Steven Weinberg on the Higgs boson, and a few words on the value of pure science

July 16, 2012 • 10:09 am

Yesterday’s New York Times contains a nice op-ed by Steven Weinberg (you know him, of course, as an atheist and physicist nonpareil, and Nobel laureate to boot): “Why the Higgs boson matters.” He gives a good explanation about why the Higgs boson was an essential part of the Standard Model of physics (when physicists are so certain that something has to be there, you know that their theories are pretty good!), but then goes on to explain why the average Joe and Jane should care about that boson:

These are the cautious words you would expect to hear from a prudent physicist. But I have been waiting for the discovery of the Higgs boson since 1967, and it’s hard for me now to doubt that it has been found.

So what? Even if the particle is the Higgs boson, it is not going to be used to cure diseases or improve technology. This discovery simply fills a gap in our understanding of the laws of nature that govern all matter, and throws light on what was going on in the early universe. It’s wonderful that many people do care about this sort of science, and regard it as a credit to our civilization.

Of course not everyone feels this way, and even those who do have to ask whether learning the laws of nature is worth the billions of dollars it costs to build particle accelerators. This question is going to come up again, since our present Standard Model is certainly not the end of the story. It leaves out gravitation; it does not explain the particular values of the masses of quarks and electrons and other particles; and none of its particles can account for the “dark matter” that astronomers tell us makes up five-sixths of the mass of the universe. You can count on physicists to ask their governments for the facilities they need to grapple with these problems.

So in the end, Weinberg is forced to make an economic argument for this type of research:

A case can be made for this sort of spending, even to those who don’t care about learning the laws of nature. Exploring the outer frontier of our knowledge of nature is in one respect like war: It pushes modern technology to its limits, often yielding new technology of great practical importance.

For instance, the new particle was produced at CERN in collisions of protons that occur at a rate of over a hundred million collisions per second. To analyze the flood of data produced by all these collisions requires real time computing of unmatched power. Also, before the protons collide, they are accelerated to an energy over 3,000 times larger than the energy contained in their own masses while they go many times around a 27-kilometer circular tunnel. To keep them in their tracks requires enormously strong superconducting magnets, cooled by the world’s largest source of liquid helium. In previous work at CERN, elementary particle physicists developed a method of sharing data that has become the World Wide Web.

On a longer time scale, the advance of technology will reflect the coherent picture of nature we are now assembling. At the end of the 19th century physicists in England were exploring the properties of electric currents passing through a near vacuum. Although this was pure science, it led to our knowledge of the electron, without which a large part of today’s technology would be impossible. If these physicists had limited themselves to work of obvious practical importance, they would have been studying the behavior of steam boilers.

So spending all that money understanding nature will ultimately yield long-term technological benefits. That, we should tell the doubters, is why we should invest so much money in science.  And yes, this kind of research does have practical payoffs. Many of our advances in cancer therapy, for instance, came from research that was “pure,” that is, not aimed at cancer treatment.  One reason to fund pure science is indeed because it has unexpected practical payoffs—payoffs in health, payoffs in technology.

But I wish we could convince the public that there are simple payoffs in understanding.  Humans are curious animals: we want to know where we came from, and where the universe came from, and what we and the universe are made of.  That is worth something in itself.  Even if evolutionary biology had no practical benefits (and yes, there are some, but the vast amount of money given us by taxpayers to study evolution is to promote pure understanding), it would be worth spending money on, just as we subsidize the arts.

Now of course we have to trade off science with other practical benefits when it comes to big-ticket items like the Large Hadron Collider.  We can’t spend every penny of public money on simple understanding of the universe.  But nevertheless, science brings intellectual rewards that are in many ways as beneficial as technical rewards.  What is it worth to know that we evolved from a common ancestor with chimps six million years ago, or where we fit on the tree of life? How can you put a price on that?

But, as scientists, since we’re given money to find this stuff out, it’s incumbent on us to give back to the public what we find. That is what Weinberg has done in his several books, and it’s why I write articles and books on evolution.

Mencken expressed the motivation of scientists pretty well in his collection called A Mencken Chrestomathy (a book I can’t recommend too highly, and only $16 for hours of pleasure):

The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate. Consider, for example, two of them: mere insatiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves one of the most useful men the human race has yet produced: the scientific investigator. What actually urges him on is not some brummagem idea of Service, but a boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but a dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes.

104 thoughts on “Steven Weinberg on the Higgs boson, and a few words on the value of pure science

  1. I could get worked up about the question of spending money on science if it weren’t for the fact that we spend, within rounding, absolutely nothing on science.

    Was the LHC even as expensive as a single aircraft carrier? And NASA’s space program is such a joke that the NSA could afford to have not one but two obsolete satellites that out-Hubble the Hubble that they could give as hand-me-downs to NASA.

    If we put even a tenth of the effort into learning about the universe we live in as we do into killing brown people, I’d be thrilled beyond belief.



    1. Was the LHC even as expensive as a single aircraft carrier?

      It’s in the same ball park. Current LHC cost hoovers around 11 billion. The newest Ford-class aircraft carrier had a price tag of 10 billion.

      (Note however that the US contributed only a fairly small amount to the LHC, which is mostly a European thing).

      1. So, the biggest, grandest, most expensive science experiment in all of history is only worth as much as a single warship. And the cost of the experiment is mostly shared by a bunch of European countries.

        Really tells you something about our priorities as a species.



