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The article:The Crisis of Big Science by Stephen Weinberg in the May 10 issue of the New York Review of Books tells a lot more than it intends if you read it with a political perspective.  Here is a key passage:

Big science is in competition for government funds, not only with manned space flight, and with various programs of real science, but also with many other things that we need government to do. We don’t spend enough on education to make becoming a teacher an attractive career choice for our best college graduates. Our passenger rail lines and Internet services look increasingly poor compared with what one finds in Europe and East Asia. We don’t have enough patent inspectors to process new patent applications without endless delays. The overcrowding and understaffing in some of our prisons amount to cruel and unusual punishment. We have a shortage of judges, so that civil suits take years to be heard.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, moreover, doesn’t have enough staff to win cases against the corporations it is charged to regulate. There aren’t enough drug rehabilitation centers to treat addicts who want to be treated. We have fewer policemen and firemen than before September 11. Many people in America cannot count on adequate medical care. And so on. In fact, many of these other responsibilities of government have been treated worse in the present Congress than science. All these problems will become more severe if current legislation forces an 8 percent sequestration—or reduction, in effect—of nonmilitary spending after this year.

We had better not try to defend science by attacking spending on these other needs. We would lose, and would deserve to lose.

 Interesting words.  The article is a good read if you want a good, quick review of particle physics' history and recent needs.  That's not my purpose.  I want to integrate the above insights with my recent series on the way economics, politics and science are intertwined.  Here is a link to the last of the rather long series:Reading Ramblings  You can get the whole series by links in each successive entry.  Meanwhile read on below and I'll try  shed more light on the funding of science by a Capitalist oligarchy.

Science has an interesting history and Weinberg gives but one important facet of that history.

Last year physicists commemorated the centennial of the discovery of the atomic nucleus. In experiments carried out in Ernest Rutherford’s laboratory at Manchester in 1911, a beam of electrically charged particles from the radioactive decay of radium was directed at a thin gold foil. It was generally believed at the time that the mass of an atom was spread out evenly, like a pudding. In that case, the heavy charged particles from radium should have passed through the gold foil, with very little deflection. To Rutherford’s surprise, some of these particles bounced nearly straight back from the foil, showing that they were being repelled by something small and heavy within gold atoms. Rutherford identified this as the nucleus of the atom, around which electrons revolve like planets around the sun.

This was great science, but not what one would call big science. Rutherford’s experimental team consisted of one postdoc and one undergraduate. Their work was supported by a grant of just £70 from the Royal Society of London. The most expensive thing used in the experiment was the sample of radium, but Rutherford did not have to pay for it—the radium was on loan from the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

 Other aspects of science were clearly the way things would be in a Capitalist economy.The first pasteurization test was completed by Louis Pasteur and Claude Bernard in April 1862. The process was originally conceived as a way of preventing wine and beer from souring  Flashing forward to today, the field of microbiology has had its problems in the context of our discussion:How the Microbial World Saved Evolution from the Scylla of Molecular Biology and the Charybdis of the Modern Synthesis  If we switch to the field of thermodynamics we see a similar rooting in the development of economic progress:
The first substantial experimental challenges to caloric theory arose in Rumford's 1798 work, when he showed that boring cast iron cannons produced great amounts of heat which he ascribed to friction, and his work was among the first to undermine the caloric theory. The development of the steam engine also focused attention on calorimetry and the amount of heat produced from different types of coal. The first quantitative research on the heat changes during chemical reactions was initiated by Lavoisier using an ice calorimeter frollowing research by Joseph Black on the latent heat of water.
 Who would have guessed that the boring of cannons would be a precursor to modern weapons research?

