Physics Funding Fundamentalism

The big physics story of the day is bound to be this new report on American particle physics:

The United States should be prepared to spend up to half a billion dollars in the next five years to ensure that a giant particle accelerator now being designed by a worldwide consortium of scientists can be built on American soil, the panel said. If that does not happen, particle physics, the quest for the fundamental forces and constituents of nature, will wither in this country, it said.

You might assume that, as a physicist, I’m all in favor of this– half a billion is a lot of money, after all. In fact, though, I’m fairly ambivalent about it.

(Continued after the cut)

I haven’t read the full report, but the Overbye piece in the Times deploys all the usual arguments: it’s the most exciting moment ever for particle physics, if we don’t act now, we’ll be left behind, etc. The capper is really this gem of a sentence:

The blow to American physics would erode the base of science and technology that has fueled innovation, provided intellectual and cultural inspiration and bolstered national security over the last century.

So, if we don’t spend half a billion on a particle accelerator, the terrorists will win?

The article is a nice example of why I’m conflicted about particle physics. Is it cool stuff? Absolutely. Is it relentlessly over-hyped? Dear God, yes.

There are a bunch of problems with the arguments put forward in the article– physics is always in crisis, and it’s always the most exciting moment in the history of science– but the biggest problem is a sort of fundamentalism that’s distressingly common to arguments about particle physics. The implied reasoning goes like this: Physics is fundamental to modern technology, and particle physics is the most fundamental sort of physics there is, therefore we must fund particle physics or else physics in general will collapse, and take all of modern society with it.

This is really a distressingly stupid argument, especially considering the number of smart people who advance it. Yes, particle physics is the study of the most fundamental particles and interactions in the Universe. Is particle physics fundamental to the scientific enterprise we know as physics? Not really– you can have a long and distinguished career in lots of areas of physics without knowing much of anything about particle physics.

Is particle physics fundamental to modern technology? Hell, no. You don’t study high-temperature superconductivity by starting with a quark-level description of the nuclei of the atoms in the superconductor, after all. The Standard Model has almost no impact on the study of atoms, let alone solids, and learning the mass of a Higgs boson won’t make it any easier to make flying cars.

Look, I’m all in favor of funding the study of fundamental laws and interactions– my most significant research funding to date is via the Particle Astrophysics program at the NSF, after all– but we should be clear about what it is that we’re doing. If you want to shell out that kind of money because you really, truly think that studying fundamental physics is the most important thing we can do with half a billion dollars, then make that case.

But if the real goal is to support the base of science and technology, fuel innovation, and bolster national security, your money would be better spent elsewhere in physics. Specifically, on solid state physics, biophysics, and atomic and molecular physics, optical physics, and even quantum information sciences. Not only do those fields have more direct applications to real, useful technology, they’re also a whole lot cheaper. Half a billion dollars will fund one experiment in particle physics, but it could fund a hundred different low-energy experiments, with money left over.

Yeah, fine, some nifty gadgets will probably be developed along the way to a supercollider. And if we spend a trillion dollars on a manned mission to Mars, we’ll get some pens that write upside down.

The thing that really bothers me about these arguments is that it implicitly equates physics as a whole with particle physics, simply because particle physics is more “fundamental” than other sorts of physics. But that has nothing to do with technology. Physics is the basis of modern technology– computer chips, superconductors, lasers, radar, RFID technology, GPS navigation, all those things are based in physics. Modern particle physics? Not so much. The physics advances that have really had a transforming effect on our world have nothing to do with the Standard Model or physics beyond it, and the sub-fields that drive those innovations will continue to thrive here even if all the particle experimentalists move to Geneva.

Do I think the US should have an active particle physics program? Sure. It’s cool stuff, it tells us interesting things about how the universe works, and it’s a goal worth pursuing. But it’s a luxury, not the essential core of the scientific endeavor of physics, no matter how fundamental its area of study.

If we as a nation were flush with cash, in a time of peace, and willing to fund science in the abstract, then I absolutely agree with the idea of spending money to build an accelerator here. Here in the real world, I think there are better things you could do with half a billion dollars of physics funding.

(If you’ve read this far, you might also consider voting in the poll below…)

Comments

  1. #1 Dr. Free-Ride
    April 27, 2006

    I suspect that the level of hyperbole (“We must fund this area or our whole science base will crumble!”) is proportional to the need for honking-big (and expensive) equipment to do any experiments at all in the research area in question. Particle accelerators are expensive, and it’s hard to get anyone to fund one by saying, “Our research will contribute to basic knowledge — answer the questions our little group cares about — but don’t count on it to make functioning rocket packs or smaller iPods or anything of practical use.”

  2. #2 Rob Knop
    April 27, 2006

    I am ambivalent, but for different reasons.

