Tommaso Dorigo has an interesting post spinning off a description of the Hidden Dimensions program at the World Science Festival (don’t bother with the comments to Tommaso’s post, though). He quotes a bit in which Brian Greene and Shamit Kachru both admitted that they don’t expect to see experimental evidence of extra dimensions in their lifetime, then cites a commenter saying “Why the f*** are you working on it, then?” Tommaso offers a semi-quantitative way to determine whether some long-term project is worth the risk, which is amusing.
I was reminded of this when I looked at the Dennis Overbye story about Kepler that’s in this morning’s links dump. Toward the end, he quotes a researcher making an interesting analogy:
The public wants to know whether there is life on other planets,” [Kepler team leader William] Borucki said, noting that it could take decades. The effort to get an answer, he said, reminds him of the building of the great cathedrals in Europe, in which each generation of workers had to tell themselves that “someday it will be built.”
I don’t think it’s trivially obvious that really long-term projects aren’t worth working on, but I do think it takes a certain type of personality. I know I couldn’t do it (but then I couldn’t do theory, period). The cathedral analogy is probably a good way of expressing the attitude you need to have if you’re going to work in those areas.
I’m curious as to how other people feel about this, so here’s a poll question. If you were a new grad student about to embark on the study of Science (not necessarily physics), would you be excited to work on a research program that would not see an experimental test for a long time? Here are some possible time scales:
This is a ticky-box poll, not a radio button poll, so please choose all that apply. Also, please click the box for the final item, so I can get a reasonably accurate vote count, as the percentages are sometimes screwy on these.