        1. i would add that even science seems to have its priorities not in order

          i am yet to find a group of scientists which would go beyond telling us that the collapse of global financial system will trigger crisis of production system them social chaos and failure of government and governence everywhere leading to our technological civilization crushed once and forever

          i know this is unpopular subject but the fringes of scientific commmunity has been sounding the warnings for some 50 years now

          we do not listen

          we do not study the risks and what can we do

          instead we simply allow the population and consumption bubble continue

          given the rebalancing over some time in the future and what it would mean for continuation of science one would expect at least some scientists to give it serious thought and come up with the ideas beyond simply sounding alarms

          but it is not happenning

          instead the best science can do is to search for higgs bozon

          i love pure science but from organism-whole perspective we are as primitive and as ignorant as 50,000 years ago

      2. What was the best, realistic estimate (accounting for inflation, cost overruns, etc.) of the cancelled Texas supercollider?

        Would thar have been more of a whoop-di-doo in Amuricuh if that thar Higgs Boson had been discovered in Amuricuh?

        In addition to building it, is the additional 40-50 year cost of operating and maintaining an aircraft carrier and it’s crew/air wing a more proper monetary figure to consider? (The same of course can be said of the LHC.)

        1. Wikipedia: “By 1993, the cost projection exceeded $12 billion.”

          As I recall, at the time this was roughly equivalent to a fully-loaded Trident submarine (of which Ronald Reagan wanted to build 17).

    2. If we put even a tenth of the effort into learning about the universe we live in as we do into killing brown people, I’d be thrilled beyond belief.

      Imagine the unbounded joy and happiness that will come to pass when our lords and masters realise that the brown people (yes, I do think that skin colour is important to the man on the Clapham [or Chicago] omnibus in this matter) can afford and get just as effective tools for killing white people.
      Oh, hang on ; that’s the basis for a lot of the frothing-at-the-mouth fury about the Indian, Pakistani, Iranian and North Korean bombs (the Israeli bomb is secret and “nearly-white”, for countries with powerful Jewish lobbies). And it may be part of the outrage over the bombing of New York by the Saudi Wahabbi Muslims a few years ago. “They can’t do that! Slaughtering filthy infidels is our God-given mission!”
      I’m going to go and print a random Jesus’n’Mo to post on the cubicle wall. It won’t do much good, but it’ll make me feel slightly better.

  2. I liken basic research to seed corn and applied to the corn you eat. Strategically, you don’t want to eat the seed corn even if you’re having a bad year. Another metaphor may be a well (applied research) and the water table (basic research); if you pull from the well without letting the water table replentish, its going to go dry.

    Either way, the point is that applied research draws from basic research. Its just hard for most people to see that because the ‘lag’ between the two is probably several decades. But get rid of the latter, and in a few years the former will begin to slow down and eventually stop. Or your country will become dependent on foreign sources of basic knowledge production on which to build its applied programs – which is not the end of the world for a small country with a highly constrained budget, but probably not the position the US wants to be in.

  3. I know this is OT; but Mencken’s ‘brummagem’, which I assume means banal. Over here in Birmingham, England, notorious for the dourness of its inhabitants, the local slang for the city is ‘Brummagem’, the exact same word.

    Is the word a common-place American pejorative? I wonder how there can be 2 meanings for such an unusual word; how is the one related to the other?

    Sorry, scientists, but I’m fascinated.

    1. Dermot: My Merriam Webster states that brummagem refers to a counterfeit groats scandal in 17th Century England. It also means spurious or tawdry.

      I first thought this was a grain (buckwheat groats), but my American Heritage dictionary has a more specific explanation (how do you counterfeit a grain?)

      The AH dictionary states that the word is an alteration of the name Birmingham (England), where counterfeit coins were made in the 1600’s. It also adds the word “meretricious” to the adjectival description.

      1. Thanks, Barbara.

        The groat would be, I assume, a reference to the old coin, (medieval, early modern?) in England.

        I had no idea about the brummagem scandal, the derivation of the word and its adoption by the Brummies.

        You’ve enlightened me; count that as your good deed for the day.


      2. counterfeit groats scandal in 17th Century England. It also means spurious or tawdry.

        Grotty goats, anyone?
        A “groat” was a coin which IIRC didn’t go out of circulation until about 1800. As a small denomination coin, it was mostly of significance to the poorer ranks of society. The word has more-or-less slipped out of British English use, except as a deliberate anachronism. Even I rarely use it, and I like my anachronisms. The “farthing,” a similar denomination coin, remained in circulation until IIRC the 1960s, but has remained in popular parlance, riding on the back of an Ordinary bicycle (better known as the “Penny Farthing,” illustrating the relative sizes of the coins).

        the word is an alteration of the name Birmingham (England), where counterfeit coins were made in the 1600′s.

        Birmingham was generally considered as a city of metal workshops. Certainly counterfeiting went on – motive, method and opportunity – but the city was better known for gunsmithing. Then latterly, general light engineering (locks, cars, but not ships and steelworks). Boulton and Watt, who powered the Industrial Revolution with their steam engines, had most of the parts made in the area. While checking my knowledge of this period, I see that an associate of Boulton & Watt was known for producing “trade tokens (‘Willys’ and ‘Druids’) to alleviate the shortage of small coins” ; which suggests that there was another side to this canard upon the reputation of the West Midlands.
        (Not that I’m a Brummie or anything. Thank Author!)

  4. Humans may be animals endowed with natural curiosity, but much in our mainstream cultures conspires to thwart that curiosity, with religions, the mass entertainment industry, and a fair chunk of the institutional educational system building up their varied buttresses against investigative intellectual endeavour.

    Prevailing economic dogma is happy to reap the benefits of fundamental curiosity, but shirks the investment.

    With all the ambient dumbing down, “simple payoffs in understanding” may be a hard sell.

