A Persian mathematician and astronomer by the name of al-Khwarizimi (died 850AD) spent his career working in the House of Wisdom; a fantastic mathematician from which we derive the algorithm. His tireless efforts in translating and writing mathematical texts popularised numerals and arithmetic in Europe, a raging intellectual fire burning across the globe. The House of Wisdom, founded by the caliph to promote the intellectual advancement of the sciences. The Greeks, drenched in philosophical thought who looked at the world and postulated that these messages from the God’s may indeed be physical phenomena. The Babylonians, whose sexagesimal (base 60) study of numbers we pay homage to each time we look at the clock. Throughout history time and time again we have societies who understood the power of science and mathematics, and gave mankind advancement which we use today with so little thanks.
Indeed fast forward to the year 1851; Crystal Palace London, and one of Britain’s most anticipated technological exhibitions organised by Prince Albert. Charles Darwin is among hundreds and thousands of onlookers, dying to see the latest inventions of the day. Today; if an ancient Babylonian were to walk among us; or al-Khwarizimi rose from the dead they might be forgiven for thinking that society has more interest in keeping up with the Kardashians than keeping up with the advancement of the human race. Could it be that we are on a course of decreasing scientific progress to the detriment of mankind? How have we come to live in a world where spending on defence often outstrips science? If my study of history has taught me one thing it is that a solid defence against the future is a deep investment in science.
The low hanging fruit
The low hanging fruit is the first to be picked; and appeals to the greatest number of people. It can be picked with the least skill and reaps equal benefits to the fruit of higher branches. Perhaps we have a problem that all of the low hanging fruit has been picked. When we woke up on this world we were blind. We did not know anything; we did not know where we were or why we were here. Indeed an omnipotent being putting a holey blanket over the sky seemed far more plausible that the rotation of the Earth about its axis – an idea that seemed more alien to our ancestors than aliens do to us. Wizardry.
Now we live in a world where a good undergraduate degree in Physics does not give you all the tools you need in order to understand the forefront of modern Physics. In order to get stuck in, postgraduate study is wise; and even then there is no clear point where you can say your classroom education is “done”. The simple fact stands that if you want a chance of making a difference in modern Physics you probably, assuming you are not a natural prodigy, need to devote your entire life to it. When you consider that; it is far easier to understand why fewer people might wish to throw their hat into the ring; and in turn why fewer governments would offer wide-scale funding given the smaller percentage of the population represents.
We need to adjust the fruit metaphor. Now the low hanging fruit is large, juicy and attractively colored, but the fruit at the top is small and potentially not even edible. Not only do we need to persuade people they should harvest the fruit that is harder to reach, there is the added issue that it is potentially not even edible. This is the problem we face in Physics today. I am a loud and proud lover of topology; as you may have guessed from my recent post. I think it is fascinating as it embodies the union of mathematical construction and the physical world- the very heart of Theoretical Physics; this is why it exists as a separate discipline, to construct something from theory and then apply it to the universe in front of us. But with a heavy heart I have had to come to accept it just does not have mass appeal, because the truth is it seems far removed from the everyday experience. This is the situation we have been in for many years now. Indeed our Newtonian description of gravity has remained good enough for the every day, and still does. Yet we know this not to be the truth since Einstein; however I dare say little is actually known of gravity in special relativity with people being rampantly seduced by ideas of time dilation.
The less attractive something is the bigger the problem of generating interest. Modern physics is tough, making it less and less accessible and the problems within it become further and further removed from the quotidian experience; requiring greater and greater imagination.
The ever decreasing increment
Back in 2009, when I received my formal Economics training the first lectures were around utility; moreover marginal utility. It is dressed up with wonderful complex words, to ensure onlookers are suitably impressed with your notes but in actuality it is very simple. If I give you an Oreo you will be very thankful and eat it. If I give you another you will be fairly thankful and eat it. Another you will be thankful and eat it. Another you will eat it. Another you start to feel a little nauseous. Another and you’re really questioning my motives. But you see each time I am giving you the same item; and yet your reaction, or your utility derived from the item is decreasing.
Do we have the same in Physics? Of course throughout history we have had paradigm shifts; particle revolutions and super-string bonanzas but in general progress through time follows a utility curve no different to the Oreo. The first big discoveries are huge; but today a seemingly small advancement in a field could be enough to win you a Nobel prize. It’s not that our sites are lower, it’s just that we already have a few thousand years of human thought behind us. Save those little flurries of human genius, we have to feed the machine a lot more to get a lot less out. This isn’t a problem; it is a natural feature of a progress curve but perhaps this is why we struggle to get the fuel the machine needs today. We are asking for more and offering less in return; everyone knows the investment looks less attractive.
The hardest thing in the world to understand is income tax
Money has always defeated me. I can understand why money is the most important thing on the mind of someone who does not have enough; but not to a man who has enough. How does one define enough? It’s personal of course – but for me “enough” allows me to study freely and experience Earth alongside my nearest and dearest. Beyond that? I have no real interest. The reason I know what enough is is because I know what makes me happy; you know it is often said that a rich man is a poor man with money. This could not be more true. It is a dangerous path to embark on, the accumulation of wealth without knowing what makes you happy because you begin to define your happiness on the accumulation rather than the benefits the accumulation brings. This is a great way to die beneath the life expectancy, with a large amount of these made up credits that eventually get left to a donkey sanctuary.
An issue with attracting investment in science today is it is only profitable on the grandest of scales. To attract investment you need to think thousand of years into the future. How can we even conceive doing this, when the world is too short sighted to recycle? Today we need to persuade governments to invest in science – an in turn that really means persuading the population. It is very hard to win the fight for the future of mankind against the people of today. The cake of today seems tastier than tomorrows.
The rose-tinted spectacles
Of course we must consider the final option, which is that my perception of the world is wrong. When you look back over all of human history it is easy to choose times of great progress because, well you have all of human history to cherry pick from. Yet if I was a blogger in the Dark Ages, perhaps I would be crying the end of scientific progress and doomsday for mankind. It is possible that we are just in a small but natural quiet patch in theoretical physics that is soon to come to an end. The curve of progress could yet be smooth, just over a timescale my little human life cannot appreciate.
Personally I think we are lost. Just as I said it is dangerous for a human to accumulate wealth before they know what for, I fear the planet as a whole has done the same. Science is becoming more and more of an elite discipline with fewer investment and interest from the outside. Up to now I seemed to have blamed the faceless populous but there is a role of science to play here. Mekhi wrote about Elon Musk’s talk in Mexico and I could not agree with the conclusions more – this could have been a rallying cry to the world to throw their support behind a huge advancement for mankind. The content of the speech got me interested – but I was already interested. The delivery was about as interesting as a lecture in the history of tax (of which I have sat in many). If I was a floating voter, unsure if I even cared about such an endeavor I would at least expect my persuader to look enthused.
If scientific progress is to survive we need to come out the bunker. We cannot huddle together in groups, in dingy basement laboratories, or at conferences where only people from within the industry participate. We need to be a louder voice in politics, in education and society in general. We need to infect others with the very same enthusiasm that got us interested in the first place; the world needs science but moreover science needs the world. It would be wrong to think otherwise.