Sunday, May 09, 2010

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge

In May 2007, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the government's new Science and Technology agenda. The location they chose for this happened to be Perimeter Institute. I blogged about the event here. To introduce the Prime Minister, Mike Lazaridis, founder of the Institute said a few welcoming words (Video and audio here). An excerpt:
“We believe that bold focus and continuing investments in theoretical physics and its applications result in further breakthroughs. These in turn will be the basis for tomorrow's goods and services [...]

If we learned anything from this great experience that is Perimeter and IQC, it is this: Canada can lead the world in key scientific fields from which future economic prosperity and job creation will flow - as long as the private sector and governments make bold, focused, and long-term investments in carefully chosen fields.”

I didn't write about Lazaridis' words then because I distinctively recall feeling let down. So all the fundamental research we do, in the end it's all to produce something that you can go and buy at the mall? Needless to say, I do believe there is value in knowledge just for the sake of knowledge. Curiosity and the wish to know - where we come from, what we are made of, what is out there - is one of the key drivers of our development, both as a species and as a person. Material prosperity is a, certainly welcome and desired, result that better knowledge of the laws of Nature can bring. But knowledge itself also feeds our desires, even if it remains immaterial. Whenever somebody justifies fundamental research as an investment in future technologies (international competitiveness! economic prosperity! job creation!) they are missing half of the story. Yes, that's one of the reasons. But the other reason is that we just want to know.

Now I've never talked to Lazaridis and I actually don't know what his opinion is on the matter. It is very well possible that his speech to the Prime Minister was just a collection of “right things to say on such occasion.” (My only encounter with Big Mike was a very short one. I had been to PI's gym on a weekend and after half an hour or so on the treadmill had the sudden urge to look up something in a book. Sweaty and without glasses I headed over to the library, where a group of important looking grey suits were just being shown around. Thinking that I might leave a somewhat unfortunate impression, I silently vanished.) But leaving aside Lazaridis and the Canadians for a moment, the idea that tax-paid fundamental research in the end should produce some sort of *stuff* is unfortunately wide spread.

Last year Paul Drayson, Minister of Science in the UK, said
“Scientists should be accountable where work is funded by the taxpayer and therefore I think it is right that scientists should be asked to think about the impact that they have had.”

(as quoted in THE "Science, we have a problem."). What bothers me about this quotation is the implicit assumption that scientists do not think about the impact they have. As if scientists would not care whether their work is relevant for the society they are part of. I previously wrote that in my experience it is a crude misconception. Most people I know who work in fundamental research do actually suffer from feeling useless for the exact reason that the impact of their work is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. It is often even difficult to communicate. But think about it: there is the prospect that their work will fundamentally change the way we understand our own place in this world, possibly some centuries into the future. How do you want them to account for that?

To come back to the Canadians one more time, on page 20 of Canada’s Science and Technology Strategy, Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage, you can read:
“Science and technology is not an end unto itself. It is a means by which we can pursue sustainable development.”
(via Jeff Sharom). I am all for sustainable development. I am also totally in favor of innovation and I love my BlackBerry. I have a lot of fantasy and can imagine that our rapidly improved understanding of, for example, the first moments of the universe might one day lead in mysterious ways to an application. But sometimes science is an end unto itself.


  1. Hi Bee,

    I agree with you, that knowledge for the sake of knowledge should have a place in the world, for the reasons you mentioned.

    By the way, the knowledge to build a machine like the LHC is very valuable to the economy, since it surely will yield to goods that the society will use. And so things like quantum gravity or QCD are leading to valuable goods for the society.

    But I also think, if the LHC would not have these effects, means if knowledge only for the sake of knowledge would be produced it would be correct to support such a thing.

    Best, Kay

  2. Hi Bee,

    Though I think it is important to emphasize the relationship between science and technology I think it's unfortunate that the two have come to mean the same thing in many people's eyes, even those who should know better like the UK minister of science.