  5. Unfortunately, funding for basic research becomes a vexing problem in hard economic times like these. Therefore it should be incumbent on educators to point out that the benefits of general knowledge don’t always pay off immediately.

    Case in point: Darwin’s Theory, published over 100 years ago, and still yielding new insights. Of course, many vitriolic arguments against it are currently underway, but I think (hope) common sense will ultimately prevail.

    If it doesn’t, then the world & all its inhabitants are in for more rough sledding than we already face, as the 2006 movie “Idiocracy” or H.G. Welles’ “The Time Machine” suggest.

    1. That’s a bit of a strange choice of example of public funding for basic research.
      Darwin’s fieldwork took place at effectively zero cost to the public purse : he was retained as “gentleman companion” for company to Captain Fitzroy on a naval expedition (Fitzroy had reasonable grounds to be concerned for his own mental health on what he anticipated to be a long and stressful voyage. I forget whether Darwin or Fitzroy paid his costs ; I think it was Fitzroy.) This appointment was dressed up for the Admiralty’s benefit by making Darwin the ship’s naturalist.
      The Beagle expedition was for the purpose of surveying the coasts of South America, and establishing the longitude of the Islas Malvinas, recently annexed by Britain. The military did this for diplomatic (“gunboat”) and military purposes – the fighting over the Malvinas are in a diplomacy mode this decade, but I wouldn’t bet on it staying diplomatic.
      Darwin’s extended writing-up period was funded out of his family wealth, not the public purse. Though I’ll grant that the public purse did fund the purchase of the Linnean Society’s meeting rooms in Burlington House, where Darwin and Wallace’s papers on Natural Selection were read.

  6. The problem with justifying science spending purely in terms of knowledge for its own sake is that it puts science on the same level as, say, sports trivia, and invites the question of why Joe Sixpack should pay for your hobby.

    I think better justifications can be found, aside from long-term economics. For instance, we justify art subsidies not merely on the basis of art-for-art’s-sake, but also on the theory that a thriving arts community creates an aesthetically richer cultural environment that benefits everyone.

    Similarly, scientific knowledge diffuses out into art and culture at large to create an intellectually richer environment that benefits everyone. It’s better to live in a society of smart, curious people with wide-ranging intellects than one of drudges and dullards who never look up from their own narrow interests. And that’s why we should spend money on science, and promote its findings as widely as possible.

    1. To say nothing of the fact that without science and its offshoot technology, Joe Sixpack would find his life hard, brutish, and short.

    2. I’m afraid that to appeal to Joe Six-Pack, one has to get more down-to-earth than appeals to culture (or especially *gasp* art, which should be free, i.e. completely unsubsidized, according to my imagined Joe).

      Appeals to more cost-effective construction of sports arenas… bigger cars that somehow burn less gas… cheaper baseball caps and tee shirts and underwear that never needs washing… Now yer talkin’.

      1. But how does the Higgs contribute to any of that? It doesn’t — except to the extent that it helps create an intellectual climate in which creativity and innovation can flourish.

        1. We think finding the Higgs won’t contribute to any of that, but we can’t be sure. That’s the thing about basic research: you don’t know before you do it what bit of it will lead to the next remarkable innovation.

          But we do know that some bit of it will likely change our lives for the better and make us more prosperous.

          Think of basic research like a stock market without the crashes. You don’t know for sure which individual stock will go up or down, but you can be pretty damn sure the market as a whole make money over the next decade.

          1. Actually it’s more like the venture capital market, where nine out of ten startups may never turn a profit (let alone be publicly traded), but you’re pretty sure one or two of them will pay off really big.

            But my point is that that sort of financial-market analogy need not be the only justification for supporting basic research. There are synergistic benefits to society that accrue from the accumulation of knowledge as a whole, even the bits that don’t have any direct practical payoff.

            So we don’t have to resort to such implausibilities as claiming that, for all we know, the Higgs (or any other specific bit of basic research) could lead to some gadget that will improve our lives. Just knowing about the Higgs could inspire some smart kid to invent something cool and practical, and that’s reason enough to do it.

            1. I agree, synergy between disparate and individually “worthless” bits of research can produce new innovations too. I didn’t mean to imply that the value of research is binary, though in hindsight I can see that that’s pretty much what I wrote.

              I’d say we’re both defending the value of a wide basic research base.

        2. Well, if the Higgs boson is found to exist that means it is nearly certain that the Higgs field exists and is what causes the property we call mass, right? Mass is very important to Joe Sixpack. The more massive the truck, gun, beer belly, what have you, the more awesome you are! Big is extremely important and mass is an integral property of BIG THINGS. The BIGGER the better. And as we all know the mighty US of A does things BIGGER than anyone else, so of course the Higgs is important to us!

          1. it is nearly certain that the Higgs field exists and is what causes the property we call mass, right?

            The Higgs field, if it exists, may be what endows some (or all) bosons with mass ; it may also endow some (or all) fermions with mass.
            What has been detected is a particle with some (but not all) of the decay characteristics expected of the Higgs, at nearly (but not exactly) the mass predicted for the Higgs, by some theories.
            The particle physicists criterion for a “discovery” is 5-sigma. But recently I’ve seen reputable publications claiming that our recent weather conditions would have been a 6-sigma event predicting forward from climate models and data of the 1980s. Since our weather is, this suggests that the model is wrong, and the 6-sigma unlikelihood is irrelevant. Similarly, what has been discovered (not disputed!) at CERN may be similar to the postulated Higgs boson, but there are noticeable differences, whose significance is unclear. At the moment.

