When I was a graduate student at Stanford in the 1960's, as I
remember, Leonard Schiff was Chair of the Physics Dept., head of the
Stanford Inst. of of Theoretical Physics and chair of the Air Force
Science Advisory Committee. A bunch of us students asked Schiff one
day why the Air Force was funding theoretical physics of elementary
particles, he answered in his usual cogent and detailed manner with a
list of perhaps eight reasons, among them that , in a "national
emergency" there would be plenty of highly skilled minds to tap, and
in the meantime, many of those most highly talented would be available
to advise the Air force, while lesser talents would be available to
work for the Air Force full time.
But to some extent I suspect such answers were merely lazy thinking,
based on the fact that the physics research of the 1930's had led to
the nuclear bombs, and that , in cold war, one had to stay ahead of
the opposition, i.e., the Soviets, even if it was quite unclear how
this could be of use. Physicists ranging from Julian Schwinger to John
Wheeler to Steven Weinberg either testified before Congress that
particle research was necessary if the nation were not to fall behind
or speculated on such things as the "gravity bomb" (Wheeler). Of
course, as Charlie points out the SSC was eventually cancelled, which
happened shortly after the end of the Cold War.
But the USSR certainly did invest in High Energy Research, first in
Dubna and than at Serpukhov, though they never were able to develop
much of a beam at the latter, a failing much attributed in the West to
the penchant for secrecy and centralized bureaucracy. The Chinese
have invested in high energy physics too. And CERN has always been
taken to be a prime example of the possibility of wide inter -European
Going further back in history however, at least to the mid -nineteenth
c., a country or region's being up-to-date and competitive in
scientific research with the major world centers was taken to be
completely necessary of being effectively competitive. Advances in
science or even scientific instruments bring prestige. As far as
astronomical research, I am reminded of the Scotsman James Lick, who
came to San Francisco in the aftermath of the gold rush, got rich, and
apparently had the idea that he would leave his fortune for the
building of a pyramid tomb for himself that would be the pride of
SF. He was persuaded that even more pride could be gained by leaving
his money for a large observatory. The Lick observatory is still in
use. Other rich people , like Keck, have more recently given their
money for much larger telescopes. The "philanthropical" impulses are
probably not so dissimilar from those behind opera houses or art
museums, or even cathedrals. After all, trained scientists are not the
only people filled with curiosity and even wonder about the universe
and its origins. That should not be left out of account in trying to
understand why research is funded.
On Aug 7, 2008, at 3:50 PM, Charles Schwartz wrote:
> Let me add some info on the general question of big particle
> accelerators and their hidden uses.
> A couple of decades ago US physicists were hot to build a big
> accelerator - called the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC). It
> was to be underground in Texas; and the federal government was going
> to pay most of the bill, with perhaps some funds from other
> countries. All my colleagues were excited and some of them deeply
> involved in the planning.
> When I learned that then-President Reagan had approved the project,
> I wondered, Why? So I wrote a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act)
> letter to the DOD (Department of Defense) asking for copies of all
> their documents relating to the SSC. They responded that this was
> not a DOD project but a DOE (Department of Energy) project; and I
> should redirect my inquiry to that department. I wrote back: No, I
> want all DOD documents on this subject. Maybe a year or so later I
> did get what I asked for: a small collection of documents. One of
> them was marvelously educational.
> This was a letter from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to the
> White House, giving DOD's formal support for the SSC project. It
> explained that it was possible, but not likely, that the experiments
> on the SSC might lead to some militarily useful discoveries.
> However, the major reason for military support of the project lay in
> the history of particle accelerators and their production of large
> numbers of skilled PhDs, who ended up working at the nuclear weapons
> labs at Livermore and Los Alamos. That letter was signed by the
> Assistant Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy, who just happened
> to be a former leader at the Livermore Laboratory.
> When I circulated that letter to my colleagues, many of them became
> unhappy; but they got over it and continued with their project --
> until Congress cut off the funding for the SSC a few years later.
> Along a similar vein, I have wondered why the government has been so
> generous with funding in recent years for astrophysics research. It
> is certainly an exciting field of pure science. And all that money
> flowing into academic research programs produces a lot of graduate
> students in those fields, who get their PhD and then go to work ---
> where? (The US Air Force is very interested in space weaponry.)
> Robt Mann wrote:
>> Sam Anderson wrote:
>>> An $18Billion capitalist investment ready to either yield profits
>>> for Big Capital and/or put PlanetEarth in Harms Way...
>> I hve found these big accelerators hard to reconcile with
>> any simple model of capitalism. At Berkeley, with house-mates
>> doing their Ph.Ds in physics using the then-biggest ('bevatron') on
>> the hill above the campus, I was never able to trace military or
>> financial benefit from the plurry thang. My working hypothesis has
>> been that this category of expenditure is an example of cunning
>> grandiose scientists pulling the wool over the eyes of politicians,
>> duping them into paying for something which has little prospect of
>> leading to weapons, or defence, or money for capitalists.
>> Capitalism is not totally efficient!
>> Did the USSR ever try to rival even the bevatron, let alone
>> the subsequent bigger accelerators? They certainly did get sucked
>> into enormous wasteful expenditure on many thousands of nuclear
>> weapons, and the fabled 'strategic triad' to deliver them, when
>> standard British doctrine was that a few dozen nuclear weapons
>> deliverable reliably on the heartland of the enemy constitutes
>> maximum deterrence.
>>> August 8, 2008
>>> *Date Set for Operation of Large Hadron Collider*
>>> By DENNIS OVERBYE
>>> Physicists, start your engines.
>>> Officials at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research,
>>> outside Geneva, announced Thursday that their new particle
>>> accelerator, the world's largest, would begin operation on Sept.
>>> 10. On that date, the physicists and engineers will make the first
>>> attempt to circulate a beam of protons around a 17-mile-long super-
>>> cooled underground racetrack known as the Large Hadron Collider.