    I always get nervous whenever “practical applications” start being mentioned. Down that road lies ruin. Yes, some solid state and optical physicists can survive down that road, but a lot of physics will not, for the politicians who ultimately control the funding can’t see the 50-year horizion that is needed for better understanding of fundamental laws to have any practical benefit. (Quantum mechanics, when first developed, wasn’t something that was obviously going to have practical benefits, but it underlies much of modern technology.)

    As an astrophysicst, nothing I do is useful– so if the reason we do physics is that it will eventually be useful, then my brand (and many other brands) of physics are a waste. But there is more to it than that : physics, and much of basic science, is an important human endeavor. As a species, we are curious about the universe we live in, and we want to know more about it. We value science much as we value literature ; it doesn’t help us survive, but it makes us human, and makes it worth surviving.

    So why am I ambivalent about the ILC? Because it’s a bigass target that we can put all of our eggs into that can be cancelled all at once. We’ve been down this road once before; remember the SSC? The crisis for particle physics was created when that was cancelled; all of a sudden, huge numbers of people found their careers in ruins. In order to fund the SSC, lots of groups made sacrifices to their base grants. They didn’t get any of it back when the SSC was cancelled. It’s only recently that particle physics has at all recovered. And, now, they’re lining up to do it again. What are they thinking?

    If the US was really interested in doing particle physics, it wouldn’t just fund the “mine is bigger than yours” projects that make good press *and* make good targets for congressional cancellation to appease constituents who think we spend too much money on useless science. At my University, there was a very succesful group working on a very succesful detector that was always rated highly for the Tevatron at fermilab– BTeV. And, one day, all of a sudden, much to everybody’s surprise, it was cancelled. This was a very modest project as particle physics goes, but it was yanked. This group is now working on a project for the collider at CERN.

    Astronomy is doing a similar thing– the rush to create big, high-profile projects that can be seen on a national level make smaller scale things suffer, becuase there just isn’t enough money to do it all.

    If the US decides to fund the ILC, it could become a disaster. *If* we do it, we need to do it *not* at the expense of all other particle physics. Because the ILC, like the SSC, may just turn into a money pit into which we throw tremendous amounts money that we can claim is for science, but ultimately comes to nothing when we cancel it as we are horrified by the real price tag.

    -Rob

  3. #3 Georg
    April 27, 2006

    You shouldn’t forget that a lot of the physics behind the technical innovations you mention came from what was still Particle Physics at the time it was first invented — Particle Physics moves on as higher energies become accessible.

    NMR? Nuclear Physics was the Particle Physics of ye olde times. PET? The prediction and subsequent discovery of the positron was one of the early triumphs of (pre-accelerator) Particle Physics. GPS? Wouldn’t work without General Relativity being taken into account, which is as theoretical as you could possibly get. Synchrotron light sources? Well, you need a synchrotron for those…

    The point here is that once something becomes so commonplace that it becomes part of current technology it ceases to be cutting-edge “exotic” research stuff. There is still a lot of important research to be done to refine, improve and thoroughly understand it, but truly ground-breaking discoveries that may one day lead to some completely new kind of technology will be made elsewhere.

    Will finding the Higgs boson bring us a new technology over the short term? Probably not. But will understanding the electroweak interactions lay the groundwork for new technologies that are as inconceivable to us today as NMR or GPS would have been to a 1920′s person? Quite possibly.

    Abandoning fundamental research in favour of applied research is a bad idea for the public sector, anyway — applied research can always be funded by the private sector (who will stand to profit from it), but fundamental research has a much harder time attracting private money, which means it won’t happen at all without public funding.

    [And comparing Particle Physics to the Mars program is just completely wrong. Yes, they are both expensive, but Particle Physics gains scientific knowledge every day. Putting humans on Mars will only gain political prestige for the US; there is nothing humans could do on Mars that unmanned probes couldn't do for a tiny fraction of the money.]

  4. #4 Markk
    April 27, 2006

    I have a problem with the “fundamentals” issue. This is specially true about condensed matter physics and things like Hall Effect and Superconductivity. It might just be my ignorance. Can we really from fundamental principles actually generate the models we use in these areas? Fundamental principles here would be Quantum Field Theories I guess.
    Has anybody shown this to be true? Or, are there fundamental organizational principles at work that are not in QFT’s? I think this ought to be a very big issue in Physics and I feel like it is not publicly being addressed much. To me the analogy of High level computer languages might be useful here. We may be understanding the machine language of things, but the syntax of the actual programs that do the work are much easier to understand and have constraints and features that simply don’t exist on the lower level.

  5. #5 Roman Werpachowski
    April 27, 2006

    I think that people have a one-sided view of the particle physics. They see it often only from the experimental side, as if all what we were lacking were bigger accelerators, and this was what the whole world should spend its money on.

    It’s not so. The theory of particles — Quantum Field Theory — is in bad shape and has been so for many decades. We should spend more on theoretical research in QFT, not just on bigger accelerators.

