Saturday, January 26, 2019

Hoi polloi shouldn't micromanage physics

Support for pure science is a matter of politicians' purity, just like their support for morality and heroes

Anna V., a retired experimental particle physicist, has posted some interesting comments about the funding of physics. She is disappointed by the absence of CERN's explanations what CERN has done for the mankind etc. And she clearly believes that new colliders etc. are worth funding.

But I think that she is really touching several different questions and let me rearticulate them as follows:
  1. Have physicists done enough to promote the value of science, CERN?
  2. Does CERN actually bring a value to a rational but ordinary average person?
  3. Does the average person know the correct answer to the previous question?
  4. Should the average people "vote" about the overall funding of natural sciences?
  5. Should the average people "vote" about the funding for individual projects?
My answers are Yes, Uncertain, Yes, No, Not at all.

OK, I should perhaps add some details about my answers. First of all, I agree with her that the materials promoting science and research – and explanations why it's good – are largely absent on the CERN website (and all analogous places) and it's a pity. As you can imagine, I have been worried about this lethargy for quite some time. This blog is almost 15 years old but my worries are even older.

I think that it's a matter of common sense to agree with the statement that "there exists a rather organized anti-physics movement" these days. It was built by activists, crackpots and failed scientists of various types, ordinary people who mostly wanted to pretend that they were more than ordinary people. They obviously talked to the "hoi polloi" – which is the Greek term for "the many", the most inclusive body of average and less spectacular than average people who may win most of the really stupid referendums because they are, by definition, the beneficiaries of populism (or anti-elite projects and propaganda).

The following two paragraphs contain a diatribe against the stupid Šmoits and you may skip them.

These anti-physics activists were publishing some really dumb books that pretended to be high-brow but that were read and appreciated by even more moronic readers who also wanted to pretend that they were smart. (An immediately obvious difference between Šmoit-like or Hossenfelder-like activists' rants and scientific papers is that the authors of scientific papers usually want even better scientists to read them, understand them, appreciate them, and build upon them! The purpose of Šmoit's or Hossenfelder's diatribes is to impress as many imbeciles as possible.) These activists obviously haven't used any equations or other valid arguments of the scientific character – that has never been their point and equations wouldn't help to persuade their expected audiences, anyway. They have consolidated masses of morons who have certain reasons to hate either string theory or supersymmetry etc., or theoretical particle physics as a whole, or theoretical particle physics from the mid 1980s, or from the mid 1970s, or particle physics as a whole, or quantum mechanical branches of physics, or modern physics from 1905, or all of physics, or all of science, or another category of disciplines whose boundary isn't universal. They obviously disagree about all the details about "what they exactly hate" but a vague proposition is true that they hate things that are close enough to state-of-the-art fundamental physics.

Now, they have been ignored because they were outside the establishment. Every real physicist has always agreed that the likes of Woit and Smolin were just scientifically irrelevant piles of junk. But they were not politically irrelevant and it's simply not right to arrogantly assume that the "establishment" always decides at the end. I think that most of the professional physicists have made this assumption and they are starting to see that they underestimated the movement that has spread and strengthened with their blogs, books, YouTube and Twitter channels, and allied journalists in šitty news outlets, many of which pretend to be better than šitty – such as the New York Times or the Nude Socialist.

OK, now I welcome all the readers back. CERN and top physicists have ignored the likes of Smolin and Woit but those people's movement has undergone metastasis and it has spread to many administrative and other bodies that could know better but they don't, it has gotten some endorsements from scientists in other (and even adjacent) fields, and so on.

Official physics has ignored the the work needed to explain why research is great – and it has overlooked the foes of that thesis, too. On the other hand, I have some understanding for that attitude because I believe that:

The decisions about the next-generation collider shouldn't be made by the average citizens.

You may perhaps imagine that CERN suddenly produces some materials that earn the hearts of almost all the laymen. Maybe it's possible, maybe it's not. I believe it's not really possible – especially because most of each individual's love for pure science is already decided before the birth (DNA) or during the formative years of the childhood (nurture). But an even more important thing is that I don't believe that the scientific research should really depend on the outcome of similar P.R. battles.

It's possible that science would win in such contests. But I find it unlikely. One reason is the huge determination of the anti-science activists. That loose community is made of many people who have probably wanted to be respected as scientists but they have never been. And they simply dedicate a lot of time to a revenge for that. Real scientists can't be their mirrors because real scientists are dedicating a lot of time – or most of their time – to actual science, not to P.R. battles. So the anti-science activists unavoidably have a certain advantage in all such P.R. battles – for the same reason why they have a disadvantage in the science itself.

