The local fraternities and sororities hold occasional dinners/ discussions with faculty, to demonstrate that they’re engaged with the intellectual life of the college. One of my students invited me to dinner at the Change in Kinetic Energy fraternity tomorrow night, and I agreed to do a discussion of physics and politics.

That’s a vague topic, because I didn’t have anything really definite in mind for it, other than that it seems better suited to a dinner and discussion than any of my regular presentations, which tend to be PowerPoint lectures. That doesn’t really seem appropriate, so I figured I’d go with a topic that might involve a little more back and forth.

Of course, I’m not willing to make the whole thing up on the fly, so I need to give it a little thought. And I’ve got this blog, and all these smart readers who can make useful suggestions about things I ought to mention…. So, below the fold are some scattered thoughts about what I might say to spark some discussion.

– The obvious starting point (and what I had in mind when I suggested the topic) is the recent science funding debacle, with significant cuts in major programs. I can go through the basics of what was cut, and how the cuts happened, and some of the partisan bickering at the heart of the issue.

– A larger question is what level of funding is really appropriate for science, and why are we spending the money. Are we willing to commit to funding massively expensive projects like the LHC just out of curiosity, or should we be demanding more in terms of applications?

– Then there’s the question of what scientists ought to do about all this. Should the APS be devoting more resources to lobbying, to become a more coherent political force? Should physicists devote more effort to public outreach, to build a grass-roots constituency for major projects? Should we be looking for some new source of funding, other than tax dollars?

That’s probably enough to start with, but it’d be nice to have some really good, provocative things to say to get people talking. I’m not sure I really have any of those at the moment, but I’m open to suggestions. What would be a good shocking statement about physics and politics that would spark discussion with frat boys?

Diversity politics are always a provocative topic, but it’s really not my thing. I just don’t see myself leading a rousing discussion of race and gender biases in science at dinner with a fraternity.

Comments

  1. #1 Unce Al
    February 26, 2008

    fraternities and sororities intellectual life of the college

    I had to wipe off the screen. All hail the ratiocination Special Olympics. Ask one to pronounce “SPQR”. (Less a mixed metaphor than passage through an attritor).

  2. #2 Brian
    February 26, 2008

    Why not give your bunnies made of cheese talk?

    Everyone loves bunnies made of cheese!

  3. #3 Umlud
    February 26, 2008

    Physics and politics, huh? Why assume politics to be federal?

    *Why not look at the politics of education in your state? I’m sure that you have some ideas about the requirements of physics education, and can likely tie that with why physics is an important part of education.

    Or you can go with an historical context:

    *You can talk about the meteoric rise in physics (and math) education following the launch of Sputnik in 1957, and talk about the use of physics in the various space sciences.

    *You can discuss the role of physicists in US policy making since WW2.

    You might think about humanizing yourself to the students:

    *You can also discuss the role of “office politics” within the physics department. (Although this could be a rather touchy subject, especially if it got back to your colleagues…) On second thought, you might steer clear of this one.

    Or you can talk about philosophy of science and politics:

    *You might discuss the “hot button” political topic of what a “Theory” really is, and why the colloquial definition of “theory” is not the same as a scientific definition of “Theory.”

    Or you can go with your first two topics. However, I feel that going there would require a discussion of past federal and state budgets, the funding mechanisms available to your school, allotment of internal grants, assessment of overhead, etc. (Or maybe that’s just how I would put that talk together.)

    Sounds like fun, though.

  4. #4 Anonymous
    February 26, 2008

    What I don’t understand is why you focus on accelerators for lack of direct applications, but not those “useless” telescopes. Astrophysics is at least as inapplicable to daily life as particle physics (no?), but you never even seem to consider it as a target. Why?

    Do you understand that the goal of both particle physics and astrophysics is not to find applications to our daily lives, but rather to understand the fundamental workings of nature? In the rare case (in this century, discovery of antimatter, harnessing chain reactions for nuclear energy, etc.) that can have significant effects on daily life, but it’s not the goal. I think understanding that the universe began with a Big Bang and knowing the how the substructure of atoms affects what we find in the universe and on Earth has improved my life just by knowing it.

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    February 26, 2008

    What I don’t understand is why you focus on accelerators for lack of direct applications, but not those “useless” telescopes. Astrophysics is at least as inapplicable to daily life as particle physics (no?), but you never even seem to consider it as a target. Why?

    Because I’m a physicist, not an astronomer, and thus I hear more about accelerators than telescopes. I’m not aware of any multi-billion-dollar telescopes nearing completion, and if there are any, they really need to work on learning to hype their research.