  6. #6 hogeb
    April 27, 2006

    Maybe I’m a bit oversensitive on another topic, but when I read your headline I thought this was somehow going to releate to ID. They have their problems with physics, too. Also, in your first quote I noticed the justification of partical physics as “the quest for the fundamental forces and constituents of nature” as a possible buzzword for “the God particle”. I’m an evolutionary scientist, so forgive me for seeing the boogy man around every corner.

    I guess my point is, that the author of the original report may be considering this as well, and arguing that we must fund “fundamental” research, not only because we must remain competitive, but because we must remain scientifically literate. Without a continuing emphasis on pure research in this country, we fall farther and farther down the rabbits hole.

  7. #7 Lubos Motl
    April 27, 2006

    Scientific fields that have useful applications are important, this importance is likely to be appreciated by the industry, and their funding should follow the invisible hand of the free markets.

    The role of the government is exactly to pay for things whose practical applications only appear in the long run. Things that won’t be paid by the private sector, on the local basis. Low energy experiments will always be paid because the low energy research is correlated with the interests of research labs of the companies.

    Pure science has a different structure, it is normally paid by the whole countries, it is made of expensive projects, and its results underlie the scientific nature of our culture. Without the hierarchical structure where insights depend on other insights and where particle physics is the very center, you will be able neither to convince ordinary people that billions should be given to particular specialized low-energy experiments nor judge whether they deserve the money in the first place.

    You should better learn how to live with the idea that high-energy physics is the most scientific science among sciences that defines the degree of scientific inclinations of whole nations.

    The strength of countries was always extremely correlated with their strength in the research of the fundamental laws.

  8. #8 a particle theorist
    April 27, 2006

    The 1/2 billion dollars over 5 years is about 2/3 of the available funding for new particle physics experimental projects, assuming we finish what we already started. It is not money
    coming from other fields, and since many current particle projects are ending on that timescale, it only requires that investment in particle physics at least increases with inflation. The alternative is basically declare that the USA is finished with accelerator based particle physics. You might hope in that case that the money saved from particle physics would be reallocated to your own favorite projects, but it never works that way.

    Note that the 1/2 billion dollars is not to build the ilc. The 1/2 billion dollars is merely for the accelerator research which will put us into good position to bid to host the ilc as an international project. The ilc will cost of order 10 billion, we need more r and d to estimate more precisely, with about half the funding coming from overseas. The expectation is that the LHC will make a compelling physics case for the ilc by providing evidence of new particles in the 100-300 GeV mass range. These might be superpartners, and/or one or more higgs bosons, and/or dark matter candidates, but ilc would be needed to do the necessary precision measurements needed to elucidate their properties and establish what their role is. If the physics case is there it is incredibly exciting stuff, much more so than any of the particle physics of the past 20 years.
    For the us not to be involved has not lead to terrorism, but I do think it would be a big downer for us science, and society in general.
    If the compelling physics case is not made by LHC discoveries ilc is unlikely to be built.

    The question now is is it worth spending 1/2 billion on accelerator research over a 5 year period in order to get ready, or should we instead now make a drastic spending decrease in particle accelerator physics and hope that money is put to good use somewhere else. There is a gamble that LHC discoveries do not compel ilc. However past accelerator research has played a big role in
    developing many technologies that now play a ‘useful’ role, both for society and for other fields of physics, and has payed off many times over. I think the proposed level of investment over the next 5 years , although it sounds like a lot, is a reasonable level of investment that probably at least pays off and had a good chance of huge returns.

  9. #9 Roman Werpachowski
    April 27, 2006

    You should better learn how to live with the idea that high-energy physics is the most scientific science among sciences that defines the degree of scientific inclinations of whole nations.

    Why is it so? Why this and not the investigation of genetics, for example? Or the origin of life? Pure mathematics?

    Perhaps we should strengthen the theoretical foundations of particle physics (which remain weak compared to General Relativity, for example) before we shell out another billion dollars for HEP experiments?

  10. #10 Paul Riddell
    April 27, 2006

    Truth be told, I saw a lot of the same hype when the Supercollider was supposed to be built south of Dallas: it’s amazing how the people stressing the importance of getting this done now now NOW so we can “unlock the fundamental secrets of the universe” are always Congresscritters desperate to get some pork to their constituents, local politicians looking to collect on said pork, newspaper editors whose golf buddies stand to collect on that pork, and people planning to sell their otherwise nearly worthless farmland for five times the standard asking price to the project. (Back ten years ago, just before he died, Carl Sagan came to Dallas to conduct a free lecture on the importance of science, and I’d swear that two-thirds of the audience consisted of soybean farmers in Waxahatchie and Avalon who wanted Sagan to convince the White House to start up the Supercollider project again. Out of about twenty questions fielded from the audience to Dr. Sagan, I’d say at least ten were variations of “What are you gonna do to get the Supercollider back on track?”)