    Science is the pursuit of knowledge, technology is the application of our knowledge to building things. There is a lot of overlap in certain areas like materials science, but we shouldn't forget the original motivation that is a justification in itself: Understanding.

    I think the main reason this isn't always clear is that we expect people to know the history of science we take for granted. We talk about the importance of science with both the benefit of knowing what science is and its role in history, without ever explicitly explaining both. I took the opportunity to try to explain this to someone who wrote an all too common opinion piece in an article deriding space research. I was very satisfied to see a followup article a few weeks later citing many email replies, mine amongst others, which changed her mind about the original piece.

    It made it feel worthwhile to express my views, I hope you don't mind if I link to the email I sent her:

    (i'm not taking this as an opportunity to push my blog seeing as that's the only blog post on there since last year.. I'm glad other people aren't as lazy as me or I wouldn't have so much amazing stuff to read :P)

  3. Bee,

    Science, especially science at taxpayer expense, has always been a bit of a swindle. The fact is that only a tiny fraction of those who pay the bills have even the faintest clue as to what it is that people like you do. From their point of view, you are taking their money to play a game they can't see and don't care about. The best defence has always been what Faraday said when some PM (Gladstone?) asked "What good is it?"

    His answer: "I don't know, but someday you will tax it."

    It was a very good prophecy, and one which worked again and again through history.

  4. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge makes no sense.

    Science is only interested in knowledge which is *potentially* useful (in a very liberal sense) and such knowledge is just a tiny subset of all possible knowledge.

    For example no one is trying to determine how many grains of sand there are on each beach, or how many vowels there are in every published book, those are examples of knowledge which is and will remain completely useless.

    Answers to deep questions which you mention are also an example of potentially useful knowledge and not knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

    Yes, we study because we we want to know, but we want to know because we hope the answers will be useful.

    A completely different point is that taxpayers have all the right to decide what they want to fund with their money.

  5. Don't trust anybody whose name sounds like Emilio Lizardo.

    Some say the purpose of science is to discover. Discovery is attended with risk, and thus an unacceptable investment. The real purpose of science is not to screw up. Lest anybody take that lightly, consider social activism, economics, the EV-1, the New Coke, and string theory,

    arxiv:hep-th/0302219: "It is much more likely that the number of discrete vacua is astronomical, measured not in the millions or billions but in googles or googleplexes" [sic].

    Oh, Lenny... did a Mormon teach you how to keep a straight face when spewing Official Truth?

  6. Blair Kinsman, in his 1957 work, “Proper and improper use of statistics in geophysics,” succinctly summarized the scientific process:

    “The job of a scientist is to invent a story which accounts for a set of observations and then decide how likely the story is.”

    This pithy summary implies that:

    1) Since a story is of interest, only if there are potential listeners who might see some value in having it communicated to them, science is socially driven.

    2) The process has to involve (potential) real world observables.

    In so far as people appreciate that understanding the world, in all myriads of ways, can make life safer, more certain and more comfortable – and perhaps more interesting – they are also implicitly accepting the proposition that "knowledge for the sake of knowledge" has general survival value.

    And that's a bit broader than just "goods and services".

  7. "Science and technology is not an end unto itself. It is a means by which we can pursue sustainable development.”

    Gah! That is possibly the scariest quote I could start my day with! And, as some of the above postes had noted, the implication that science and technology are somehow the same smacks of ignorance of both.

    Needless to say, I agree with you fully.

  8. We are scientists simply because we are very curious.

    Being so curious, we have realized that we are finite creatures. And being finite creatures we became even more, more and more curious.

    We want to know everything possible. If we were eternal, we wouldn't really care.

    If what we find is useful, then good. Curiosity continues anyway, regardless of utility.

    We are scientists because we really cannot believe that we are here, that we exist, that there is so much around us, we came to be part of all this, we want to know what, how and, if possible, why.