        3. Agreed. I was merely airing a somewhat pessimistic view that Joe may be beyond reach.

          Oh well… as educators, we do what we can. And appeals to the quality of the general culture is a fine argument. There could even be ways to make it banal enough to appeal to to more than a few of the average Joes out there.

          It’s an uphill battle though, even when you climb the ranks above the culture of the average Joe — all the way up to… Congress. Just ask Steven Weinberg about it (who failed to convince members of Congress to continue to fund the super-conducting super-collider… in Texas, no less). I think I remember some of the arguments back then having to do with getting a handle on the mechanics of reality, towards a goal of possibly figuring out how to get out of our energy dilemma. No dice.

          Perhaps if members of Congress were promised underwear that never needed washing?

        4. As Weinberg pointed out CERN gave us the World Wide Web. It is effectively a spin off from the search for the Higg’s Boson. Even Joe Sixpack uses the Web.

          The engineering developed to build the lining of the tunnels could indeed lead to “more cost-effective construction of sports arenas”. The vast computing power of the GRID used to process the LHC experimental data could also be used to design “bigger cars that somehow burn less gas”

          Tell Joe Sixpack that or tell Joe Twofourpack here in Canada, as here we don’t do anything related to beer by halves most certainly not by quarters. It’s only pseudo-intellectual wimps like me that buy six-packs!

          1. 🙂 I’ll see what I can do the next time I run into Joe.

            What kills me is the eastern plains of Colorado (near where I type this) were originally slated for the original super-conducting super-collider (SSC). It would’ve been perfect – with plenty of space to expand, unlike the situation at CERN (from what I understand).

            Texas with its bigger clout ended up getting the contract, and much of the cost overruns were due to fire ants getting into the tunnels and making bee-lines (or rather, ant trails) towards the wiring… chewing up insulation. — a problem that would not have happened in Colorado, in all likelihood.

            (or in Illinois where it was also slated – where a bunch of prerequisite facilities were already constructed that would’ve saved billions)

            Any number of better decisions could’ve been made and we would’ve had the Higgs detected at least a decade earlier, plus an accelerator capable of 40TeV (as opposed to CERN’s 8TeV), plus attracted the brightest minds in the world, plus not lost our standing in the world community re: commitments to mega-projects.

            As it stands now, our name is mud internationally regarding our ability to finance long-term projects – the brain is drained, and an accelerator with such energies may actually NEVER get built, now that the window of opportunity is gone (as the world spirals into economic ruin). It was a long shot, but we may have squandered our only chance to find out something that could rule out a zillion alternate theories, instead of merely finding out something that buttresses the existing standard model.

            I’ll go tell Joe. Maybe he’ll understand.

    3. It’s better to live in a society of smart, curious people with wide-ranging intellects than one of drudges and dullards

      Another variant of the Tocquevillian conundrum: how to promote and establish the values of zetetic meritocracy in an egalitarian society.

      The price of pluralism in a fragmented society is relativism —
      the “truths” of “revelation” and “prophecy” are deemed equal to the truthfulness of replicable experiment; evidence, logical proof and complete chain of reasoning are deemed equal to faith and opinion.

      Science still enjoys a special status while it is seen to deliver the goods — a strictly utilitarian valuation. The values science builds upon are inconvenient, and unprofitable in the short term. This runs counter to prevailing social attitudes, while previous opinion leading entities have never given up vying for the interpretive sovereignty, and by the same token, power. You can’t win fighting for truth when the real stake is — power.

  7. The fact that CERN’s need to share data led Sir Tim Berners Lee to ‘invent’ the Internet, itself means that the overall benefit to business, government and the public at large is many orders of magnitude greater than the entire cost of funding CERN and the LHC. Google, Amazon and eBay, to name just a few, would not exist. Apple would not have iTunes and would be a fraction of the size that the company is now. The Arab Spring may well not have happened.

    The only business sectors that have yet to fully realise the benefits of the World Wide Web seem to be the film and music industries, who just seem to be hell bent on suing the entire population of the planet for copyright infringement. But then, they originally objected to the end of all cinemas be tied to individual studios and the broadcast of recorded music on the radio, so give them time.

    The only drawback to Sir Tim’s work would appear to be that it has led to Mark Suckerpunch becoming a very, very wealthy man (who could fund another CERN in his own).

    1. [SIGH]
      Tim Berners-Lee was using the Internet for years before he did his information-sharing work at CERN. The basic structure of the Internet (IP, TCP and DNS) was put together between about 1976 (IP and TCP, in stages) and the mid-1980s (the “great renaming2 as DNS bedded in.
      In the late 1980s, TBL produced a protocol for sharing data on the existing internet, that allowed for relatively easy construction of hypertext (a 1960s idea) links between consistently-described resources. Toss up between HTTP and the URI as being the most important part, or call it the WWW if you must. The WWW bears a similar relationship to the Internet as the immune system does to the circulatory system. One of each pair could exist perfectly well without the other. One of each pair depends entirely on the other.

  8. What is it worth to know that we evolved from a common ancestor with chimps six million years ago, or where we fit on the tree of life? How can you put a price on that?

    Another aspect of that question is: what kind of discovery will it take to get the average citizen to recognize the benefits of knowledge of evolutionary science? Back in June, Kevin Drum posted an article on Mother Jones titled The Fight Over Evolution isn’t Actually All That Important. His conclusion was:

    The fact is that belief in evolution has virtually no real-life impact on anything. That’s why 46% of the country can safely choose not to believe it: their lack of belief has precisely zero effect on their lives.

    1. They can choose not to believe it, but whether it’s safe for them to do so is a different question. Evolution denial can certainly have real-world impact on things like crop yields and antibiotic resistance.

