, one that only fairly advanced societies can afford, and it's not at all clear how much of an investment is useful and appropriate at any given time. Of course I can give you a long speech why the LHC is incredibly important and why we really really needed to reach the some TeV scale, but there is always the question if there are not more pressing things that we should invest money in. That's a very difficult question exactly because it is pretty much impossible to pin down the benefits of fundamental research. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Arun,

It is my impression that presently fundamental research on matters with only remote applicability are undervalued. The problem as I see it is that we tend to over-invest into areas that are already well funded with the result that we create bubbles in which a core of really great research is surrounded by a lot of fluff that just has the presently all-important keyword attached to it. (E.g. right now everything nano and neuro is hipper as hip.) I know you've been reading along for some while, so you know that I've tried to explain many times how the current organization of the academic systems amplifies this inefficient use of resources. In that spirit, you can read this blogpost as an argument to stand by ones' interests, even if they're neither nano nor neuro. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I think it would be fair to say that physicists, particularly theoretical ones, to be poor judges of the practical application of their discoveries and it is equality true that the exploiters and those who benefit from same are poor at knowing what aspects of science present the greatest opportunity. That is the only thing which can be assured, as to have been consistently demonstrated is whenever such knowledge is expanded the benefits sooner or later become evident such to have humanity all then able to boast and take pride at how special this aspect of our character is; that is to first attempt to understand the potential of nature and after expand upon and benefit from it by knowing.

The other thing that has been clearly demonstrated, that any excuse given for the maintenance of ignorance to almost always have the opposite effect. That is I often wonder when the majority of people are finally going to stop thinking of the pursuit of knowledge and understanding it brings in the context of it being original sin and realize it rather being the only hope we have for our salvation.

"Nothing, I guess."

"It's of no use whatsoever[...] this is just an experiment that proves Maestro Maxwell was right - we just have these mysterious electromagnetic waves that we cannot see with the naked eye. But they are there...


-Heinrich Hertz (replies when asked as to the practicality of experimentally supporting Maxwell’s theory of Electromagnetism)

Best,

Phil

walia said...

Novel Drug Delivery System (NDDS): Development of nanotechnology-based, sustained release and targeted delivery formulations with NDDS to reduce adverse drug reactions and side-effects in the therapeutic areas of oncology, NSAID, neuro science, arthritic disorders, stress and lifestyle related diseases, immuno chemistry, infectious diseases and wound healing.

Lower respiratory infections

Bee said...

See, the above spam comment is exactly what I mean. Nano and neuro have become marketing syllables.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

I very much would like to believe what you say, yet on my more pessimistic days I am far from sure that benefits of knowledge always surface and serve humanity. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I have similar concerns which I expressed in the second part of my argument and yet this also I would connect to those not understanding the potential of science in it having a demonstrated utility extending beyond considerations of a strictly material nature.

“Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.”

“At the heart of science is an essential tension between two seemingly contradictory attitudes — an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.”

“Science is a way to not fool ourselves.”


-Carl Sagan


Best,

Phil

Phillip Helbig said...

Of course, I'm in favour of research for the sake of research and also in favour of this being paid for out of tax money. Although it is not my justification, one can always point out spin-offs from pure research (not to mention applied) which are used by almost everyone today. Quantum mechanics, which was really esoteric just a few decades ago? Semiconductor technology depends on it, and with that these days---when there are more CPUs than humans on the planet---almost everyone, directly or indirectly. As Faraday replied when Gladstone (or Disraeli?) asked him what use his new discovery would be: I don't know, but some day you may tax it.

Arun said...

What are the most undervalued areas of fundamental research? I know the answer will be subjective and incomplete.

Bee said...

Superluminal travel? :o) I don't know, I don't think I have a good grasp on what's going on outside physics. Multi-scale phenomena maybe. Also, I think there's not enough attention paid to how little we know about the process of knowledge discovery itself. I'm not sure though that counts as fundamental research.

Kay zum Felde said...

Hi Bee,

well done especially I noticed that without science there's no technology. That's what most people forget, when asking for what reason the LHC is f.e. build up, besides making fundamental physics. I think to have people who are able to build up such a machine is great, since the knowledgment as you told Thomas Larsson can yield to fantastic new options.

Best Kay

Jochen said...

Bee said:
>You said that very well. But now
>tell me, what replies do you get?

A thousand-yard stare -- that is if the other party is polite enough to stay through the whole spiel... :P

Plato said...