Then there is the peaceful side to this as well:

At its origins, thermodynamics was the study of engines. A precursor of the engine was designed by the German scientist Otto von Guericke who, in 1650, designed and built the world's first vacuum pump and created the world's first ever vacuum known as the Magdeburg hemispheres. He was driven to make a vacuum in order to disprove Aristotle's long-held supposition that 'Nature abhors a vacuum'.
Shortly thereafter, Irish physicist and chemist Robert Boyle had learned of Guericke's designs and in 1656, in coordination with English scientist Robert Hooke, built an air pump. Using this pump, Boyle and Hooke noticed the pressure-volume correlation: P.V=constant. In that time, air was assumed to be a system of motionless particles, and not interpreted as a system of moving molecules. The concept of thermal motion came two centuries later. Therefore Boyle's publication in 1660 speaks about a mechanical concept: the air spring. Later, after the invention of the thermometer, the property temperature could be quantified. This tool gave Gay-Lussac the opportunity to derive his law, which led shortly later to the ideal gas law. But, already before the establishment of the ideal gas law, an associate of Boyle's named Denis Papin built in 1679 a bone digester, which is a closed vessel with a tightly fitting lid that confines steam until a high pressure is generated.
Later designs implemented a steam release valve to keep the machine from exploding. By watching the valve rhythmically move up and down, Papin conceived of the idea of a piston and cylinder engine. He did not however follow through with his design. Nevertheless, in 1697, based on Papin’s designs, engineer Thomas Savery built the first engine. Although these early engines were crude and inefficient, they attracted the attention of the leading scientists of the time. One such scientist was Sadi Carnot, the “father of thermodynamics”, who in 1824 published “Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire”, a discourse on heat, power, and engine efficiency. This marks the start of thermodynamics as a modern science.
 There are many other examples, but they all follow a common theme.  If someone can make money on the results the field will be supported.  Especially if that someone is a member of the defense industries or a drug company.  I say it that way because if you notice there has been a distinct change in America's way of playing this out.  We have let a lot of industry disappear from our shores.  We have let a lot of jobs disappear from our shores.  We have become immersed in "technological sprawl" as technology provides a new form of magic in our culture.  We hold on to some of the manufacturing  here and this gives the illusion that we are still in the game.

The hitch is that we have this illusion that we are somehow still in control. My thesis is that we never were.  Those aspects of science and technology that feed the economic system become favored.  We spend on other things, especially if we think there is a chance they will lead to new weapons or things to be sold for profit.  Since no one has a crystal ball sometimes things like particle physics seems like a good gamble.  When you are on a losing streak your gambling habits have to change.  Weinberg is too much of a scientist to allow thoughts like this to enter his head.  Where did I go astray?

Originally posted to don mikulecky on Mon Apr 30, 2012 at 01:05 PM PDT.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers, Anti-Capitalist Chat, Systems Thinking, and Postcapitalism.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (13+ / 0-)

    An idea is not responsible for who happens to be carrying it at the moment. It stands or falls on its own merits.

    by don mikulecky on Mon Apr 30, 2012 at 01:05:55 PM PDT

  •  More than 200 years passed between the earliest (4+ / 0-)

    steam engine and the invention of the Stirling engine in 1815 which will be used more as the green energy evolution continues.

    I'd tip you but they cut off my tip box.

    by OHdog on Mon Apr 30, 2012 at 01:15:00 PM PDT

  •  Also see my reflections on a David Graeber piece (6+ / 0-)

    http://www.dailykos.com/...

    Same thing -- technological development goes where the money goes.  This is especially crippling given the increasingly speculative character of capitalism in the current era, in which technologies such as genetic engineering result in increased impoverishment for the many and profits for Monsanto.

    "I've seen the flame of hope among the hopeless/ And that was truly the biggest heartbreak of all" -- Bruce Cockburn

    by Cassiodorus on Mon Apr 30, 2012 at 01:38:17 PM PDT

  •  we could always try small science again (4+ / 0-)

    There's something terribly romantic about the idea that the bleeding edge of science and technology could be advanced by a handful of people with limited means.  Big science is something that only large wealthy institutions - like governments and corporations - can do.  They'll always monopolize it, make it work for them, and kill it when it doesn't serve their agendas.

    I would love to see a world where science is no longer a spectator sport, no longer revelation handed down by elites, no longer valued only in terms of profit, no longer sold at Wal-Mart hidden in products that no-one knows how they work except "push the button", but something that anyone can do.  With the Internet, we don't need institutions to gather scientists under one roof anymore.  The broad dissemination of knowledge and scientific methodology among the population would reap benefits far in excess of research and invention.  I'd love to see all the things that regular people armed with science would do that elites would never think of.