  11. #11 Lubos Motl
    April 27, 2006

    Roman asked: “Why is it so [particle physics is the core/cutting edge of science]? Why this and not the investigation of genetics, for example? Or the origin of life? Pure mathematics?”

    Genetics is great, but it is an applied science. Origin of life is a fundamental science, in some deep sense, but its fundamental part has been understood since the 19th century. Everything that remains – the “details” – is a specialized science that is driven by applications, not theory. Applications in medicine, bioengineering, and so forth.

    High-energy physics is driven by the desire to understand the truth about reality, not by practical applications. And its insights in principle underlie all other natural sciences.

    Pure mathematics is not “science” in my terminology, and it’s been also the case that even pure mathematics has been driven by inspiring insights from fundamental physics. There are original fascinating directions in math that are independent of physics (arithmetic Langlands program to be very specific), but it is probably fair to say that most of the exciting things in maths are about a rigorous treatment of ideas whose essence has arisen from physics. Insights from string theory in the last decade or two are a major example of physics’ being a major driving force of math.

    Moreover, pure mathematics is not a subject that requires big money, and it is not too directly connected with other sciences and with their funding.

    Roman: “Perhaps we should strengthen the theoretical foundations of particle physics (which remain weak compared to General Relativity, for example) before we shell out another billion dollars for HEP experiments?”

    I beg to disagree. Theorists are probably decades ahead of the experimenters. We have fine-tuned our theories much more than the experimenters have fine-tuned their ability to give us new data. If you think that our theories (Standard Model and/or string theory) are flawed in some fundamental sense, it’s caused by your misunderstanding of their inner workings. We badly need new data.

    Destroying high-energy experimental physics in a whole country will imply a deterioration of the scientific sentiment in the same country which will also lead to a suppression of all other fields of science that have no direct material benefit. Thinking that the money saved in particle physics will be paid to low-energy physics is naive.

  12. #12 Chad Orzel
    April 27, 2006

    Rob Knop: So why am I ambivalent about the ILC? Because it’s a bigass target that we can put all of our eggs into that can be cancelled all at once. We’ve been down this road once before; remember the SSC? The crisis for particle physics was created when that was cancelled; all of a sudden, huge numbers of people found their careers in ruins. In order to fund the SSC, lots of groups made sacrifices to their base grants. They didn’t get any of it back when the SSC was cancelled. It’s only recently that particle physics has at all recovered. And, now, they’re lining up to do it again. What are they thinking?

    That’s an excellent point.
    The SSC debacle ought to loom large over this whole issue.

    Georg: You shouldn’t forget that a lot of the physics behind the technical innovations you mention came from what was still Particle Physics at the time it was first invented — Particle Physics moves on as higher energies become accessible.

    I think there’s a huge difference between modern particle physics and particle physics now. What you’re calling the “Particle Physics” of the past had a great deal more contact with reality than anything we’re talking about here.

    NMR? Nuclear Physics was the Particle Physics of ye olde times. PET? The prediction and subsequent discovery of the positron was one of the early triumphs of (pre-accelerator) Particle Physics.

    And what makes these things useful is that they work at everyday energy scales. You can do PET scans because positron emitters are readily available. Nuclei are everywhere.

    The Higgs Boson Emission Tomography method is unlikely to catch on, because you need a billion-dollar accelerator to make one.

    GPS? Wouldn’t work without General Relativity being taken into account, which is as theoretical as you could possibly get.

    I’m not sure what this is doing in the list. I haven’t objected to theoretical physics.

    Synchrotron light sources? Well, you need a synchrotron for those…

    Yes, and this is all fifty-year-old technology.
    Other than the World Wide Web, what development from the last, say, thirty years of particle physics looks like it’s going to pay dividends? You might say that that’s too short a time scale, but NMR got a Nobel within six years of its discovery (1952), and magnetic resonance imaging was developed in the early 1970′s. The importance of those techniques was clear very quickly, even if more mature technology took a while to arrive.

    I’m not seeing anything comparable from recent particle physics.

    But even conceding your point, this is a side issue. My claim wasn’t that there is no technological benefit to investing in cutting-edge science, it was that the technological benefits of this specific investment aren’t nearly sufficient justification for the project. If you want to argue that the inherent worth of the project is sufficient to justify the cost, that’s great, but the technology transfer argument is just silly. If the goal of a science investment is to improve the daily lives of Americans, we should plow that half billion into alternative energy research. Or just give $100 to every man, woman, and child in Iraq, and ask them to think better of us. That will have a bigger payoff.

    particle theorist: The 1/2 billion dollars over 5 years is about 2/3 of the available funding for new particle physics experimental projects, assuming we finish what we already started. It is not money coming from other fields, and since many current particle projects are ending on that timescale, it only requires that investment in particle physics at least increases with inflation. The alternative is basically declare that the USA is finished with accelerator based particle physics.