Although I think it was wrong for CERN to totally ignore the rising anti-science movement, it is probably right that CERN and others haven't been involved in some – often emotional and time-consuming – daily battles against the crackpots, like your humble correspondent was.

At the end, I think that referendums (or similar, "nearly directly democratic" political mechanisms) shouldn't decide about the future of particle colliders and similar things. The main reason is that these decisions ultimately require the expertise to be made correctly. And the degree of required expertise heavily surpasses the knowledge of the median citizen. Just for the sake of the argument, imagine that you organize a referendum with the following question:
Should CERN first build an electron collider, a muon collider, a tau lepton collider, or no collider?
A good question. I believe that "no collider" would get the largest fraction of voters among these four although I am a bit uncertain whether it would be a majority – but I think it would be, in pretty much every important Western country. But the "yes" people could easily choose the tau collider. Mr Tau was a charming mute magician with a hat in the Czech TV series for children. Why not a tau lepton collider?

I included it because its lifetime is \(3\times 10^{-13}\,{\rm s}\) or so which means that it's almost impossible for a tau lepton to fly a millimeter or more before it decays. It would be extremely hard to accelerate sufficiently many tau leptons, collide them, and measure the results of the collisions. But the laymen just don't know. But let's ask a seemingly less technical question:
Should particle physicists build the FCC collider or some huge tank to detect dark matter?
Here I chose both answers to be meaningful at some level, from a scientist's viewpoint. Some physicists could prefer one answer, others could prefer another. But my point is that despite the "much more obvious differences between the options", even this question is still terribly technical for the average citizen. In practice, the average citizen would probably use similar childish criteria to decide about the answer as she did in the previous referendum question. Dark matter was in some cartoon or some really superficial TV documentary, so the citizen could pick the dark matter experiment. Or she would pick the collider for similar, utterly childish reasons.

I am sure you understand my point. Such a referendum would bring noise and havoc to decisions about particle physics because even very general questions such as "a collider or a water tank or a new telescope" are ultimately very technical and require expertise for the answer to have some added value relatively to dice. This is exactly the type of questions that "big leaders" of experiments (think about LIGO, to be specific) have to make, what makes them "great experimental physicists" although much of their work seems like "management". But they did have the expertise, determination, and made some decisions that had a sufficient chance to succeed and they succeeded.

Most people don't really have any idea whether telescopes, water tanks, and colliders belong to the same scientific discipline, how likely it is for an expert in one of these things to understand each of the other two, and so on. These laymen shouldn't decide these questions because these are physics decisions – a part of the job of a physicist. The physicist needs some expertise for the decisions to be likely to be good. And he should also bear some responsibility for these decisions! A voter in the referendum doesn't have enough expertise and doesn't bear any responsibility which is just bad.

If such decisions have to be made collectively, the pool should still be much more restricted than the whole electorate – probably a meeting of physicists from several disciplines who decide or divide some funds.

I have just elaborated on the last two questions. Laymen and referendums shouldn't decide about clearly technical questions such as "which type of a collider". But they shouldn't decide even about "seemingly easier and more general" questions of this type because they're still way too technical for the laymen.

But let me return to the second and third question. Does CERN bring values to the average citizen? And does he know the right answer?

CERN has led to many spinoffs. The frequently mentioned example is that the web, HTTP, and HTML were designed at CERN. It wasn't quite a coincidence – as when a visitor to a porn server accidentally happens to sit at CERN's director office. The creators of those pioneering web technologies really needed similar stuff even for things that had something to do with actual their work at CERN.

The first photograph on the web.

Well, more precisely, they needed e.g. to make this photograph of the four babes accessible to regular Internet users. Those girls weren't physicists but they were singing about physics, so you can see it has something to do with physics, and that's why the IMG SRC tag had to be included in HTML. ;-) Also, this wonderful music band has saved some taxpayer money for the LHC – because the LHC could acquire its acronym directly from the band for free.

The web was a result of people's bullšiting around – people who are smart enough, who have enough technology around them to play with it, and who have enough time to do other things than their "well-defined duties". The invention of the web was somewhat similar to CERN physicists' visits to the porn servers except that it was an activity in which the physicists' comparative advantage relatively to non-physicists, as well as the technology available at CERN, were better utilized.

