Thursday, October 01, 2009

Lisa Randall et al. in the U.S. Congress

Live video was embedded here...
The live broadcast began at 11:00 am and ended at 1:00 pm, D.C. time. See the HTML page of the event and a hearing charter (PDF).

Lisa and others presented very good introductory speeches. Politicians proposed various projects for the physicists to educate the public in the museums ;-) and similar bizarre things.

You can imagine a lot of comments that the current era of physics is the most exciting era yet in the history, that the U.S. have been the most important country (a huge percentage of the Nobel prizes etc.) but it can lose the leadership, and so on. Everything has a true core but everything has to be hyped a bit.

An old white male politician explained that it was widely believed that New Yorkers such as Lisa speak quickly because they don't know what they're talking about. But Lisa is an exception, he conjectured. ;-)

He asked Lisa whether string theory was "just" a speculative theory or whether it was experimentally tested. Lisa gave a perfectly valid answer that it is "speculative" but it is also critically important, partly because it forces us to discover and investigate many other ideas that can be tested.

Later, another lawmaker asked what was the relation between the neutrinos and the dark matter. Lisa has said lots of general facts about the dark matter but she didn't answer the question at all. She didn't mention the neutrinos - except for a footnote - in her "answer".

She should have explained whether the neutrinos can be the dark matter, and why only a small part etc. The question remained so completely and unexplainably unanswered that I ended up uncertain whether Lisa actually knew the answer. Sorry, Lisa. ;-)

It was not much better when he asked another simple technical question - what's the relationship between dark matter and the matter around us. Much like Lisa didn't say anything about the neutrinos in the previous answer, she didn't say anything about the visible baryonic matter even though it was the topic of the question. After the monologue, a viewer couldn't know whether the stars belong to the dark matter.

Fine. So a lawmaker who doesn't care about science (I guess that a GOP member) asked a hostile question why they should fund science if the U.S. has USD 10 trillion of debt. Science is just like the other parts of the government - it's just wasting people's money. He received an enthusiastic answer about the pleasure to find things out from one of the old male physicists. I am sure that the lawmaker didn't start to love science at that moment. ;-)

You know, such simple people should be explained - and Lisa has previously done it - that the (intellectually) average and below-the-average people like himself (probably a majority of the population) are indeed uninterested in cutting-edge science and they would prefer the funding for science to be zero. But there also exists a substantial fraction of the people who actually care about science a lot, and they would give science much more money than it is getting now. The average over all the people pretty much gives the existing level of funding.

There was a usual kind of discussion about the different accelerator technologies, their relative advantages, and the virtue of the alternation.

The science-hostile lawmaker began to speak again. The SSC was a lot of wasted money (he didn't say whose fault it was). And so will be the LHC which will "self-destruct", he conjectured. ;-) So he asked the physicists to justify that the investments into science are better than investments to his daughter's new roof. And he is not interested in human curiosity, he emphasized, only in the direct benefits. ;-)

With these conditions, it's a tough question, indeed! Again, people who only care about living under the roof, eating, drinking, sleeping, and f*cking will earn nothing. But the human civilization is thankfully not composed out of these people only even though large parts of the government and Parliaments are.

At any rate, he's gotten a lecture on the next generation of semiconductors, magnets, and all this stuff that is co-created by the accelerator advances. This physicist - Dennis Kovar - got a bit personal, bringing his family members (and wife who is a nurse) who are interested in it, anyway.

Another physicist said that there were many projects funded by DOE that were spectacularly successful - RHIC and many others.

Lisa spoke about the motivations behind the SSC and LHC: the SSC was designed from the stretch with a goal in mind while the LHC was constrained by an existing tunnel, so the (magnet) technology had to be stretched to the limits. Lisa explains that the Tevatron has been more successful than expected - by luminosity and energy. The SSC would still be better than the LHC and she is very sad it was stopped.

Randall sanely argues that the role of government is to support things that the commercial sector wouldn't pay - and particle physics is an example.

The next physicist finally explained that the SSC failed due to the Congress' decision, not the physicists. But results matter and the LHC will influence the fate of physics globally. In three years, lawmakers will ask why didn't we (the Americans) did it instead?

To summarize, I think that these interactions of the average people with the physicists are frustrating and it is questionable whether advanced scientific research will be able to protect not only the resources but also the freedom to study the topics that the top people consider important.


  1. I am also very sad that the SSC was halted. It took nearly two more decades before a similar effort would be made (LHC) by a different consortium. :(

  2. I am also very sad that the SSC was halted. It took nearly two more decades before a similar effort would be made (LHC) by a different consortium. :(