  9. a book I can’t recommend too highly, and only $16 for hours of pleasure

    “can’t recommned too highly” sounds a bit like “can’t recommend very highly”. Perhaps “can’t recommed highly enough” is less ambiguous?

  10. What you understand, you can control. The more humans understand, the more we can control to our own ends.

    I doubt Einstein was attempting to create nuclear energy or atomic weapons when working on the theory of relativity. I also doubt Maxwell was trying to invent electronics when coming up with his equations. Not all understandings are going to yield such “jackpots”, but the benefits can only be explored after the working theories are solidified.

    The whole “what can I get right now” attitude is maddeningly childish. The value of pure science investigation is staggeringly obvious with even cursory examination.

    1. Yes, and what you understand, you don’t fear, and can not be used to control you.

      Something religion has used to it’s advantage and why it continues to fight against greater human understanding of reality.

  11. I love this simile (due to Weinberg?): “the Higgs boson….would have to be like a knuckleball in baseball; unlike all other known elementary particles, it would have no spin..”

    Perhaps it’s not original and Torbjorn might know who said it first, if not Weinberg.

    There is presumably an alternative (“alternate” for the uncouth) version for cricketers.

    On a topic within the replies, one might ask Joe Sixpack whether he has any interest at all in doing something for future generations other than f..king and possibly promoting the immediate material welfare of his own progeny.

  12. I’m surprised no-one mentions a number one spin-off: the (probably) hundreds of PhDs that come out of this. They will filter out into various jobs. Not all will become university faculty, but will enrich industry etc. Many will enter the top level of the physical science education system… they will teach and inspire teachers at a more modest level who may then inspire future scientists… or non-scientists too. Also, don’t forget the many technical industries that have been stretched to the absolute utmost to provide the stunning LHC machine … Finally, the example of thousands of people of diverse cultures religions (yes, religions) languages and political systems. One in the eye for the post-modernists! The only hope for the world is collaboration of that kind.

  13. Beautiful.

    I would argue that there are many expensive and unnecessary human endeavors of that qualify as less worthy than either subsidizing science experiments OR helping the needy.

    Among them:
    1)$40B annually on cultivating lawns in the US
    2)$50B annually on keeping domestic carnivores (cats and dogs)
    3)$100s billions in inefficient fuel consumption
    4)$100s billions on unnecessary defense spending during peacetime.

    When juxtaposed as in the Weinberg article, it does make expenditures on science appear callous against a backdrop of feeding the poor and sheltering the homeless. This implies that one must be sacrificed for the other when in reality, both can be supported. We can play this game ad nauseam: Why build more prisons when we should be building more schools? Why spend taxes on drug rehabilitation instead of making prescription medicines more affordable?

  14. “The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate.”

    Motives? What could they be to a denier of compatibilist free will?

    David B

  15. I can not remember if it was Faraday or Davy who when asked what use Electricity was replied
    “Madam, what use is a newborn baby?”

    Faraday is also reputed to have said to The Chancellor of the Exchequer of the day when asked again about the value of electricity
    “I do not know but I do know you will tax it”

  16. It’s always good to know more, and that’s why I think science should be funded. Unfortunately there are also a lot of crappy scientists out there, so the great question is can someone come up with a scheme to fund the good researchers while not wasting too much money on the duds? I’ve worked for industry and in a number of cases said “our results show that this line of investigation will go nowhere – dump it and let’s do something else”; however, my colleagues in academia generally go on pretending like there’s valuable work to be done and ask the businesses involved for more money. In one instance I was kept on one project for almost 3 more years while I built up a case against the claims of the academics – in hindsight that was a waste of 3 years of my time; it’s not pleasant being the only honest expert on a panel.

    1. It would be edifying to have at least one actual example. They undoubtedly exist in general, and perhaps MadScientist can give some specifics without getting more specific than he/she wishes.

      But how significant are the wasted public grants to research losers in this context of billions? Most western countries seem to have pretty good filtering systems. Given the nature of humans, you will never completely avoid some waste of public research money. The cost of doing it better sometimes exceeds the benefits by an order of magnitude.

  17. There are scientific boondoggles. The megaexpensive International Space Station is exhibit I. Hopefully, the LHC will make more discoveries than simply confirming the existence of the Higgs (which standard model electroweak symmetry breaking implied had to be there). I worry that these humungously expensive scientific projects like the LHC crowd out funding for many innovative smaller ventures. We see that with the ISS, which has hampered funding for far more productive robotic planetary missions.

    1. “..simply confirming the existence of the Higgs…”
      and nailing down its mass, getting much more statistical data on its decays, maybe pointing towards supersymmetry, maybe suggesting candidates for dark matter, ….. .

      1. The results so far on SUSY are all negative, as well as on extra dimensions. The case is not yet closed, but by most accounts it is looking unlikely that the LHC will find evidence of supersymmetry. Hopefully, the LHC will discover physics beyond the standard model, but if it doesn’t the Higgs will look mighty costly.

        And if we are going the “who knows…” route, who knows what might have been discovered if the $10+ billion on the LHC and the $15+ billion on the ISS would have been spent on a myriad of other projects.

        1. Hopefully, the LHC will discover physics beyond the standard model,

          Hopefully indeed, because one of the few things that we know, for sure, about the Standard Model is that it’s wrong.
          It does not include (or predict) gravity. But according to the physicists, that’s not the worst of it’s problems.

        2. “ is looking unlikely that the LHC will find evidence of supersymmetry..”