  9. As a mathematician by training and now an actuary I pay a huge amount of UK tax. Is it unreasonable for me to expect the major part of the tax on my hard earned profits to be is directed towards science that brings practical benefit or holds up at least the reasonably likehihood of practical benefit?

    Pure science for its own sake is a laudable pursuit but should it not be funded on a voluntary basis by those who wish to fund it?

  10. Hi Bee,

    I don’t think you have the motivations of Mike Lazaridis wrong, except perhaps they are not so much focused around only him, his company or even his country as being the sole beneficiary. That fact is, Lazaridis sees himself as a creator of things, which he does find as improvements to the human condition from primarily the material point of view. I think as you have read Burton’s book on the founding of PI, then being aware Lazaridis said to Burton he sensed that humanity was on the brink of a paradigm shifting discovery and he wanted to get involved as to help expedite and better assure it happening as soon as it could. However despite what his motivations be ,the bottom line is that what it was set up to accomplish, as to be successful, necessitates that new knowledge be discovered.

    On the other hand, I would admit that I’m with you, as for me the thrill in learning things is to come to know something I never did before and perhaps at times to be able to take this further to have things understood in ways I had never considered. The hard reality however is that pure research has always required it have patrons, as so it might be carried out and there is almost always something in it for the patron to have them to be interested, whether that be direct financial gain, power advantage or just to elevate the status of the individuals or group in the eyes of others.

    So for me the way I look at it, if what you’re doing as allowed by the funding of your patron(s) can be accommodated by your own ethical sensibilities, what should you care what value such people think that it has? I’m aware that Archimedes invented war machines to protect his state from invasion and DaVinci did the same, yet would we have them been prevented from discovering all that they did, because there patrons didn’t find it to be important in the same way as these discoverers did? So I say I welcome the Lar=zardis’s of the world dreams of us having the ultimate computer, as I’ll still be dreaming of what that discovery could have me and others further to know about ourselves, the world we live in, yet most importantly reality itself.



  11. tspin, brian: no one is saying taxpayers don't have the right to decide how their money is spent. all that's being argued is why spending money on science for its original motivation of understanding and knowledge is worthwhile in itself, not least because history shows such pursuit leads in the (very) long term future to unforeseeable applications. The important fact is that these pursuits could not at the time have been justified for anything other than curiosity's sake, and the emphasis is for the taxpayer to understand that this is the real reason for doing science. That doesn't invalidate more applied research, but it shouldn't exclude blue sky research.

  12. Tspin,

    At least for me knowledge itself has value, which is what I mean with knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It is useful in the sense that it helps us understand our place in the world, and I think there is possibly knowledge that might have no other use than just understanding, which does not make it worthless, just that the worth is not material. I don't see what is gained by terming knowledge potentially useful or not. Possibly you just mean the same as I, you just use a different choice of words? Best,


  13. Hi Uncle,

    I guess one could say indeed one of the purposes of science (or the duties of scientists) is not to let us screw up. Best,


  14. Brian,

    Of course it is not unreasonable. You have an opinion and thanks to living in a democracy, you can go and vote appropriately. My opinion, as expressed in this post, is that solely focusing on research that potentially ends in applications misses out what I believe are essential human needs, the wish to understand. Best,


  15. Saké for the knowledge of saké!

    works too :)

  16. Thank you for a very interesting post.My loyalty is with technology, unlike apparently most of the blog readers, and so perhaps my opinion is closer to the maintstream. Is knowledge for its own sake ie of direct interest only to a tiny group of people any different than say interest in a hobby? If not then why should society pay for that curiosity if it contains no utility? Having said that, the utility of science can be very broadly defined to include second order effects. Perhaps all this implies is that there should be a ranking based on the broad definition of utility if the science is to be done at public expense.

  17. Morris: If someone pursues knowledge for its own sake, there will very often be useful technological spinoffs. If one pursues only "useful" knowledge, the results will be quite unoriginal. The point of science(life) is not just more and better technology. To quote Piet Hein in one of his grooks:
    "I want to know what the whole show's about
    Before its out."