    See, this is the conversation we ought to be having, not “fund particle physics or become a third-rate power,” which is just silly.

    There’s also a middle ground between spending billions on the next generation accelerator and ending all investment, which is to pursue other avenues. Projects like RHIC and RIA and B-Tev are running short of funds, and have the potential to provide valuable experimental data in slightly different regimes. Look at the surprising quark-gluon liquid results from RHIC– that’s a whole new phenomenon with unexpected properties. We could learn a lot from a greater investment in those sorts of projects, and that might be a more sensible use of high-energy funding than bidding on another giant accelerator.

  13. #13 Roman Werpachowski
    April 27, 2006

    I beg to disagree. Theorists are probably decades ahead of the experimenters. We have fine-tuned our theories much more than the experimenters have fine-tuned their ability to give us new data. If you think that our theories (Standard Model and/or string theory) are flawed in some fundamental sense, it’s caused by your misunderstanding of their inner workings.

    http://www.claymath.org/millennium/Yang-Mills_Theory/

  14. #14 Aaron Bergman
    April 27, 2006

    Roman, theory is pocket change and not at all relevant to this conversation.

  15. #15 Lubos Motl
    April 27, 2006

    Chad Orzel: “Is particle physics fundamental to the scientific enterprise we know as physics? Not really– you can have a long and distinguished career in lots of areas of physics without knowing much of anything about particle physics.”

    I did not know that the fundamental depth of a science is measured by the length of someone’s career. One can have a long career as a porn star without knowing much about physics – does it mean that porn industry is fundamental to science?

    My understanding of the word “fundamental” is rather different from Chad’s understanding. The reason why particle physics – and I don’t say physicists, I say physics – is fundamental is because the accurate description of other fields directly or indirectly reduces to the questions about particle physics.

    All other fields are inherently approximate, their laws break down, and they can’t be exact. The path towards high energies in particle physics is the path towards the ever more accurate – and potentially completely accurate – of all phenomena that underlie not only the technological breakthroughs of the 20th century.

  16. #16 Georg
    April 27, 2006

    I’m not sure what this is doing in the list. I haven’t objected to theoretical physics. (re: GPS)

    Sorry; the self-defence reflex of the theorist kicked in automatically after mentioning PET.

    The Higgs Boson Emission Tomography method is unlikely to catch on, because you need a billion-dollar accelerator to make one.

    Well, it doesn’t have to be tomography; and as far as I know, when the positron was discovered in cosmic radiation, it wasn’t clear for a while that positrons were “easily” obtainable from radioactive decays. But the Higgs boson is really just a highly symbolic piece of the greater puzzle, which is to truly understand the electroweak interactions. If the Higgs boson is not found, or if its properties are significantly different from what is expected from the Standard Model, this might indicate new physics in the electroweak sector that might very well have repercussions for lower-energy phenomena as well.

    If you want to argue that the inherent worth of the project is sufficient to justify the cost, that’s great, but the technology transfer argument is just silly.

    I’m not advocating high-energy research on the basis of technology transfer arguments; I’m merely pointing out that the potential for future technologies from new physics cannot possibly estimated at this time. Atomic and nuclear physics was exotic fundamental research in the 1910′s-1930′s. Then, suddenly, it became very applied.

    If the goal of a science investment is to improve the daily lives of Americans, we should plow that half billion into alternative energy research. Or just give $100 to every man, woman, and child in Iraq, and ask them to think better of us. That will have a bigger payoff.

    In the short term, maybe. But in the long term, it is impossible to say by how much the people in the 2050′s will be better off as a consequence of this research. Even if no new applicable knowledge is gained from it, it may have huge side effects. (How big is the US contribution to CERN’s annual budget? How much income does the Web generate each year for US companies? How many jobs has the Web created?) And even in the absence of such side effects, the pleasure of understanding the Universe at a more fundamental level is an intellectual benefit that is difficult to put a prize on, but a genuine benefit nevertheless.

    The people who built the gothic cathedrals didn’t ask: will this pay off for us? They did it because they believed it was the right thing to do (in order to glorify God, and also those who contributed). In the short term, it maybe was a waste in economic (though probably not in spiritual or psychological) terms for their generation; centuries later, tens of thousands of people live off the tourism generated by these “economically wasteful” projects. Maybe the ILC will be a huge tourist attraction in 300 years time, attracting millions each year to some remote part of Montana in order to see the place where the people of the past gave their taxes and working lives to better understand the universe. Even that outcome might lead to a pretty good return on the initial investment.

  17. #17 Lubos Motl
    April 27, 2006

    Dear Roman,

    a rigorous definition of gauge theories is a part of the $1 million problems in mathematics, not in natural science, and there are 7 problems like that.