I don't want to claim that the invention of the web and the visits to a porn server are exactly the same thing. You may still face some troubles for the latter – it is more plausible that a CERN employee will get away with the invention of another web during her working hours. ;-)

So I tend to think that the accumulation of smart people in buildings with some cutting-edge technology and with some free time ultimately increases the probability of inventions such as the web. But I am not quite certain about it and even if the answer is "Yes, it speeds up progress", it is surely not a top reason why I think that the research should continue.

CERN has always encouraged inventions and engineering leading to the construction of some very powerful magnets. Those have other usages, too – at least at NMR/MRI in medicine and mass spectrometers in other scientific disciplines. Again, is the existence of the huge experiments really helpful – relatively to the "magnetic engineers" who work on their smaller projects? Like in the case of the web, I tend to think that the answer is "Yes, the big project probably speeds up the overall progress in strong magnets" relatively to the fragmented teams of engineers.

Why do I softly think so? Because there is an application of the magnet that every person dealing with the strong magnets almost certainly knows. One can use it as a benchmark. Other projects may be compared to it. In this way, the system is likely to eliminate some repetitive work. But I am not quite sure about these statements. And I am not sure whether the world needs this high amount of money and/or engineers' manhours just to improve the magnets for the magnets' own sake. For me, the magnets are important especially because they're needed in colliders that probe particle physics, you know.

So I tend to think that CERN is bringing benefits even through the spinoffs and unexpected advances that are not directly related to CERN's primary mission. But I am not sure whether the expected added value of the spinoffs that are caused by the "CERN centralization of the resources" are larger than the expenses needed to maintain CERN. And I am not even quite sure about the sign of the overall effect.

What does the average person think?

First, there are different average people and they think different things so we shouldn't generalize, in one way or another. But I have already expressed my skeptical view that most laymen are actually not interested in deeper insights in particle physics – one innocent reason is that they no longer understand what physics found 90 years ago (when quantum mechanics was born) and they realize that the newer things probably make things even more confusing and more distant from "what they would prefer the laws of Nature to be".

But I do believe that the average people mostly do understand what they want and need in their practical life. And if they have truly down-to-Earth priorities, and I think that most citizens do, then they know very well that the spending on particle physics probably doesn't make their life better, at least not soon enough and in a way that could be clearly attributed, and I think that they are right about it!

So at this level, I am with the "populists". Many members of the "elites" often pretend that the average people don't even understand what they want in their everyday life and what matters to their everyday lives. I think it's rubbish. Most people understand these things very well. In this sense, the decision of the down-to-Earth laymen not to fund big particle physics projects is logically consistent with their priorities. And my guess is that these down-to-Earth people would win the particle physics referendums.

How could the colliders get built at all?

Well, I think that the answer is simple. The construction of colliders wasn't decided by referendums! It has always been a result of some interactions between top scientists, powerful science bureaucrats, and some politicians. Some of the politicians got persuaded that it was a good idea to build a collider. Left-wing readers should really check and memorize that the Texan SSC collider, canceled under Bill Clinton, was a project of Ronald Reagan while the LHC was a project of Margaret Thatcher! These right-wing politicians' affinity to the colliders probably had similar reasons as their affinity to Star Wars and similar things – but even that is close to how science has actually advanced in our world.

Much of the prestige – and the funding whose purpose was gradually transformed – came from the nuclear and thermonuclear bombs, of course. U.S. particle physicists have largely defeated Japan in the Second World War. The fanatical Japanese were eager to keep on fighting, despite their bad chances. And you know, maybe the chances weren't quite as bad and Japan could have defeated America just like Vietnam did later! ;-) But America did win. And this is the true reason why the multi-billion funding of particle physics was considered common sense in the U.S. since the 1940s. In fact, I would claim that particle physicists of today do very different things than building bombs. But they're "heirs" to the physicists who have defeated Japan in the Second World War which is why it's right that particle physicists have "inherited" a fraction of the U.S. or European budget.

And that's why the U.S. and other winners of the Second World War must still be repaying the huge debt to the particle physicists and build ever larger colliders. Meanwhile, Japan and Germany have lost the war but they must pay reparations to the particle physicists. Now, I am trying to entertain you intellectually but these comments aren't meant to be pure jokes. I am mostly making a serious point.

How could you quantify the particle physicists' contributions to the Second World War? It's hard but you should look at the overall economic costs of the Second World War. Well, the overall cost was over $1 trillion 1945 dollars which can be translated to over $11 trillion of modern dollars.