  18. GW: Perhaps you missed my point or I wasn't clear. Second order effects of let us say "pure science without any visible utility" would certainly include possible "tech spinoffs" and further other more abstract effects eg establishment of more rigorous/novel thinking processes, education etc. Secondly my point is that although the utility is very broadly defined, the merit for public support can be ranked.

  19. You can buy Hawking's and Brian Greene's books in the mall, and Woit's and Smolin's books in well-sorted bookstores. That is a contribution to GNP, too.

    However, comparing the practicality of particle physics with EM is flawed, because of the relevant energy scales. Early applications of QM dealt with terrestial scales of order eV - chemistry, atoms, solid state. In contrast, GeV and TeV conditions are only relevant in supernovae and in the big bang, which are hardly commercially interesting.

    However, the problem with theoretical physics today is not that progress is practically irrelevant, but that progress is absent.

  20. Hi Bee,

    Just as a follow up of what I expressed earlier, I would ask the question, that when JFK inspired an entire nation to have it dedicate huge resource to putting a man on the moon, do you think either he or the vast majority of those he convinced envisioned this having us able to develop telescopes and instruments created to be launched whose purpose is to aid in answering some of humanities deepest and most profound question? It is things like this that has me understand that there is no distinction to be made as to the purpose and intent of discovery, as the end result being always having as necessary new knowledge.

    That is utility being something found as merely things of our own invention, while the truth always being what it is as being waiting to be discovered. There will always be those that find truth and yet fail to appreciate its beauty and yet that will never have it not to exist as to be unappreciated by others. So rather than scorn them for their lack of vision, we should pity them instead and be at least thankful they find any value to discovering the truth at all.



  21. Hi Morris:

    "Is knowledge for its own sake ie of direct interest only to a tiny group of people any different than say interest in a hobby? If not then why should society pay for that curiosity if it contains no utility? Having said that, the utility of science can be very broadly defined to include second order effects. Perhaps all this implies is that there should be a ranking based on the broad definition of utility if the science is to be done at public expense."

    See my reply to tspin above. Yes, one could also say that focusing on technical applications is a too narrow measure for utility (or usefulness, however you want to put it). That's just a different way of saying what I said. The question is however if not there is a use in things beyond impact on economic measures. I definitely think so. It is well known that the GDP misses out on a lot of what contributes to good life.

    As I expressed in my post, and that is also my experience from talking to most non-academics, that there is a broad interest in fundamental research simply because people want to understand. I also think that this understanding contributes significantly to the quality of life (it's not only the absolute value of that knowledge, but also its increase). When I talk to people from the general public (taxi-drivers, people I meet at airports, in cafe's, public lectures, etc) they often ask about the big bang and the limits of science (and how it relates to religion), they often ask about black holes, the interpretation of quantum mechanics, but they also often have oddly specialized questions, like what symmetry breaking is or what a continuum is. It very often is the case that they've read something which has made some sense to them, it seems to explain something and they want to know more. (So it comes in handy if a physicist crosses their way.) It has never happened to me that I explained something about eg black holes and then would be asked what's it good for.

    It is for this reason that my personal experience of what people regard valuable matches so badly with what is presented as goal in politicians speeches, that I am bothered by this mismatch. Best,


  22. Hi Phil,

    "Lazaridis sees himself as a creator of things, which he does find as improvements to the human condition from primarily the material point of view."

    Well, it seems to me somewhat odd to discuss motivations of 3rd people, when neither of us has a reliable way of knowing, so let me just put this more generally, leaving for now aside Lazaridis in particular.

    There are many reasons why (very rich) people make donations to fundamental research. Long-term investment in material spin-offs (economic prosperity) is certainly one of them. But I think (if I was rich...) an equally important driver is simply that they want to be remembered. They want to do something that touches the lives of a lot of people, and they want their name to be attached to it. But that can happen in many ways, it doesn't necessarily have to be about technical applications. A lot of the great names of, say, the ancient Greeks that we remember, how many of their still influential writings had technological applications?