          To paraphrase from another recent Coyne writing.
          ‘lack of evidence for supersymmetry is then evidence for lack of supersymmetry’ (presumably). That being the case, your original “..simply confirming the existence of the Higgs” is somewhat harsh. I understand the evidence against SUSY prior to the LHC was not all that strong, so further evidence against it has considerable value, whatever one might have been hoping. I must admit to have had, several years ago, a number of math results about Zsub2-grading (which is what that super-stuff is at basis about), and so have a sentimental desire for it to turn out to be central to particle physics. But if it ain’t so, according to empirical evidence, I’d sooner know that, than “go gentle into that good night” in a state of ignorance. So maybe at least I will be thankful to the Euro-taxpayers!

          1. I did not mean confirming the existence of Higgs as a put down. It is a big accomplishment. But the big fear is that the LHC will be a one act play–it will find no new physics beyond the standard model. So far, that is the case with the SUSY experiments. But it is still too early to be so pessimistic.

    2. The point of the ISS isn’t to do planetary science, which I agree is more productively done by robotic spacecraft. The point is to learn how to live in space long-term, which is something no robot can tell us.

      Whether the ISS is a cost-effective way of getting such knowledge is of course open to debate. But I think it’s legitimate to include that sort of knowledge within the sphere of basic research worth doing for its own sake. Who knows, some day it could have some practical application.

      1. Yes, the obvious practical application is a human mission to Mars or the outer planets, or a colony on the moon.

        1. It is far from clear that a human mission to mars or beyond can make scientific discoveries that much, much cheaper and less dangerous robotic missions cannot. Also, the ISS tells us nothing about surviving in deep space since it is a low orbit mission. Once beyond the belts, any human mission will be at the mercy of galactic radiation and proton emissions from the sun.

          The human space mission is not about science, it is a romantic vision.

          1. “Also, the ISS tells us nothing about surviving in deep space since it is a low orbit mission.”

            It is not my intent to defend the ISS generally, but that is not true at all. Just because conditions are not a one to one match with deep space does not mean we can’t learn anything about long term missions off planet. Actually we can, and are, learning a whole hell of a lot.

            And, in reference to your initial #17, it is not sufficient to have theories that make predictions. The predictions must be tested. It is the only way to move forward. If we want to move forward the price must be paid. If you don’t want to move forward, it isn’t worth it. If you do, it is worth it.

          2. Whatever the motivation for sending humans into space (and at bottom it comes down to the same impulse that carried us out of Africa to every corner of the globe), it remains true that there is a science to human survival in space, and the way to advance that science is to practice it.

          3. It is far from clear that a human mission to mars or beyond can make scientific discoveries that much, much cheaper and less dangerous robotic missions cannot.

            I wasn’t suggesting that the primary purpose of human spaceflight is, or should be, scientific discovery. Carl Sagan argued that its primary value over the long term is to provide a permant human presence beyond the earth as insurance against extinction or the collapse of civilization.

            Also, the ISS tells us nothing about surviving in deep space since it is a low orbit mission.

            It can tell us about, for example, the long-term effects of zero gravity (or micro-gravity), which is likely to be essential for human missions to Mars or the outer planets.

            1. Sagan was awesome, but he should have realized that we’re as far from being able to survive as a species without the Earth as Columbus was from launching a lunar landing mission.

              Merely surviving in space requires a modern industrial manufacturing base, which requires all sorts of things (like petroleum-derived plastics and rubber and chip fabs and more) that we don’t even have a remote possibility of being able to carry out any time in the foreseeable future.

              Sure, asteroid mining and habitats and the like make for some great science fiction, but we’re so far from that as a reality that it’s not even funny.

              Hell, the only quasi-serious plan for getting humans on the next closest planet is for a one-way reality show media stunt. And the promoters clearly haven’t even begun to think about any of the serious problems, like how to construct or power the habitat.



              1. Word.

                I am all for science spending, but society is willing to spend only so much on science, so we can’t waste it on fantasies.

                Science fiction has been destructive in this regard. Most people have no idea how difficult and dangerous it will be to send humans on planetary missions. We lucked out with Apollo.

                The purpose of science spending is (should be) the discovery of the laws of nature,including BTW the biosphere, and this scarce resource should be allocated so as to maximize discovery. Human space missions are NOT the way.

              2. I’m sure Sagan was well aware that it will take a very long time to create a self-sustaining human presence beyond the earth. I don’t know why you think that means his argument is not valid. It took a very long time for human beings to spread throughout the world. Does that mean we should never have left Africa?

              3. The fact that Sagan said something is simply appeal to authority.

                The “would have never left Africa” or “Christopher Columbus” arguments are invalid too. They can be used to justify any project, pointless or not.

              4. The argument doesn’t depend on who says it. If you think the argument is wrong, what’s wrong with it?

              5. What is wrong with it is that it will be enormously–enormously–expensive, and that there is no clear reason to expect it will expand our understanding of the universe as compared to the other uses the money could be spent on. Science is about discovering the laws of nature. How does spending $100 billion to send humans to mars advance that objective relative to robotic missions that would cost a fraction?

                Robotics are advancing far faster than our ability to accommodate humans in deep space (which has not advanced at all, actually). What is this silly need to send humans? It is irrational.

              6. Oh, I’m all for manned space exploration. If I were king, I’d give both the NSF and NASA a couple hundred billion a year (taken out of the military budget, and we’d still outspend the other militaries at a ludicrous ratio).

                I just think it’s silly to suggest that the purpose of manned space exploration is so the species might survive a global cataclysm.

                It’d be like saying that the purpose of building the LHC is so that we can build floating antigravity cloud cities (because the Higgs has something to do with mass). It’s a leap from real science into a bizarro fantasy with no bearing on reality, and that sort of thing really hurts the cause far more than it helps it.

