Thursday, 6 March 2014

The Art of String Theory

Sean Carroll blogs about recent US DOE cuts to particle theory, taking a fairly balanced and nuanced viewpoint (as he always does). He mostly talks about whether this is a good thing with respect to the grad student/postdoc population balance, which is a very reasonable angle to be considering. As for my own thoughts, I'll be honest here: although I personally find the case for learning about the universe extremely compelling, and while I agree that most of the time funding basic science research is a very good investment...well, even so...

Even so, I can't really disagree with the government in this case.

Let's be realistic for a second. Are current high energy research areas - things like particle physics and cosmology and string theory - likely to lead to any new technologies in the near future? Will they bring about anything of practical value, outside of physics? Certainly they could...but it doesn't seem particularly probable. Look at quarks, for instance - we've known about quarks for at least 40 years now, and what good has that done us? As far as I can tell, in terms of technologies based directly on quark physics and quantum chromodynamics, there are The Higgs Boson doesn't seem likely to break that trend. And string theory? Forget about it.

Now, you could wave your hands at this, and talk about the unpredictability of science. You could point out that no one foresaw any applications coming out of, say, Einstein's research on general relativity, or Benjamin Franklin messing around with kites. Look what those led to! Who knows what might come out of our current research?

All certainly true, but I still feel uncomfortable using an argument like this. It seems...intellectually dishonest, somehow. As if you're reveling in your ignorance. You can appeal to history all you like, but the trend of fundamental physics research leading to technological breakthroughs is just that - a trend. It may continue, or it may end. Certainly the fact that no one, not even the most visionary of science fiction authors, can come up with a halfway plausible route towards such hypothetical breakthroughs - surely that should be at least concerning, shouldn't it?* Heck, we can't even come up with an experimental test of string theory, let alone an application. With this in mind isn't it a bit...I don't know, shady of us, to be collecting money under the pretenses of maybe-eventually-possibly producing some kind of new technology that'll likely never arrive? No, I'd rather make the case for funding fundamental physics research simply as it is, without having to dangle a carrot in front of the public's nose. For one, it's more honest, which I tend to be in favour of. For another, it avoids backlash - after all, if we promise miracles, we had better darn well deliver them (I doubt the people will be so quick to grant us a 2000 year grace period). And for yet another (if ethical qualms don't move you) it allows physicists much more freedom in their research: freedom to explore, to investigate, to follow the winds of evidence wherever they lead, even if it's away from application.

So I propose that string theory, cosmology, and the like be treated more akin to the arts in terms of funding - that is, as government subsidized public interest projects. Things we as a society would like to see done, and that enrich and give meaning to our lives, but that serve no practical purpose. And if it seems like I'm disparaging the aforementioned fields by grouping them in with the arts, let me clear: exactly the opposite is true. I have the highest respect for the arts. This is something of an aside, but if I had to sum up my philosophy on what makes for a meaningful and fulfilling life, it would consist of two things: one, learning as much as you can about the world while you're on it, and two, using that knowledge to create something new. And what are those two things but science and art, distilled to their core? If ever we figure out the Theory Of Everything and unravel all of Nature's mysteries, leaving nothing unexplained, it will be the artists that make life still worth living. There will always be beauty.

...uh, so anyway, to sum up: high energy research tends to be allocated funding based on it falling under the umbrella of physics, a field that has historically produced a huge number of technological advances. However, current fundamental physics research has (maybe) gotten to the point where it won't lead to that many new technologies in the future. Therefore, at least in terms of funding, we shouldn't treat [particle physics, string theory, cosmology] as being part of science, but rather more like the arts, which are funded purely for interest's sake. Like the arts, we should make the case for funding these fields independent of any practical real-world applications they might lead to. Of course (I hope it goes without saying), I believe such a case exists to be made, and is indeed a very strong case. Science is Awesome, after all.

...but all of this is leaving aside the most important consideration, which is this: historically, many artists were supported by rich patrons. So by extension, there could be patrons for physicists as well, couldn't there? Surely some rich billionaire out there would want to have a cosmologist at his beck and call. And if we have patrons for physicists, presumably securing such a patron would be a rare and difficult thing, no? Competition would be intense. Inevitably such competition would lead to physicists taking out advertisements for patronage in various places, describing their skills. And if physicists were going to such lengths, no doubt the process would be extremely frustrating for them, and could eventually lead to breakdowns and psychological issues, right?

All of which means that somewhere...someday...we might get to see the following posting:


Yep. Definitely worth it.


*Unless of course there are such speculative proposals and I'm simply unaware of them. Anyone?

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