    I found it funny that the value of knowledge itself was so left aside in Lazaridis' speech in particular since Perimeter Institute's public lectures are such an excellent example for how knowledge for the sake of knowledge contributes to the quality of life in this community. You and I, we have both been at some of the public lectures. They are typically sold out immediately, and the room is packed. It is my impression (and writing this blog is another way to see this) that clearly people want to know. Sure, research that has the explicitly purpose of eventual leading to technical application (think eg quantum computing) sparks a lot of interest, but that's not the only thing that people look for. They also look for inspiration in science. They want to know their place in the world and how things work. Best,


  23. Hi CIP,

    "The fact is that only a tiny fraction of those who pay the bills have even the faintest clue as to what it is that people like you do. From their point of view, you are taking their money to play a game they can't see and don't care about."

    Yes, that's true, but that's a communication problem. What people are interested in and what they care or don't care about depends a lot on what they are exposed to and on the values that they have grown up with. I don't think the lacking interest or the sense that it's a waste of money is innate. I have the impression that this communication between scientists and the public is improving and hope it will continue to improve. Best,


  24. Hi Thomas,

    "However, the problem with theoretical physics today is not that progress is practically irrelevant, but that progress is absent."

    That's simply not true. It might be the case for theoretical high energy physics, but that's not all of physics. Just take the whole quantum information stuff and all the experiments about quantum properties of very diverse sorts of systems that have only become possibly very recently. I think that's totally amazing. And then think about the progress in cosmology during the last decade! I personally am not very bothered by progress in some areas slowing down or stagnating. The more detached from our every day experience the subjects of our research become, the more difficult it is to find means to study them. To me that's not a reason to give up, but a challenge to try harder. Best,


  25. Hi Bee,

    As the saying goes you are preaching to the choir:-) However unlike yourself I’m not convinced the choir is as large as you perceive it to be, as I find many people’s interest to be as shallow as the world in which we currently reside. That is there are many that profess to have interest, yet it be more for reasons of self esteem or self image, as to opposed to what they would have us believe.

    So just as many go to church on Sunday to sport that new hat or to show how good they are, many go to public lectures and politely engage in conversation for similar reasons. That is true interest is something only discovered by means of a test and that comes in discovering what people actually have learned as opposed to what they say they have interest in. So like science itself, the interest in it can be assigned metrics, which one can apply. I once proposed something of the sort to be applied to lectures they called the “Black Hole Sessions” for which I was almost totally ignored, and so my opinion will be wighted by what I can measure rather than what I would like to beleive,



  26. "The fact is that only a tiny fraction of those who pay the bills have even the faintest clue as to what it is that people like you do."

    The fact is that only a tiny fraction of the bills paid constitutes what people like you do. Two orders of magnitude more is spent on e.g., the Pentagon, and even Congress has the faintest clue about how the money is spent. All most people know is "$600 hammers".

  27. To highlight the point about how besides the point it is to quibble over the tens of billion dollars spent on science, while ignoring the huge blackhole called the Pentagon, there is an excerpt from a Bill Moyer's show:

    SPINNEY: But essentially if you try to understand what's going on in the Pentagon and this is the most important aspect, and it gets at the heart of our democracy. Is that we have an accounting system that is unauditable. Even by the generous auditing requirements of the federal government.

    Now what you have to understand is the kind of audits I'm talking about these are not what a private corporation would do with a rigorous accounting system. Essentially the audits we are required to do are mandated under the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990, and a few amendments thereafter. But it's the CFO Act of 1990 that's the driver.

    And it basically was passed by Congress that required the inspector generals of each government department, not just the Pentagon, but NASA, health, education, welfare, all the other departments, interior department where the inspector general has to produce an audit each year. Saying, basically verifying that the money was spent on what Congress appropriated it for. Now that's not a management accounting audit. It's basically a checks and balances audit.

    MOYERS: But in laymen terms explain that.