Bee:“What are we made of?,” “Where do we come from?,” and “What are the laws of Nature that we conform to?”

What came to mind was housed in the questions and basis of a painting?

Paul Gauguin,
Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

The paintings use and how it can advance the question of the limitations we have placed ourselves as if "we are in a box?":) Figuratively, it is needed and ultimately leads to question of parameters, but also, about those parameters?

So is it about something greater then ourselves? That such a vast resource of knowledge is there for the understanding, that we have only forgotten? An idea, how is it nurtured to be brought forth?

If the world appeared to you in its conservative way then such perceptions will not exist outside of that frame of reference? Do you know it's boundary? Veneziano asked this same question? Mathematically, it is revealed?

Why wouldn't you be interested in QG if you had seen an anomaly in the world, that begs the question of what you may have taken for granted? Guth....identified a location?

Best,

Plato said...

For the tribe.

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?


"On the right (Where do we come from?), we see the baby, and three young women - those who are closest to that eternal mystery. In the center, Gauguin meditates on what we are. Here are two women, talking about destiny (or so he described them), a man looking puzzled and half-aggressive, and in the middle, a youth plucking the fruit of experience. This has nothing to do, I feel sure, with the Garden of Eden; it is humanity's innocent and natural desire to live and to search for more life. A child eats the fruit, overlooked by the remote presence of an idol - emblem of our need for the spiritual. There are women (one mysteriously curled up into a shell), and there are animals with whom we share the world: a goat, a cat, and kittens. In the final section (Where are we going?), a beautiful young woman broods, and an old woman prepares to die. Her pallor and gray hair tell us so, but the message is underscored by the presence of a strange white bird. I once described it as "a mutated puffin," and I do not think I can do better. It is Gauguin's symbol of the afterlife, of the unknown (just as the dog, on the far right, is his symbol of himself).


"Painting is the most beautiful of all arts. In it, all sensations are condensed; contemplating it, everyone can create a story at the will of his imagination and-with a single glance-have his soul invaded by the most profound recollections; no effort of memory, everything is summed up in one instant. -A complete art which sums up all the others and completes them. -Like music, it acts on the soul through the intermediary of the senses: harmonious colors correspond to the harmonies of sounds. But in painting a unity is obtained which is not possible in music, where the accords follow one another, so that the judgment experiences a continuous fatigue if it wants to reunite the end with the beginning. The ear is actually a sense inferior to the eye. The hearing can only grasp a single sound at a time, whereas the sight takes in everything and simultaneously simplifies it at will. Excerpted from "Theories of Modern Art", by Herschel B. Chipp Paul Gauguin

Best,

Plato said...

8 of 8
NanomandalaPhoto Credit: University of California at Los Angeles

The purposeful arrangement of individual atoms bears some resemblance to the methods monks use to laboriously create sand images particle by particle, however, Eastern and Western cultures use these bottom-up building practices with very different perceptions and purposes.

Bee, you underestimate the value of this research area. I mean if one has been exposed to the condense matter theorist point of view how is organization understood from the bottom up? Top down?

Microscopic views have pushed us back to the beginning of time, the big bang? Our creation? Taken us back inside? All of it is an illusion?

These advances in nano technologies have been asked by myself within my own industry, as well as, in the solar technological developments.

If you see it's possible applications then you know the future may be vastly changed?:)

Best,

joel rice said...

How about because we don't like being wrong. Thousands of years of making mistakes and paying the consequences proves the worth of doing the sort of experiments and observation to get a better clue.

David Brown said...

Esoteric multi-precision physics is valuable because an engineer needs to know 2 basic things: (1) what are the ways in which nature works and (2) what are the ways in which nature does not work. HEP can indicate what not to attempt.

Thomas Larsson said...

That EM and QM are esoteric is beside the point. Those theories are practically useful because they are relevant at terrestial energy scales. Modern HEP and QG describe phenomena at the multi-GeV scale and above. That is relevant in supernovas or the Big Bang, but not for commercial applications on or close to earth. How could one make a gadget using QG effects, if we cannot even produce such effects in the laboratory?

There are of course many good reasons to support HEP and QG, e.g. knowledge for knowledge's own sake ("Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen."), possible spin-off effects inside or outside science, or to keep the scientific heritage alive. But practical applicability is simply not one of them.

Arun said...

OK, it is now something to be aware of and to find out, of fundamental/ non- applied fields of science which are getting neglected.