Monday, March 04, 2013

Particle Physics Is Worth Funding

I wasn't going to comment on this article, but I decided to anyway.

This appears to be an opinion piece for a college newspaper at Oklahoma University. It has some minor issues that do not detract from the central message of the article. The author is presenting a case on why something as esoteric as particle physics is worth funding.

Sounds interesting, but laypersons are not amateur physicists, and want to know the practical benefits of what their dollars are funding.

The difficulty with this reasoning is it ignores how the nature of science operates. Albert Einstein did not anticipate his theories of relativity would play a prominent role in GPS satellites and smartphones. The discovery of quantum mechanics, perhaps the most esoteric of the sciences, would ultimately give rise to conductors and computers. Virtually all of electricity can be traced to research conducted in the 19th century that was thought to have little, if any, practical benefit. Many of the machines found in hospitals such as MRI’s are based upon principles of physics discovered by physicists who had no interest in medicine. In order to properly do science, even the most abstract subjects need and deserve funding.
This certainly is true, and a message that I've posted here many times.

The minor issues I have with this article are:

(i) the technical aspects of it, especially when he said" ... The discovery of quantum mechanics, perhaps the most esoteric of the sciences, would ultimately give rise to conductors and computers..." when I think he meant "semiconductors". The discovery of QM did not give rise to conductors, because we already know about Ohm's law and everything else about conductors well before QM was formulated. We even know about semiconductors before then. We just don't know the physics of semiconductors.

(ii) the "references" being used are often other news articles. This is fine IF you are commenting on that news article (like what I often do in this blog). But if one wants to have proper citation to back one's claim of either science or a fact, using a news article is equivalent to passing on a piece of gossip. We have seen how news articles can often skewer something, or even get it totally wrong. So not a good idea to depend on such sources to justify one's opinion.

There's also something interesting here. The article is written by a philosophy major. On one hand, it is too bad someone with a physics background (a physics major) did not write this. I mean, who else is more qualified to try and sell to the public why they would fund what they do? I'm guessing such a person would not commit the two issues I listed above. But on the other hand, having someone else trumpets the importance of what we do, someone without a direct financial, vested interest, might carry more weight. Having a non-physicist urging for support for particle physics might certainly be a novel effort that might get more attention. I don't know.

The article missed a few other important reasons why particle physics is worth funding. I mentioned one important aspect of it earlier where particle/high energy physics experiments drives innovation and technological advancement in the area of detectors. Again, it is worth repeating that while most other areas of science construct and design their experiments based on equipment that they can buy commercially or that are available on hand, high energy physics often can't do that. This is because many of the detection and things they want to do, and the accuracy/resolution/speed that they need, have not been invented. So what they end up doing is to innovate and invent their own devices and detectors. This innovation and technological advancements eventually trickle down to other areas of physics, science, and the general population. And this area of detectors is just one example. One only needs to look at their computing needs and how much data they have to handle to know that they are also doing unbelievable innovation in terms of data transfer, handling, computing needs, etc. Don't tell me other companies are not observing and learning from this very carefully.

And speaking of detectors, if you wish to further check up on my claim of particle physics innovation in this area, check out the proceeding from the 2nd International Conference on Technology and Instrumentation in Particle Physics (TIPP 2011). Papers are available for free. Bookmark it. I can guarantee you that a few of these that were designed for particle physics experiments will directly impact our lives in the next decade when they are used in other instruments.

Unfortunately, here in the US, funding for high energy physics continue to decline. The impact on this to the US intellectual activities, innovation, and economy can only felt once it becomes too late.


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