    If you propose the figure $1 million as a measure of the importance, let me remind you that the ILC will cost above $10 billion which exceeds 10 thousand millenial prizes of the Clay Institute.

    A rigorous definition of Yang-Mills theory (plus a proof of the mass gap of QCD) is much less important than the understanding of quantum gravity or even just physics at the TeV scale.

    Best
    Lubos

  18. #18 collin
    April 27, 2006

    Other than the World Wide Web, what development from the last, say, thirty years of particle physics looks like it’s going to pay dividends?

    This is a bit like saying, “Other than manned flight, what did the Wright brothers do for us?” I think there’s a definite argument for funding particle physics based on practicle applications (recently, the WWW, advances in grid/distributed computing, database management, improving data transfer, etc.). And there’s a definite argument for funding particle physics based on the science (nature of EWK symmetry breaking, or even just the tyranny of the Standard Model). So why should the argument for funding be based on practicle applications based on the science?

    Also, you might look at the cost as dollar/scientist and see how that works out. If it’s $20billion (cost to build and cost to run) over the life of the project, say 10 years, divided into 10,000 scientists, the funding is $200k/scientist/yr. Is that really so obscene? Maybe that answer is yes, but that’s not obvious to me…
    Or you could try to judge the dollar/paper and see if it’s worthwile that way. I’m guessing the answer will probably be yes…

    There’s also a positive correlation between funding of particle physics and funding of all other physics.

    All that being said, it’s not obvious to me that funding the ILC so early is the best way to proceed. The case that’s being made right now is that the LHC will define the basic features of new, interesting physics and the ILC will then be necessary to understand and flesh out said features. I can easily imagine a situation where the LHC finds a 160 GeV Higgs and nothing else. Basically, the SM is perfectly good all the way up to, say, 7 TeV. Congress will see that and decide that the ILC is not worth funding (reasonably so) and will take away ILC funding money, but not redistribute it to either HEP or science at large. Then HEP is eviscerated and the field is, for all intents and purposes, dead. That sounds like a really bad idea to me. Personally, I’d like to see more investment in other projects: keep the Tevatron running as a place to study QCD with great precision, fund a super B factory, either at SLAC or Japan, fund more accelerator R&D (a muon collider sounds better and better to me; if the above scenario does play out, being able to build a tunable 160 GeV muon collider/Higgs Factory as a way to build up to, say, a 10-20 TeV muon collider which could act as both a discovery and precision measurement machine would be rather remarkable), fund smaller, precision measurement projects (btw, BTeV was a huge project costing lots and lots of money and is not the scale I’m talking about here; it’s not obvious cutting BTeV was a bad idea). Basically keep the field very active in lots of different ways and when it becomes obvious that we need an ILC, we can do that (albeit on a somewhat longer time scale), but if it becomes obvious that we need a muon collider, we can do that too or if we need a better understanding of QCD or CP violation or whatever, we’re set up to do that as well.

    Anyway, those are my few rambling thoughts on the matter, for whatever they’re worth…

  19. #19 Clark
    April 27, 2006

    I’m all for funding basic research, but I think one has to do a cost/benefit analysis of where the money goes. For instance if we took that half a billion dollars and funded say mathematicians wouldn’t we still be funding basic research but perhaps get a bit more for our dollar?

    I can’t speak towards the particle physicists. But I know when I worked in plasma and fusion physics back in the early 90′s the budget for our particular group was around 600 million and I can honestly say that while there was some interesting physics, it just wasn’t worth that kind of money. Especially when other areas of physics had so little money. Further in my opinion big government science projects tend to waste a tremendous amount of money.

    So I’m not opposed to funding these sorts of projects, even projects that tout themselves as having practical applications (like a lot of the fusion groups) but probably will never have a practical payoff. But I do think one has to ask why particle physics is worth $X while some other area of physics that gets 1/100th the amount is worth so little.

    BTW – your comments don’t work with Safari for some reason. I suspect it is some Javascript problem. It brings up a screen saying I didn’t put in my name when clearly I had.

  20. #20 Michael
    April 27, 2006

    Dear Lubos,

    don’t worry, the YM-millenium problem has just been solved single-handedly in a beautiful paper:

    http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0604095

    Enjoy! ;)

  21. #21 Aaron Bergman
    April 27, 2006

    I’m posting this in Safari, and it seems fine.

  22. #22 Chad Orzel
    April 27, 2006

    BTW – your comments don’t work with Safari for some reason. I suspect it is some Javascript problem. It brings up a screen saying I didn’t put in my name when clearly I had.

    It’s a cookie problem– if you click the link below the comment box, you’ll get a couple of suggested fixes. Deleting cookies from scienceblogs.com usually works.

    Some really good comments here, and I’m sorry I’ve been so bad about responding. I had a big stack of lab reports that need to be handed back tomorrow, and I’m going to Las Vegas for the weekend right after my class, so I’ve been doing some running around associated with that as well.