    SPINNEY: It's to enforce the accountability clause of the Constitution. Which means that you can't spend money unless Congress specifically appropriates it. Well, the Pentagon has never passed an audit. They have 13 or 15, I forget the exact number, of major accounting categories. That each one has it's own audit. The only one of those categories that's ever been passed is the retirement account.

    Now under the CFO Act of 1990 they have to do this audit annually. Well, every year they do an audit and the inspector general would issue a report saying we have to waive the audit requirements, because we can't balance the books. We can't tell you how the money got spent.

    Now what they do is try to track transactions. And in one of the last audits that was done the transactions were like… there were like $7 trillion in transactions. And they couldn't account for about four trillion of those transactions. Two trillion were unaccountable and two trillion they didn't do, and they accounted for two trillion.

    MOYERS: So, you mean, they're…

    SPINNEY: They don't know where the money's going.


    Maybe the above was too much knowledge for knowledge's sake. But accountability of expenditures for scientific research hardly suffers from the problem above. One can verify that the money was spent as intended. (If you can't even verify that, how can you check whether you have the intended or useful results?)

  28. Bee wrote:

    When I talk to people from the general public (taxi-drivers, people I meet at airports, in cafe's, public lectures, etc) they often ask about the big bang (...) interpretation of quantum mechanics (...) what symmetry breaking is or what a continuum is.

    We definitely live in different planets.

    If people I met out there did such questions (and not, e.g., about football, the next top model or the weather), then I'd either think I was dreaming or going mad.


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  31. Hi Bee,

    I just had to chime in one more time, to simply have it clear that I agree that knowledge should be perceived to have value beyond simple materialist exploitation. Also after further reflection, I find I’m guilty of using you as a strawman in making my point, that I don’t feel there are many out there that find joy in just being able to have something become known that they never knew before. Perhaps this is simply people’s reaction to having learning formalized and institutionalized, which has taken much of the joy out of the of learning things. That is it has had learning become more of a responsibility and duty, rather than being the extended expression of what serves as humanities greatest shared attribute in being able to learn by not just self reasoning alone, yet also by coming to know the reasoning and lessons of other’s experience.

    That’s to say, instead of me only grumbling to complaint about it. I should instead be looking for answers. I must confess however not many come to mind, outside only in knowing where to begin, which is to wonder what could have people once more think of learning as a pleasant and welcomed experience. This had me to thinking about the evolution of that of religion, when the great cathedrals and even the choirs served no longer to have people be interested, to have some turn to having more to participate, with the inception of the gospel experience, where all those who came became part of the choir. I guess this is just to wonder how we could encourage to have more to express their thoughts, rather than to just simply have only those of others heard, to then be reminded it is blogs like this that stand as being manifestations of what I have in mind. So now all we have to do is find more to lead the songs of celebration, as you do, and reason to have more to join in.



  32. Of course your post on
    Howard Burton: First Principles had me going back to the idea of Foundational issues.

    When is a house a home?

    When is creativity most greatly felt but when the house is in order? When everything is taken care of? When you feel you are part of something truly extraordinary.

    The times you gather are moments of progressive development of that knowledge? Each session then provides for that idea of that when the belly is full, and the worry's of the income or shelter, does not stifle the flow, then such a white/blackboard truly represents the palette for artists of science to provide for a vision for the future.

    "The gift" of the institution becomes a catalyst for change and provides similarity with the idea of, "that a house is a home?" A gift is a selfless expression. Once given, the gifter can no longer say it is theirs.