    The Scientific Revolution during the 19th Century was, at least in its earliest stages, carried out by educated amateurs.  Then as now businessmen only bought inventions that already existed and were proven to work; they didn't dare risk their own money on R&D.  Basic research is still in this position: more is done in university labs - funded more by donors and governments than by corporations - than by the corporations themselves.

    Never attribute to stupidity what can be adequately explained by malice; stupid people couldn't hurt us so effectively.

    by Visceral on Mon Apr 30, 2012 at 01:40:08 PM PDT

    •  Education would do this. We have none. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, shaharazade, Larsstephens

      We have training for becoming servants to the system.

      An idea is not responsible for who happens to be carrying it at the moment. It stands or falls on its own merits.

      by don mikulecky on Mon Apr 30, 2012 at 01:45:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  the 19th Century had even less education (5+ / 0-)

        If a time of one room schoolhouses and mandatory Bible classes could produce more fertile ground for amateur science than today, then I don't think education is quite as important as we might first think it is.

        I'd say the difference between then and now was less education than skills. People knew how to do a lot more things back then.  Inventing requires the ability to physically manipulate objects.  If anything, technology has grown more opaque with time; observation won't teach you anything about how a microchip functions, not even seeing it in context and at work.

        Never attribute to stupidity what can be adequately explained by malice; stupid people couldn't hurt us so effectively.

        by Visceral on Mon Apr 30, 2012 at 02:04:44 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  We are using "education" in very (5+ / 0-)

          different ways.  The word's meaning , like most, is context dependent

          My concept of education is an exposure to the real world and how to live in it.

          If anything, technology has grown more opaque with time; observation won't teach you anything about how a microchip functions, not even seeing it in context and at work.
           seems to be saying what I said in the diary:
          We have become immersed in "technological sprawl" as technology provides a new form of magic in our culture.

          An idea is not responsible for who happens to be carrying it at the moment. It stands or falls on its own merits.

          by don mikulecky on Mon Apr 30, 2012 at 02:10:17 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Interesting that you should mention (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            don mikulecky, Larsstephens

            Count Rumford. I'd tip and recc on that basis alone. He, like Franklin, was a Renaissance man who was interested in many different areas. If he hadn't been a Royalist who moved back to England he, like Franklin, might have become part of the American pantheon of inventors.
            Rumford and Franklin would easily have understood each other. each other. Current leaps in knowledge often occur at the edges of areas so specialised than no one outside the field understands them.  

            "There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in". Leonard Cohen

            by northsylvania on Mon Apr 30, 2012 at 02:20:31 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  not as different as you think (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            don mikulecky, Larsstephens
            My concept of education is an exposure to the real world and how to live in it.
            When has school ever taught this?  I mean other than the constant lessons on the supreme importance of being hot and rich.

            If it were up to me, formal education would be shop class, science lab, and field trips all the time: an absolute minimum of lecture and drill, then apply, apply, apply.  I'd also bring back apprenticeship and push employers to train new hires.

            We also need to rebuild the blue-collar manufacturing sector.  A country full of people who can make rather than buy is I think a necessary part of what I'm trying to say.

            Never attribute to stupidity what can be adequately explained by malice; stupid people couldn't hurt us so effectively.

            by Visceral on Mon Apr 30, 2012 at 02:52:18 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

      •  There are still pockets (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        don mikulecky, Brecht, Larsstephens

        of creativity. Due to the availability of cheap electrophoresiskits, one of my son's middle school teachers was able to do research into genes affecting risk taking behaviour in rats. Maybe it would be useful knowledge, maybe not, but an unknown man investigated it after hours in a middle school on the wrong side of the tracks and eventually had his work published. Small science isn't dead, it just isn't glamorous. However, it never has been. It's only the commercial successes which come out of left field that become mythologised.

        "There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in". Leonard Cohen

        by northsylvania on Mon Apr 30, 2012 at 02:11:09 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

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