    I’ll try to say something sensible in the morning before I leave.

  23. #23 John Novak
    April 27, 2006

    Chad: Other than the World Wide Web, what development from the last, say, thirty years of particle physics looks like it’s going to pay dividends?

    Collin: This is a bit like saying, “Other than manned flight, what did the Wright brothers do for us?”

    No, that’s like saying, “Other than combinatoric auction theory, what have the Wright Brothers done for us lately?” The distinction here being that combinatoric auction theory is a pretty important but underappreciated field of either economics or computer science (take your pick) that grew out of unsolved problems in the airline industry, but was not only not envisioned by the airlines industry, is almost completely unrelated except that that’s where it happened to first pop up as a solution.

    Much like the Web grew out of CERN but could easily have been invented elsewhere. If you want to go build yourself a World Wide Web, you go and do that, you don’t build a physics research institute to do it accidentally.

  24. #24 Clark Goble
    April 27, 2006

    OK, I deleted the scienceblogs cookies. We’ll see if this works.

    I just wanted to add, since Lubos doesn’t like counting mathematics, that there are still plenty of other areas of basic research. For instance one of my good friends does colliding black hole calculations. Why is this sort of particle research worth so much more than say GR research? What about the teams trying to computationally move from basic quantum mechanics to models of whole molecules and compare the results empirically? For that matter, to pick something Lubos might like, why not simply fund a few dozen more physicists doing string theory? You can pay a lot of physicists for a billion dollars. Or, to pick something Lubos wouldn’t like, why not fund more folks looking into loop theory or alternatives to string theory? And then there are still plenty of difficult problems in theoretical plasma physics and fluid dynamics. (And I think them theoretical enough so as to not count as “applied physics.”)

  25. #25 Aaron Bergman
    April 27, 2006

    Again, on the scales of money we’re talking about, theory is completely irrelevant here. The issue, at least as it’s been communicated to me, is how much money is it worth to prevent US high energy experiment from dying?

    On the other hand, there may be a choice to make: the ILC or LISA

  26. #26 Roman Werpachowski
    April 28, 2006

    Lubos: A rigorous definition of Yang-Mills theory (plus a proof of the mass gap of QCD) is much less important than the understanding of quantum gravity or even just physics at the TeV scale.

    This is based on what you consider important, which is subjective. My intuition is that “important” has been redefined by high energy physicists so that it includes problems which they have a hope of tackling, and excludes those which are considered too hard :P

    Aaron: yes, it’s pocket change, but it still can be underfunded. Besides, I think that since theory is almost 100% dependent on the quality of brains involved, we should consider a decline in education of the younger generations as a direct threat to the development of physical theories. But that’s a) totally off-topic and b) could as well apply to experimental physics.

    Clark: Further in my opinion big government science projects tend to waste a tremendous amount of money.

    You should distinguish between economical or social (welfare, etc) projects and science projects. Science projects, unlike the first two, are usually run by highly intelligent people, for whom greed is usually not the highest motive and are most of the time underfunded, anyway. This means that the usual saying about how government wastes money does not really apply to government science projects. There are some exceptions, when politics takes over science and some particular science project becomes overfunded, but they are only exceptions.

    collin: Or you could try to judge the dollar/paper and see if it’s worthwile that way. I’m guessing the answer will probably be yes…

    The goal of science is not production of papers.

  27. #27 Clark Goble
    April 28, 2006

    Having worked at Los Alamos for several years where there were more managers than scientists I can honestly say that greed isn’t the only problem. Bureaucracy is. Further how funding is done can be tremendously wasteful. Next door to where I worked was a full reactor built for research at the cost of tens upon tens of millions of dollars. Before it could be started they cut funding, only to spend tens of millions to decommission it. Or the 100 million dollar laser put in a building worth a few thousand dollars so when it rained heavy. . .

    Anyway, the idea that greed is the only problem and the idea that the good intentions of scientists avoids waste is naive at best. But I’ve seen too much government science to think the waste is somehow magically not present.

    The teams can do great work and very efficiently when the shakles are taken off. I can think of some terrific examples during times of war (including the Manhattan project but also several during the first Gulf War). But sadly that state of affairs is the exception rather than the rule.

    Don’t get me wrong, there is often still good science done. But there’s a tremendous amount of waste.

  28. #28 Ponderer of Things
    April 28, 2006

    to say that something is “fundamental” implies that other parts of physics or even other sciences will somehow build on those discoveries.

    It is hard to find a more isolated part of physics than particle physics – both experimental and theoretical. The type of arrogant attitude that is expressed here and in other blogs by primarily theoretical (string) physicists, along the lines of particle/string physics being the only remaining puzzle, while everything else is essentially applied science/stamp collecting only underscores the rift between medium-scale physics (cond matter, bio, optics, quantum, atomic, materials) and particle people. The fact that a lot of string faculty never express any interest in other fields (stop showing up to department colloquium) is another proof of how isolated they have become.

