Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Stephen Weinberg writes about it here in the NYRB. Weinberg won the Nobel Prize in physics and by all accounts is a sort of genius. I met him in 1977 or so back at Cornell where he impressed me as a very impressive and yet annoying man, only too aware of his august status, and yet with a piquant sense of humor. Nobody's perfect. Odd that I found it much easier to meet famous people as an undergraduate than I do now, but that is one of the advantages of youth, at least at a great university. You get a kind of benefit of the doubt you don't get as an adult. I also met Hans Bethe, who was all around perfectly charming, in an Old World sort of way.
But anyway, I'm not all that sympathetic to the moans and groans of physicists who say, we must have more billions of dollars, else we shall not come to understand the deep nature of universe. Even as to astronomers, though I am enthusiastic about astronomy, I feel the same way. The problem is in the coercive taxation of people to pay for Big Science. Sure, it's less of a waste than other things government wastes our money on. In Libertarian Paradise, I might even donate some money to the Big Science Fund so they could look for bosons. But honestly, my current budget doesn't allow for a lot of pure research on stuff I don't understand and is unlikely to benefit me. Yeah, I admit that makes me a limited sort of altruist.
Weinberg is often quoted for having said something like "science is one of the few things that elevates human life from the status of farce to that of tragedy." Well excuse me while I play the grand piano. I don't really like being told that my little life and everything I love is just a pile of shit compared to the search for some fundamental particle or other. And yet, I don't think this attitude by some scientists that what they do is the most important thing in the world is all that uncommon. And that's fine. You rather want your artists and scientists to think that way; it makes them passionate and willing to work for peanuts. But it's another thing to make us pay for their passions. I don't really want to be taxed to pay for opera, experimental music, street art, and all of that nonsense either, but that's because what's good can raise its own money and what's not we're better off without. Tom Wolfe got it so right when he refered to the typical publically funded sculpture in a public space as "the turd on the plaza." But physics -- yes, it's beautiful but why not ask Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg (in Mark's case, might be wise to ask him sooner rather than later) to chip in a few billion instead of dinging every man and woman who is wondering how the hell they're going to pay to send Junior to MIT or even Podunk Community? And I really am unimpressed by any talk of, oh, you know in Europe they're only too happy to pay for these things. Call me back when we know for sure they're not going dissolve in some nightmare of insolvency and collapsing social order. When I think about it, a Page and Brin Institute of Science would probably get a lot more for each research dollar, even measured by knowledge, not dollars, than Harvard or Stanford would.
You often hear that pure science is a good investment. In fact, at least as of 20 some years ago when I looked at this, the better answer was, we really don't know if pure science is a good investment or not, and you certainly cannot predict that it will be going forward.