    Do you understand that the goal of both particle physics and astrophysics is not to find applications to our daily lives, but rather to understand the fundamental workings of nature?

    I understand that perfectly well, and I’m personally willing to spend the money on the devices to get that knowledge.

    However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people who say “Gee, that’s an awful lot of money for something that has no practical application.” It’s chump change compared to what we piss away on misguided foreign adventurism, but Big Science is expensive, and it’s perfectly rational for people to ask whether that’s a good use of public funds. My personal conclusion is that it is worth the money, at least for the moment, but I can see how people would reach a different conclusion.

    If you gave me a limited budget with which to cover all of science, I would choose to fund work with the potential for diret applications before funding giant particle accelerators or really big telescopes. I think we’re well-off enough as a civilization that we shouldn’t need to make that choice, but if I had to make it, the accelerators are the first thing to go. Well, OK, the International Space Station is the first thing to go, but the accelerators are second…

  6. #6 Brad Holden
    February 26, 2008

    When it comes to Really Big Telescopes, the US federgal government has already decided its stance on this issue, and the answer is usually no. Almost all Really Big Telescopes in the US are paid for by private money (Keck II was an exception). The next generation telescope may get money from Canada, but there are zero NSF or NASA dollars involved currently and for the likely future.

    Telescopes in space are different matter, and anyone who thinks that they are built purely in the interests of science does not understand the purpose of NASA in the minds of the members of US Congress or the executive branch.

  7. #7 Umlud
    February 26, 2008

    Ummm.. why not have your topic be the third topic just covered in your response:

    If you gave me a limited budget with which to cover all of science, I would choose to fund work with the potential for diret applications before funding giant particle accelerators or really big telescopes. I think we’re well-off enough as a civilization that we shouldn’t need to make that choice, but if I had to make it, the accelerators are the first thing to go. Well, OK, the International Space Station is the first thing to go, but the accelerators are second…

    That should be interesting enough to garner some (if not a lot of) discussion about the difference between the benefits accrued from directly applied science [vs. less-directly applied science] vs. basic science.

  8. #8 Eric Lund
    February 26, 2008

    Well, OK, the International Space Station is the first thing to go, but the accelerators are second…

    I’m with you on the ISS, but the second represents a longstanding marketing failure on the part of elementary particle physics.

    I was in grad school (in physics, but not particle physics) at the time of the SSC debacle. As I understood it at the time, the SSC was intended to find two particles: the top quark and the Higgs boson. And there wasn’t even a guarantee that they would be able to find those two particles, even assuming their existence. (IINM the top quark has since been found, but they are still trying to get into the energy range where they might find the Higgs.) Nobody attempted to point to any technological spinoffs of the project, so it’s only in retrospect that I realize that there would have been such benefits.

    After getting my Ph.D. I moved on to a post-doc with a group that was building an energetic particle detector for a satellite. Space flight hardware people have generally been better about noting the technological spinoffs; for example, you can thank the space program for the initial push toward smaller electronic components (though that trend eventually took a life of its own, since here on Earth you don’t have to worry about MeV electrons destroying your nanoscale electronics). As part of this project we needed a set of beryllium copper plates etched with a precision that was at the limit of what was even possible at the time, and we contracted with a small company in Massachusetts called Tecomet to do the job. They succeeded, and subsequently turned the precision etching into something commercially viable (the primary application being medical imaging), so that the next space flight hardware group that needed such precision etching was able to buy it from Tecomet at commercial prices.

    Of course, the accelerator-vs-telescope debate shows the advantage of having pretty pictures to show the public. That’s why it’s politically easier to defund particle accelerators than telescopes: the people who look at telescope data can show pictures of what they are studying, while particle physics have to resort to the sort of long-winded explanations that laymen describe as MEGO (“my eyes glaze over”). As a physicist, I barely understand the importance of the Higgs boson–what chance does a congressman (other than Rush Holt and Vern Ehlers, the two Ph.D. physicists in Congress) have?

  9. #9 Anonymous
    February 26, 2008

    Brad — that’s untrue. Public (primarily NSF, in the U.S.) money composes the large majority of the funding for present and future telescope projects, including LSST, TMT, GMT, Keck, Gemini, and others. Private money composes about 25%. The Hubble space telescope was the largest scientific project ever in terms of funding, and in today’s dollars equals the present cost of the LHC, but with over 95% from just one single country (and no significant private funding). These are gigantic projects, analogous in size to accelerators, and they are in the majority paid for by public money. And there are as least as many astrophysicists in physics departments in the U.S. as there are particle physicists.

