Monday, September 08, 2008

Poverty and the LHC

The former government chief scientist Sir David King, a good man, suggests we should redirect our research efforts towards the most pressing practical problems - climate change, African poverty - and away from particle physics and space exploration. This, of course, is the week in which the LHC - a wonderfully abstract and impractical way of spending several billions - is to be fired up for the first time. Personally I am drawn to the poetry and architecture of the LHC. Constructing large interior spaces to discover or express what is seen in any particular age as the ultimate truth of the world is a distinguished human tradition. On the other hand, Sir David may be right. People are dying in Africa and climate change may threaten our species so now is perhaps not the time to glory in abstractions. This reminds me of my teenage years when I decided not to follow the rest of my family into the sciences. I used to wonder about the difference between 'pure' and 'applied' maths. Could any maths be applied, could any be pure? Sir David's distinction may seem clearer, but I'm not sure it is. As in all religions, in science the abstract and the practical are entwined. We can't, for the moment, see the ethical content of the LHC, but one day, in the distant future, somebody will.


  1. As long as Mr King has come off his high horse and now accepts that science is an on going dialectic, and issues and subjects are never deemed closed or over I can go along with that BUT its wise to understand that even abstract idealist science has many many spin offs, and understanding energy is one of them.

  2. The most brilliant minds should be directed to solving Earth's greatest challenges, such as climate change, says Sir David King.

    How did H. G. Wells put it? Don’t inflict visions upon us, spare our little ways of life from the fearful shaft of understanding. Give us cheap lighting, and cure us of certain disagreeable things, cure us of cancer, cure us of consumption, cure our colds and relieve us after repletion...Then the little pigmy world would be safe. They would go on - safe forever, living their little pigmy lives, doing pigmy kindnesses and pigmy cruelties to the other, they might even perhaps attain a sort of pigmy millennium... sit down in a world-wide city ... worshipping one another till the world begins to freeze... (The Food of the Gods)

    Doesn’t any of these half-wits understand that it is precisely because science has been neglected over the past fifty years or so that we are in this global dilemma. That science alone can lead the world out of its difficulty. That no other institution can...?

    Lord give me strength!

  3. That way lies madness. I suppose we should cut all funding to anything other than medicine and agricultural studies. You need one hell of a high horse to dictate how human endeavours should be directed on this scale.

    Mr King's time might be better spent lobbying for the billions of dollars spent in Iraq to be redirected to Africa; but of course he wouldn't be getting his name in the press then.

    I do find it slightly amusing though that so much money has been spent to test the Higgs Field theory. If Peter Higgs turns out to be misguided it's got to be the one of the most costly mistakes ever!

  4. The sole purpose of the scientific community is to produce theories / devices that then raise questions requiring bigger theories / devices, this I believe is their greatest discovery, perpetual motion. A group of science bods think that they can nip down a potash mine in Durham and return to the surface with a plastic bucket full of pre processed hadrons, the mine must be part of Marks and Spencers food department. This they say is the cost effective way, rather than build a big anvil in that tunnel near Geneva airport, ladle on some hadrons and belt them with a fourteen pound hammer.
    If science is as clever as it is reported to be, then why do we personally have to fill the dishwasher.
    Selena, your faith in science, a double edged weapon if there ever was, is far greater than mine, I have a feeling that for all of the good science does, eventually it will be our undoing.

  5. "If science is as clever as it is reported to be, then why do we personally have to fill the dishwasher."

    Perhaps I missed a subtle humour in your post but you bemoan the 'perpetual motion' of science only to ask why nobody has made progress in making your life easier.

    This is the curious dilemma of the scientific sceptic. They want the quality of life that science delivers but don't want the abstract research. They singularly fail to understand that there is a phenomenal trickle down effect. The cathode-ray tube was not developed to provide you with low-quality entertainment to wile away your hours!

    If you want robots to wash your dishes you need to invest in the more abstract fields of study. If one could see where the 'invention of tomorrow' is coming from it wouldn't the invention of 'tomorrow'.

  6. Yes anon, you missed the humour, as it whizzed over your head at 30,000 feet.

  7. Isn't there a risk that if you start getting a little too utilitarian about research and its goals, you then ensure that nothing of much real worth will be found because you have filtered out the unexpected?

    FWIW, the LHC costs chump change compared to the many other things we spend our money on. It's a tiny fraction of the EU's annual expenditure. Even the UK will end up spending about twice as much just for two weeks of games in 2012.

    I'd guess the LHC is a bargain. After all, we don't actually know what, if anything, it will find. Suppose,say, a result of what it did find was a way to make cheap fusion energy?

  8. A good man, or a naive man, prone to dribbling? I doubt very much that Africa's problems are a result of not enough science. And as for global warming... well, let's not go there. Why don't we also divert all research into scientific solutions to war, broken hearts, ennui, nothing good to watch on TV etc?

  9. It has just occurred to me that, if the LHC creates a black hole, maybe we could keep it happy by feeding it on carbon dioxide: thereby conjoining two myths from one king, and saving (under his policy at least) more than enough money to sort out Africa too.

    Best regards

  10. King's case is particularly relevant to mathematics which is perhaps the bluest of blue sky research. It seems to me that without calculus and the hundred or so years of mathematics that followed, we'd have no industrial revolution; without group theory and modern algebra, we'd have no modern quantum mechanics and therefore no modern devices.

    It's particularly irksome and frankly rather hypocritical to see someone who is Chief scientific adviser to UBS asking blue sky scientists to change their focus.

  11. I'm limited to 450 characters (posting from phone) so will be brief: if the money weren't spent on the LHC, would it be spent on ending world poverty, saving the environment etc.? No - it would be spent on whatever was most politically convenient. Military research, maybe. Or the latest lunatic government scheme for Being Seen To Do Something about The Thing That's Been In The News A Lot.

  12. they don't give a ht aout uthey don'tcae aout peoplearoundtheworld the only think about how to get a prize and put there nams on things hees what hs happened they've lost power to a cooing systemand they still keep it running heres the data.

    September 13

    Overnight Friday/Saturday

    Serious electrical problem in point 8. Transformer out. No repair.

    Cryogenics trying to keep helium at point 8. Missing 400V.


    Access points 8 6 4 + experiments until this afternoon

    TS/EL and cryogenics looking for solutions


    TS/EL locate replacement transformer (thanks CMS)

    TS/EL in point 8 to supply 400V for cryogenics

    Transformer on it's way to point 8

    Triplet R8 vacuum - valves closed - related to cryogenics situation

    Valves in also to protect kicker in 8.


    Planning to go to beam 1 operation from point 2 to the dump.

    Modify the BETS to accommodate missing signal from sector 78.

    Modify BIC due to closed valves in 8.

    Then work on

    orbit dipole polarity checks - overnight (OP)

    beam dump - Sunday (Brennan et al)

    higher order polarity checks - Sunday (AP)

    aperture - Sunday (AP/OP)