Friday, April 28, 2006

Science and fundamental science

Chad Orzel did not like the proposals to build the ILC because they are derived from the assumption that high-energy physics is more fundamental a part of physics than other parts of physics - and he disagrees with this assumption. Instead, he argues that technology is what matters and it does not depend on particle physics. Also, Chad explains that one can have a long career without knowing anything about high-energy physics - which seems to be a rather lousy method to determine the fundamental value of different things.

There are three main motivations why people stretch their brains and think about difficult things and science. We may describe the corresponding branches of science as follows:
  • recreational mathematics
  • applied science
  • pure science
Recreational mathematics is studied by the people to entertain themselves and show others (and themselves) that they are bright. Chess in flash or without it may be viewed as a part of this category. People do this sort of activity because it is fun. Comedians are doing similar things although their work requires rather different skills. In this category, entertainment value is probably the main factor that determines the importance. People do whatever makes them happy and excited. If someone else does things on their behalf, they prefer those with a higher entertainment value. The invisible hand of freedom and the free market pretty much takes care of this activity.

The rules of chess depend on many historical coincidences. Other civilizations could have millions of other games with different rules and the details really don't matter: what matters is that you have a game that requires you to turn your brain on.

Applied science is studied because scientific insights can lead to economical benefits. They can improve people's lives, their health, give them new gadgets, and so forth. The practical applications are the driving factor behind applied science. People, corporations, and scientists pay for applied science because it brings them practical benefits. It is often (but not always) the case that the benefits occur at shorter time scales, and it is possible for many corporations and individuals to provide applied scientists with funding. And if you look around, you will see that many fields of applied science are led by laboratories of large corporations - such as IBM, drug companies, and others.

Pure science is studied because the human beings have an inherent desire to learn the truth. In our Universe, the truth turns out to be hierarchical in nature. It is composed of a large number of particular statements and insights that can typically be derived from others. For equivalent insights, the derivations can work in both directions. In many other cases, one can only derive A from B but not B from A. The primary axioms, equations, and principles that can be used to derive many others are, by definition, more fundamental. The word "fundamental" means "elementary, related to the foundation or base, forming an essential component or a core of a system, entailing major change".

If you respect the dictionaries, the physics of polymers may be interesting, useful, and important - but it is not too fundamental. If Chad Orzel or anyone else offers a contradictory statement, he or she abuses the language. Among the disciplines of physics, high-energy physics is more fundamental than low-energy physics. Moreover, I think that as long as we talk about pure science, being "fundamental" in this sense is a key component of being important. If we want to learn the scientific truth about the world, we want the most fundamental and accurate truth we can get.

I am not saying that other fields should be less supported. Nor am I proposing a hierarchical structure between the people who chose different specializations. What I am saying is that other fields that avoid fundamental questions about Nature are being chosen as interesting not only because of their pure scientific value but also because of their practical or entertainment value.

You may be trying to figure out what happens with a particular superconductor composed of 150-atom molecules under particular conditions. The number of similar problems may exceed the number of F-theory flux compactifications. How can you decide whether a problem like that - or any other problem in science - is important? As argued above, there are many different factors that decide about the answer: entertainment value, practical applications, and the ability to reveal major parts of the general truth. I guess that the practical applications will remain the most likely justification of a particular specialized research of a very particular type of superconductors.

People and societies may have different motivations to study different questions of science. If you extend this line of reasoning, you will realize that people can also do many things - and indeed, they do many things - that have no significant relation with science. And they can spend - and indeed, do spend - their money for many things that have nothing to do with science, especially pure science. And it's completely legitimate and many of these things are important or cool.

When you think about the support of science in general, what kind of activity do you really have in mind? I think that pure science is the primary category that we consider. Pure science is the most "scientific" part of science - one that is not motivated by practical applications. As we explained above, pure science has a rather hierarchical structure of insights.

If something belongs to pure science, it does not mean that it won't have any applications in the future. In the 1910s-1930s, radioactivity was abstract science. By various twists and turns, nuclear energy became pretty useful. There are surely many examples of this kind. The criterion that divides science into pure science and applied science is not the uncertain answer to the question whether the research will ever be practically useful: the criterion is whether the hypothetical practical applications are the main driving force behind the research.

Societies may be more interested in pure science or less interested in pure science. The more they are interested in pure science, the more money they are willing to pay for pure science. A part of this money is going to pure science that is only studied as pure science; another part will end up in fields that are partly pure and partly applied.

Chad Orzel thinks that if America saves half a billion dollars for the initial stages of the ILC collider, low-energy physics will get extra half a billion dollars. I think he is not right. The less a society cares about pure science - even about the most fundamental questions in pure science such as those in high-energy physics - the less it is willing to pay for other things without predictable practical applications or entertainment value. Eliminating high-energy experimental physics in the U.S. would be a step towards the suppression of experimental pure science in general.


  1. Excellent post.

    I'm not a big fan of a lot of your conservatism, but I think diving down to the deepest parts of the lake is the most important thing we can do (not to the exclusion of other points of course).

    Your post on his board: "Pure mathematics is not "science" in my terminology, and it's been also the case that even pure mathematics has been driven by inspiring insights from fundamental physics." Is exactly what I was thinking.

    I'm poisoned by Greene, Randall, Carroll, and yeah OK, maybe sometimes Motl, but what's more important than understanding the smallest parts?

    P.S. More posts like this!!! The science blogs seem to be shying away from science lately.

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