The war with Japan could have continued and devour additional $11 trillion. Let's be modest and say that particle physicists should only be credited with saving $1 trillion out of those $11 trillion. Well, the Allies still owe about 100 highest-energy colliders to the particle physicists! Maybe some physicists want to forgive the debt owed by the Allied Powers' laymen but I won't. I want my fudging trillion! ;-) The suggestion that particle physicists shouldn't even get $10 billion per decade is unacceptable – and encourages the physicists to build an even more sophisticated bomb, this time to be used against the naughty debtors. Are we actually working on it? It's not your business.

Back to the moral justification of the funding.

The practical consequences of fundamental physics were huge in 1945. I do think that the financial equivalent of the nuclear and thermonuclear bombs still slightly exceeds the value of the web. You know, a big fraction of the web is owned by Google which is worth less than $1 trillion now. So CERN may also be credited with a few trillion dollars for the web. Feel free to compare these things.

But I do think that scientists expect, like I do, that the practical implications of LHC research will be negligible relatively to the nuclear bombs or the web – as far as their meaningfully calculated financial equivalent goes. We may be overlooking something incredible but I think that I know it, physicists know it, and the laymen who follow the world know that, too. These laymen are sensible and it's counterproductive and unethical to lie and suggest that they misunderstand something about the practical implications of the LHC research. They don't misunderstand anything major, anything of the caliber of the Second World War.

A politician has some power to reserve a few billion dollars for a project – in space research or science or something related. And he or she or they sometimes do it – and that's how such big projects should get funded. When a leader of the U.S. or the U.K. decides to okay $10 billion for a new collider, he doesn't have to study whether most voters want the project to be funded.

He or she or they have been elected and they have a certain amount of power. They're not just puppets organizing referendums at all times. Choosing to build a $10 billion collider may be a part of the power of some top politicians. They may ignore the incurious majority and other negative arguments against the project. But why do they actively decide that it's a good idea to reserve the funds if they don't understand particle physics well?

They ultimately do it because pure science – and particle physics is still a top example of that – has a certain undisputed moral strength in it. I am not saying that science works just like religion. The motivations are somewhat different and the methods to converge to the truth are very different. But the undisputed moral strength of pure science – which stands above all the political factions – is analogous to the religious faith.

These politicians are connecting themselves with something whose value is lasting, something disconnected from the everyday political battles, for similar reasons why secular politicians sometimes funded the construction of the cathedrals! Or for similar reasons why they praise – and financially reward the family of – a soldier who has made a heroic act.

The politicians who politically sponsor and secure the funding for the construction of something like a big collider once or twice in their lifetime are doing it because they can and they look better in their own eyes – and in the eyes of other people who seem to have a pure heart. Or they want to be remembered in extended science textbooks. They get sufficiently excited, they get some supporters around them, they just do it, and they bear some responsibility for the decision – and gratitude that lasts. These politicians may secure the funding independently of the question whether most of their voters would make the same decisions. Not all leaders must be supporters of particle physics. The funny thing is that sometimes one powerful enough politician is enough to make it work because even a collider is cheap enough to be built by one large country or a limited alliance of countries. The results of the particle physics research are mostly available to the whole world which doesn't mean that the credit should go to the whole world or that the political decisions have to be done by the whole world!

So even if a catastrophe had occurred in 2000, Al Gore would have won the elections, and he would annually spend $100 billion for windmills and $100 billion for biofuels to make the weather better (the main entries in his "science" budget), that wouldn't be the end of science because a more scientifically literate leader of a rich country could win.

Those are roughly my reasons why I think that the average people mostly correctly know that the colliders are useless for their daily lives but it shouldn't ultimately matter for the decisions whether these projects are born because it's completely normal for big decisions like that to be done by more special and selected people who often look further than hoi polloi. Sorry, the average people who think that they're as good as non-average people in every respect, but your belief is tautologically wrong.

As you can see, my main point is really broader and political, going beyond particle physics. Another way to explain why I consider colliders to be analogous to the cathedrals is that both are supposed to be viewed as something by the "hoi polloi" that transcends the power and understanding by the "hoi polloi", something that is not "owned" by them. God (allegedly) exists and the laws of particle physics (really) exist independently of the ordinary people's interests and they ultimately decide about everything. The church made the people understand this fact – and train the people in their appropriate humility both to God and those who are the main folks who communicate with Him – in the case of God. I do think that the analogous humility to the laws of Nature and those who search for them should exist now and use an analogous infrastructure and justifications as the religious one. Even if you're in a majority, you just don't own the laws of physics. I do think that if this very general aspect of the religious thinking – something that transcends us – is killed completely, it would also kill pure science.

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