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.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.
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.
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.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:
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.
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'.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.
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.
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?