                By all means, write and tell stories about the far future when something like that might maybe come to pass. Just don’t fool anybody, including yourself but especially Joe Sixpack, into thinking that that’s why we do science.



              7. It would be nice if we had (practically) unlimited resources to spend on all forms of science, but it isn’t going to happen. I will make book on that. So lets use what we have wisely. No one has made a good case for human space exploration. It is all manifest destiny stuff.

              8. What is wrong with it is that it will be enormously–enormously–expensive, and that there is no clear reason to expect it will expand our understanding of the universe as compared to the other uses the money could be spent on.

                The argument is not that human spaceflight is justified on the grounds that it will expand our understanding of the universe. The argument is that human spaceflight is justified as long-term insurance against extinction or the loss of civilization, through the establishment of a permanent human presence beyond the earth. There are a number of possible natural or man-made catastrophes that could destroy our global civilization or even make us extinct — nuclear war, a deadly virus or pathogen, impact by comet or asteroid, catastrophic climate change, massive volcanism, etc.

              9. “No one has made a good case for human space exploration.”

                No one needs to. It’s just something that’s going to happen one way or another in the next century or two, barring global collapse of civilization or a worldwide totalitarian regime that outlaws it.

                When it does happen, space survival science will be a useful field of study.

                That may or may not justify laying the groundwork of such science now. You obviously feel the expense is not worth the return, and that’s a valid position.

                But to say there can be no useful return whatever from such studies — that there will never be a legitimate reason for humans to leave Earth — is not warranted. They’ll leave for whatever reasons seem good to them at the time.

              10. I just think it’s silly to suggest that the purpose of manned space exploration is so the species might survive a global cataclysm.

                I don’t find “it’s silly” to be a very persuasive objection. Even less persuasive than “it would take a very long time” (so what?) or “it would be very expensive” (and the collapse of civilization wouldn’t?).

              11. I completely agree with Neil’s sentiments here. Manned space exploration is a massive waste of time and money. Robotics are obviously the way to go. We know the effects of space on human anatomy the it is categorically bad even after a month. I also think interstellar human travel is science fantasy. The Voyager space probe, launched in 1977 and traveling 35,000 mph, has only just reached the heliopause after 35 years. It won’t reach the Oort cloud for 14,000 years much less the nearest star. At best, humans are destined to colonize their backyard and that’s all.

              12. The Voyager was 35 year old technology. I think we can beat that 35,000 mph speed.

                Not in any meaningful way, I’m afraid.

                Even sending a postage stamp to the nearest star in the span of a human lifetime is waaaay beyond anything we’re capable of.

                To put it in perspective…a Shuttle-sized (e.g. school-bus-sized) mission to the nearest star, were it to get there in a decade, would take more than the entire annual energy consumption of the species.

                And all the interesting stars are at least ten, if not a hundred, times farther away.

                For all insensitive porpoises, interstellar travel is a practical physical impossibility. The only hope is to get there fast, but that requires such insane amounts of energy that it’s hard to imagine anything short of a civilization with a Dyson Sphere finding it economical to do more than send the odd probe.

                Sleeper ships are a non-starter. Over the course of tens of thousands of years, all the gasses would escape through the hull like helium from a balloon, all the non-metal parts (plastics, rubber, etc.) would volatilize and turn to dust, and all the metal parts would weld themselves together.

                Colony ships are out, too. You need even more energy to keep a spacegoing colony alive than you would to get it there in a hurry. And if you can survive and be happy in interstellar space for ten times as long as it’s been since the Egyptians built the pyramids, why even bother with another star in the first place?

                You may think it’s a long way to the corner drug store, but space is HUGE.



              13. Interstellar human spaceflight is clearly far beyond our current level of scientific and technological expertise. But there is no evidence that establishing permanent colonies on the Mars or the moon would require any kind of fundamental breakthrough. It is mostly an engineering challenge. All it needs is time and money. A program of human missions to Mars could probably be done for about the same relative cost (percentage of GDP) as the Apollo program. Probably even less if it were a global project with costs shared between the U.S., Europe, China, Japan, etc.

              14. But there is no evidence that establishing permanent colonies on the Mars or the moon would require any kind of fundamental breakthrough.

                That would depend on your definition of “permanent colony.”

                If you mean something akin to the ISS, where it’s (at least theoretically) permanent but wouldn’t survive very long without regular resupply from Earth, then, yes — throw enough money at that problem and we’ll solve it quite handily.

                But if you mean something that would keep going even if the Earth were to fall victim to a Vogon construction fleet…well, no. We don’t even know if that’s something that can hypothetically be done short of quasi-magical (and astoundingly energy-intensive) atomic and molecular engineering.

                How on Earth is a Martian colony supposed to manufacture its own replacement toilets, let alone ICs or rubber gaskets or Kevlar or roller bearings or tires or fire extinguishers or any of a host of other things that would be vital yet we take for granted?

                Don’t forget that the Earth’s industrial base is truly global, and that it takes pretty much our entire industrial base just to put a person in orbit. Sure, the very last steps can be localized readily enough…in exactly the same way that a child can build a model by snapping together a few injection-molded plastic pieces. But who built the injection mold, who refined the plastic from the oil, who dug the oil well, who designed the nuclear power plant that provides the electricity for the aluminum foundry where the plastic plant’s window frames came from…?


              15. I meant permanent in the sense of a colony of indefinite duration. Obviously, it’s going to be much more difficult and take much longer — probably hundreds of years — for extraterrestrial colonies to become self-sustaining, without the need for periodic infusions of resources from earth. But I have no idea why you think that would require “quasi-magical” technology.