    I hope that whoever brought up NMR, GPS and WWW as the best examples of particle physics accomplishments was making a sarcastic joke at the expense of particle physicists. Seriously?

    I agree with other posters that looking for an immediate payoff is a dangerous path to follow for fundamental research. However, my feeling is that particle physics has run its course, has wandered into wilderness surrounded by hype of search for extra dimensions and has detached itself from reality and is arguably quickly running into a wall, where we need to spend exponentially more money to learn less and less. Science gets a limited amount of research money, and if the particle money is spent on other things – like biology, chemistry, and yes, condensed matter, materials and nanoscale physics, I am all for it.

    Speaking of what constitutes “fundamental” science, I would say that currently issues such as rules that govern self-assembly – from atomic and nanoscale up, or theory of networks, for example – will have a huge impact on a broad range of sciences from materials and chemistry to biological self-assembly and even evolution. Work on complex networks has impact on computer sciences, neuron networks in the brain, communication and power grids.

    This is FUNDAMENTAL.

    Particle physics has lost its relevance – not only to other sciences, but also to most fields of physics, and no amount of overhyped books about extra dimensions (targeting – let’s face it, population that has no scientific background whatsoever, but is fascinated about time travel and other sci-fi nonsense) will be able to save it.

    If Europe or Japan want to spend billions of dollars building accelerators in search of (maybe) figuring out some of the particle physics puzzles, while US invests this money into far more fundamental truly interdisciplinary research of biology, chemistry, materials physics, etc. – so be it.

  29. #29 Dave Bacon
    April 28, 2006

    It is interesting to me that no one has brought up the nuclear issue. Somehow I have always had in my mind that one reason the government has funded particle experiments is the preceived and actual relation of the experiments to the bomb.

  30. #30 Roman Werpachowski
    April 28, 2006

    Dave, all fundamental physics required to make a nuclear bomb was ready in 1944. The difficult part was engineering.

  31. #31 Dave Bacon
    April 28, 2006

    Roman, I agree that the physics required was ready in 1944, but that doesn’t mean that funding in particle physics wasn’t tied to the bomb. The cold war fear of the bomb was certainly in the back of most people’s (politician’s) minds when they funded particle physics, no? If I remember correctly, some of the reasons voiced in favor of the cancelation of the SSC explicitly referenced the fall of the Soviet Union and the fact that it was no longer necessary to prove American supremacy.

  32. #32 blah
    April 28, 2006

    Ponderer of Things:”The fact that a lot of string faculty never express any interest in other fields (stop showing up to department colloquium) is another proof of how isolated they have become.”

    That happens at your department too? Or are we actually secretly at the same place!

    While I would love nothing more than to bash string theorists (there is a distinction here between string theory and string theorists), it seems to me that high energy experiment stands on its own independent of whatever fad the string theorists are babbling on about.

  33. #33 Roman Werpachowski
    April 28, 2006

    It would be a big mistake to identify high energy physics with string theory.

  34. #34 siddhartha04
    April 28, 2006

    Firstly, thank you (Chad) for posting this – this is an issue I’ve wondered about (and talked to other physicists) at length, and I feel that there are good arguments on both sides.

    Yes, there is a problem with having funding dictated by the applicability and technological relevance/potential of a field.

    But at the same time, there are a number of important (and potentially unanswerable) questions raised by this.

    For starters, it seems that in theoretical high-energy physics nowadays, it is very easy to let the physics “wander into the wilderness surrounded by the hype of the search for extra dimensions and detach itself from reality”. It seems that any plausible theory could be entertained with the argument that one must explore everything, even ‘absurd’ theories, in the event that one of them might be right. They are a dime a dozen (well, not quite), at least to me. I could be wrong.

    However, as was pointed out earlier, science gets a limited amount of research money. This raises perhaps the biggest question for me: dealing not with whether we should fund certain fields or not, but how is funding split between different fields? What is the ‘magic formula’?

    For example, why is X% of physics research money given to experimental particle physics, while Y% given to (say) condensed matter experiment? Or for that matter, why is A% given to physics theory while B% given to physics experiment? Or even broader, why is P% given to physics, while Q% given to (say) biology? What dictates this? (This could very well be a naive question with an obvious response, but I would love a good answer). There are two questions here – how is such funding divvied up today, and how should such funding be allocated?

    And another question.

    Not to wax too philosophical, but what is the purpose for science? Is it to better our lives/society, give rise to new and better technologies, etc – or is it to attempt to understand the universe better? I don’t think there is a good answer to this question, in today’s day and age.

  35. #35 Florine
    May 2, 2006

    This is instead of the TrackBack that didn’t arrive…