    Mike Lazaridis, the founder and Chairman of the Board of Perimeter Institute, thanked all national, provincial, regional and municipal partners for their commitment to scientific research and their direct role in shaping the institute. He also acknowledged those in wider society who engage in the outreach activities and said, "Perimeter Institute exists because of a shared commitment by all of the partners. Partners who know that today's scientific research will seed tomorrow's biggest innovations. The power of human understanding and new ideas has a long and proven history in transforming society - such as Maxwell's unification of electricity and magnetism, and Einstein's insights about the nature of space, time, and light. Today's scientists are pushing our fundamental understanding even further. They are working on the most challenging problems we have ever known and they are calculating new solutions that, over time, will improve our society - intellectually, materially, and by stimulating future generations of researchers to dig even deeper. These are exciting times in science and we have the good fortune to propel new ideas right here in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. It is an important mission I feel passionate about and wish to support. Finally, all of us at Perimeter wish to thank you - the students, teachers and members of the general public. Your enthusiasm for science provides constant motivation to our researchers, outreach staff, and the partnership. Collectively, we all share in the grand quest to research, discover, and innovate." Mike Lazaridis Donates Additional $50 Million to Perimeter Institute

    Bold added for emphasis.

  33. When you look at the diversity of scientific experience and see how when nurtured can be a catalyst for change what made one think that it's applicability could not have been direct to global affairs?

    CIGI launches video blog for Balsillie Campus

    Waterloo, Canada – March 22, 2010 – The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) launched a video blog today, entitled Building for the Future, which will serve as an engaging platform for continuous coverage of and insight into the Balsillie Campus while it undergoes construction.

    Building for the Future will provide a full range of topics surrounding the Balsillie Campus, from inspiration to building design and new construction technology, as well as faculty, student and community perspectives.

    The first video blog of the series features Jim Balsillie, founder of the campus and co-CEO of Research In Motion, who discusses his motivation for creating the campus and how it will contribute to global leadership.

  34. It is unfortunate that scientists can't appreciate that you can't get something for nothing. Sure, nothing is wrong with theoretical physics, but like Brian Spence (previous comment), I disagree that "knowledge for knowledge's sake" should be publicly funded just because a bunch of scientists deem it worthwhile. Either they must convince their funders (the taxpayers) why it could be worthwhile, or else pony up the dollars themselves.
    And I'm a scientist too. I just like to be pragmatic and realistic about things.

  35. Hi Normsy,

    "Either they must convince their funders (the taxpayers) why it could be worthwhile, or else pony up the dollars themselves. "

    Yes, I agree. That's exactly why I've written this post. Best,


  36. Paul Drayson says,“Scientists should be accountable where work is funded by the taxpayer and therefore I think it is right that scientists should be asked to think about the impact that they have had.”
    And you say, "...the impact of their work is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. It is often even difficult to communicate...How do you want them to account for that?

    I say: Somehow! At some level--be it a PI, facility director, or program officer--somehow got to do the explaining. But questioning the premise of that desire by public officials and citizens only alienates scientists, who as a community often fail to realize that "regular" people don't quite get what we do. And if we can't explain it, maybe we don't either.
    (BTW--I love the blog. I just have strong opinions on the responsibility of science to society.)

  37. You previously wrote that scientists have to convince the taxpayer that their work is worth the support. I completely agree on that. That is not the same as requiring them to account for their impact in economical terms which, imho, is an extremely short-sighted requirement that will inevitably miss part of the benefit that knowledge brings and in the end be to our all disadvantage. Best,


  38. I particularly enjoyed explanation of recent particle-antiparticle asymmetry observed from one of string theorists, how this asymmetry could be explained:

    "To produce such an extra new oscillation, you need (to introduce) a new quartic interaction term in the effective Lagrangian proportional to
        L  = #.(bxg0s) (bxg0s) + h.c

    In another words, to achieve the asymmetry between particles and antiparticles observed, existing equations of string theory should be extended by new term and everything will be OK...

    No wonder, mainstream theories aren't able to predict anything with such approach, because they're freely adjustable numeric regressions of reality (if linear regression doesn't work, we change it to parabolical, and we're ready)..
    Because mainstream theories cannot predict the new finding, it's not strange, many physicists welcomed the CDF's objection, the new finding isn't reliable (3,2-sigma, i.e. 99.9% probability isn't apparently enough, when existing theories are impeached):


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