      2. It should be noted that Prof. Weinberg who, is cited here by Prof. Coyne, is one of the foremost critics of human space exploration, along with Un. of Maryland physics professor Bob Park. He has made it clear in several articles that he considers it a total waste of money and that it has contributed nothing to scientific advancement that could not otherwise be obtained via robotic missions at far lesser cost. The moon missions in the 1960s, before the explosion in robotic technology, made some sense but time and technology has moved on.

        1. Weinberg and Park are entitled to their opinions. But they’re not saying anything that hasn’t already been said (and answered) in this thread.

  18. How the unholy heck has no one linked SMBC yet given the topic being discussed.

    It’s needed, but seems to be that Weinberg is going the science populizer route when the scientist route would resonate more with me. Ah well, we’re not all me(thank goodness eh? :P)

  19. One of the things about basic research is that the possibility of very lucrative practical applications is always present.

    One of the best examples of this is a paper by a somewhat obscure employee of the Swiss Patent Office, published in 1908 in the Zeitschrift fur Physik, concerning stimulated emission of photons from atomic nuclei. The result of what was discussed in that paper is the laser, a multibillion dollar a year industry.

    1. And although not multi-billion dollar (yet, anyway?), the prediction of the positron mainly using mathematical beauty from his equation (rather fundamental to the quantum field theory of the Standard Model) by a Bristol-born “.. Strangest Man” (see the recent biography) has and will, via PET scans, result in health of many being much improved (such as being still alive).

  20. I’m with Jerry on one thing: Trying to justify scientific research by saying it has practical applications is often dishonest and tends to cheapen the science being done. I know that my own research and anything that comes of it will never make a difference in the life anyone who is a nonspecialist (and even then I can only hope it will be read by specialists!). Trying to say that it will potentially lead to amazing new technologies would just make sick.

    But on the other hand, I’m not so sure that public funding of science is the right way to go. Why should we be so lucky to be able to do our job, not impact the world in any substantial way, and be funded by a bunch of people who don’t give a shit about what we do? I think that this is especially relevant in the current economic climate: how many people in science have complained about the money spent on football or other sports at their university? Are we not being hypocrites when we say “Oh gee look at this wasteful spending on football!” (for the most part said by people who do not enjoy football) but we expect the public (for the most part people who don’t give a shit about scientific research) to pay our bills?

    Frankly, I don’t see why science gets privileged above over occupations as deserving of public funding. It seems patently unfair to people who simply happen to enjoy doing other things that aren’t so privileged.

    I realize that basically no one will agree with me (no one has) and that I am being a hypocrite since I am funded by an NIH training grant, but such is life…

    1. The NSF budget is $7 billion. The USS Ford is going to cost us at least $14 billion, and there’s talk of building a dozen of them.

      I’m sorry, but, so long as public spending on science continues to not even amount to a rounding error, calling it wasteful is ludicrous. We can worry about the non-problem when it gets its own slice of a pie chart, rather than getting lumped in with the “5% – all of everything else” category.



      1. I think you underestimate the true cost of an aircraft carrier. Due to missiles and submarines, an aircraft carrier is useless without a Carrier Strike Group consisting of various support craft and personnel.

        This is the main reason Australia does not have an aircraft carrier, as the cost of maintaining a fleet around it is far too expensive.

    2. I think it’s a false equivalence. If football, or pro sports in general, had never been invented, I don’t think society would be much worse off. Different, surely, but not markedly worse.

      On the other hand, if science had never been invented, well, do I really need to spell out how much worse things would be?

      Science does have deep and far-reaching benefits to society that other, more popular professions do not, and deserves public funding for that reason, precisely because most people don’t care enough about it to fund it privately.

  21. What is it worth to know that we evolved from a common ancestor with chimps six million years ago, or where we fit on the tree of life? How can you put a price on that?

    Easy peasy. $8.00 on Amazon.


  22. The importance of the Higgs boson is that it allows Catholics to have mass. That’s why it’s called the God particle. Duhh!

  23. I think the debate on manned space travel above provides a good way for thinking about the value of scientific research and — perhaps even more importantly — how to sell the idea of funding research to the public.

    After all, what better way to get the public to fund science if it can be used for either a) kicking butt in armed conflict or b) exploring new physical frontiers? For instance, it was ballistic missile research that led to the rocket technology underlying the space program and to the idea of putting satellites in space.

    Surviving in space means you need more and more efficient solar panels and fuel cells. Those sound like they could be useful here on earth, too. And so forth.

    If one has to appeal to romantic images of humans colonizing other planets or to less romantic images of military strength to get funding, it seems that should be an essential part of the sales pitch for modern science. Appealing to knowledge for knowledge’s sake is frankly not going to interest many non-scientists — it’s preaching to the converted, so to speak.

  24. I really must protest. What is the purpose of having a permanent manned outpost or colony on the moon or Mars or Europa? The typical argument is that we’ll somehow outgrow the Earth and need some more space to stretch our porcine selves out a bit more. Please. What about birth control? Why wouldn’t the same overpopulation problem of Earth not be transported to the Moon?

    I’ll say it again. Our massive and rapid advances in technology will allow for extremely effective planetary exploration at 1/10th the cost of manned exploration (think massively redundant microrobots or swarms that explore Mars). The Voyager space probe has a 64K computer. 33 years later, I have a 64gig $400 iPhone. Next month, we’re landing an SUV-sized probe-Curiosity-on Mars for the affordable price of $2.5 billion. Glad we’re not sending any humans!

    1. What is the purpose of having a permanent manned outpost or colony on the moon or Mars or Europa?

      Answered above, in the thread beginning with comment #17.

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