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Tiny Science, Big Implications
Julia Levitt, 9 Oct 08

atomsmashers1.jpg

Is there value in knowledge for the sake of knowledge? My gut says "of course," but when the question comes down to dollars and cents – and it does, in the case of funding for arts, science, and other often intangible cultural resources -- it's helpful to have a more practical argument on hand.

I thought about this issue a lot last weekend, when I traveled to North America's epicenter of livable density to attend a sold-out screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival. The film was The Atom Smashers, a documentary about Illinois-based Fermilab and the international race to discover the Higgs boson. The film was produced by Andrew Suprenant at Chicago-based nonprofit 137 Films (COI: several members of the 137 team are good friends of mine).

atomsmashers2.jpgThe documentary does a thorough job of explaining the heady topic of atomic physics (with the help of smart line-drawing animations) and humanizing the scientists, who take tango lessons, raise kids and nurture dreams of rockstardom when not scrutinizing data in pursuit of the Higgs. The Fermilab physicists work with the Tevatraon, a four-mile ring equipped with high-charged magnets (and a comic-book-worthy name). The Tevatron accelerates infinitely small atomic particles to high speeds and then crashes them into one another so that they break apart, allowing the scientists to peek at what's inside … and search for anything that they're not expecting to see. What gives the story its drama is that as the Fermilab scientists are continuing their decades-old search, the CERN laboratory in Switzerland is building and readying its Large Hadron Collider, a particle accelerator that's bigger, more modern and more powerful than the Tevatron. Once CERN begins to operate the LHC, the Fermilab team admits it's unlikely they will be able to keep up.

What happens if they find the Higgs? Well, as the theory goes, the Higgs is the missing link that gives clusters of protons, neutrons and electrons the quality of mass … thus enabling life to exist as we know it. So if they find the Higgs, they get to understand one key foundational truth of the universe. And the United States gets to claim that ours was the first nation to know.

But is that enough? The Higgs is not the cure for cancer. It won't bring clean water to impoverished populations in developing countries. It's pure understanding for the sake of understanding. And as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that it's difficult to set a budget for deep knowledge of the universe.

In recent years, the Fermilab physicists have watched their funding drop by hundreds of millions, as science funding in the United States was cut dramatically. In one interview during the film, experimental physicist Sheldon Stone (co-chair of the terminated Fermilab BTeV experiment) is concerned about the future of scientific discovery in general:

"We’ve had colleagues in Australia who are getting a lot of the grad students who used to apply to the U.S. The number of grad student applications to physics to the U.S. is going down dramatically. They’re going to other places in the world. Because other places in the world are investing in science."

Stone, of course, had a personal interest at stake. But interviewee Natalie Angier, a science journalist for the New York Times, put the topic in a larger context that I think brings it closer to home:

I’ve talked to scientists who said when they were young, back in the 50s and 60s, science was seen as something “ooh, cool!” You know, you were, maybe, OK you were a little geeky, but you were cool! Because there was the space race, there was a lot going on, the future was beckoning, you had these world’s fairs, everyone was so excited --- and that’s sort of gone away. And science is not seen as something that’s drawing the best minds. And why should it? Because if you become a scientist in this society, it guarantees you total obscurity!

As directors Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown told the audience after the screening, the process of making of the film brought together two seemingly different constituencies – scientists and artists. These are groups who constantly have their hand out to donors, governments and institutional funders because their work simply doesn’t often earn enough money on its own. Some art, of course (like the most recent Batman), and some science (like the chemistry keeping my cereal crunchy in milk) earns plenty of dollars. But one question that's worth asking is, what would the world be like if culture was a free market, and the less practical contributions to these liberal fields simply couldn't fight hard enough to continue to be produced? And why are scientists -- who, in my opinion, are part of our front lines in the most challenging crisis our planet has ever faced -- rewarded with so little attention?

The documentary looks at the issue from a national standpoint, homed in primarily on this local story. But it made me think, and it's worth saying especially in these scary economic times, that this is an important issue to examine and re-examine at the local, regional, national and global levels. What resources are important to us … and what secrets are worth the quest for understanding? It'll be interesting to see what comes first: an answer to the Higgs theory, or a renewed pride in American science.

The Atom Smashers will be broadcast on the PBS series Independent Lens on November 25. Details here.

Photos courtesy of 137 Films.

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Comments

Pure research feeds into applied research decades down the track. If you cut pure research, a century or so later your applied research will start going in circles.

The traditional poster child for pure research is modular arithmetic - for two centuries or more, it was an obscure area of mathematics with little practical application. Then, in the 1970s, public key cryptography was invented, which relies on it heavily. Without Euler and Fermat and Gauss playing with numbers, we wouldn't have public key cryptography today.

Of course, the problem is how to judge something that won't have a practical application for decades or even centuries. It's a question of what sort of intellectual landscape we are leaving for our children and grand-children - whether it's rich and varied, pregnant with discoveries to be made, or impoverished and bare.


Posted by: sabik on 9 Oct 08

The free market may find a cure for cancer (common types, at least), but the free market will not provide clean water to people in Bangladesh.

Science and art have the promise of making the world better. The free market brought us Chia Pets and Pet Rocks.


Posted by: Susan on 10 Oct 08

Really great post. So wonderful to see/read/hear about science for science's sake. Used to be a time in the U.S. when we elevated our great minds to celebrity status. That pyramid has been tipped directly over. Thanks for the inspiring post...must see the doc.


Posted by: Tod Brilliant on 10 Oct 08

The one thing that continues to disappoint me is that people still want to claim scientific discoveries and other great achievements for their own. Until the day comes that we do this for the sake of everybody, we will continue to hold ourself and our exisitence back. I agree that we need to make more of an effort to fund the arts and science but maybe there needs to be an alliance that joins countries instead of seperating them and thus holding back all of this great knowledge and discovery. It always seems that in the times of great need or disaster, we find a way to join together and much more gets accomplished. Let's not wait until the disaster, we can start now.


Posted by: Jmail on 10 Oct 08

It is not possible for a society whose focus is towards the usefulness and profitability of things to pioneer scientific success. It has to be remembered that before the European immigrants of the mid 20th century, America has few significant groundbreaking scientific and technological advances to give to the world. Most of that stuff was happening in Germany, France and England. Things have changed - the USA is of course the most formidable military and political power and has the largest scientific establishment and the most power to make all the difference to world science, especially because we have the money to build the expensive equipment necessary. However, societal values play a very important part in encouraging scientific temper. It is not easy to retain curiosity for concepts when one has little incentive to (owing to a comfortable lifestyle which is bordering on desensitizing) or when one has no chance of being greater in social or political stature by doing real hard, smart, and meticulous work. The age of the diligent American worker has passed, and a lot of American workers seem to engaged in executing mundane tasks to make enough money to keep their dysfunctional suburban families afloat. There are safe havens of strong families across the country, but few from those families have the incentives to enter scientific research. I think that a lot of people who need to start getting curious about their research and who want to pump in more interest into their work lives should read Richard Feynman's books - where he describes what it is like to be curious. The onus should probably be less on research for its own sake, rather than curiosity for its own sake. Unbridled curiosity is what gave us most of the inventions that have made our lives interesting and comfortable today. Ironically the same comfort and excitement that we get out of our fancy gadgets cause us to lose our curiosity in learning new things, as our brains become adjusted to doing the same things differently, without any real focus in what we are achieving.


Posted by: philramble on 13 Oct 08



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