    I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think physics is all about building better widgets. It’s about understanding nature. That understanding can take a lot of different forms and scales. They all relate to each other at many levels and can have critical importance to people not just at human scales, but at scales both small and enormous. The fact is, a lot of people find that beautiful, and many are happier to have their tax dollars go to that than to other things, e.g. sending large numbers of soldiers to unwelcome countries etc. People can disagree.

  10. #10 cisko
    February 26, 2008

    Seems like it would be useful to have details on the amount of public funding for physics research, along with comparative figures for other budget line items. These of course have to be annual figures for apples-to-apples comparison.

    $5 or $10 billion for the LHC is indeed a lot of money, but that’s spread over more than a decade, and apportioned over I don’t know how many countries. Compare that to $340m per F-22, or $152b for the economic stimulus package, and then you have a useful perspective for comparison.

  11. #11 Brad Holden
    February 26, 2008

    I am going to completely disagree with the anonymous person above.

    The TMT has no public money right now. They do have ~1/3 of the necessary capital from the Moore foundation, and plan on raising ~1/3 from more private foundations. There is $0 NSF money in the TMT to date, and there will be for the foreseeable future. Look at the budget, where would the NSF get the money from?

    Keck recieved the original capital funding the Keck foundation. The operating costs are mostly paid by the University of CA, with some few percent from NSF. Look at the numbers, there are 4-6 nights of NSF time per year on Keck. Compare that with an actual publically funded telescope like Gemini, where the US gets 40% of the nights per year.

  12. #12 CCPhysicist
    February 26, 2008

    A mainstream suggestion would be to find out the names of all of the physicists in Congress. (I think there are two.) How about physicists and engineers in your state legislature? Compare and contrast to the number of lawyers.

    A more off-the-wall suggestion is to explore the role of press releases as a way to get the media to lobby your case. Most people think it is an accident when every national news show carries the same obscure story (whether it is the latest swift-boating of a candidate or some new drug). They don’t think about why National Geographic had a big story about the LHC along with lots of other magazines. These are not an accident. If you know how that part of the system works, you can infiltrate your talking points, your spin, into the news by feeding a well-written story to a journalist in the form of a press release. Why write a letter to the editor when you can get the editors to spill the ink for you?

    For entertainment, read the NG article about the LHC and see how many times they make a blindly optimistic statement about discovering something. They always say there is a chance we will discover a new particle; they never say there is a chance we will find nothing.

  13. #13 CCPhysicist
    February 26, 2008

    To #8: Your comments about the sales pitch for the SSC are inaccurate. They talked about spin offs and jobs and all that. Although not in particle physics, I happened to be around some of the senior people who testified in front of congress and lobbied for state support for related off-site operations. I’ve even still got an “SSC IT DOES MATTER” (cute, eh) magnetic clip in my office as a reminder of that lobbying effort.

    There were two failures: (1) A spectacular level of elitism that alienated (and still alienates) influential physicists from other fields, particularly condensed matter. Lederman did that almost single handedly with a snarky ad hominem attack on Rustum Roy in Physics Today. (2) A big part of the sales pitch was, basically, parallel to the pork barrel distribution of military construction money into every congressional district. When it ended up in a specific state, which got the bulk of the money, that support soon evaporated. Both gave the impression (whether true or not) that the SSC could only be justified politically, not as cost-effective science.

  14. #14 Eric
    February 26, 2008

    I’m not aware of any multi-billion-dollar telescopes nearing completion, and if there are any, they really need to work on learning to hype their research.

    It’s not quite up to the multi-billion-dollar level (only $700 million), but GLAST is scheduled to launch in May.

  15. #15 Anon
    February 27, 2008

    You could talk about missile defense, and the selling thereof, and the use of physics and physicists in that selling. It’s ancient history, except that it’s still around, like a George Romero zombie.

    You could talk about the ethical decisions that go into going to work for a national lab. What happens when your work takes you into the green zone (or whatever they called it at Livermore, back in the day)? It’s an undiscussed fact that the US funded the (over)production of physics PhDs for many years during the cold war to keep the national labs supplied with talent. Is that still necessary? What are the ethical implications of going to work there if you think the country is worth defending, but you aren’t sure it requires more warhead designers or X-ray laser people to do it?

  16. #16 Monte Davis
    February 27, 2008

    It’s ancient history, except that it’s still around

    More than just around: IIRC, the ~ $9B/yr for BMD is the largest single hardware item in the DoD budget.

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