Physics

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History Debunked Refutes Ethnomathematics/Rehumanizing Mathematics

This is another video from History Debunked. In it, youtuber and author Simon Webb attacks Ethnomatics, sometimes also called Rehumanizing Mathematics. This is a piece of modern pseudo-scholarship designed to help Black children tackle Maths. The idea is that Blacks perform poorly compared at Maths compared to other ethnic groups. This is held to be because Maths is the creation of White men, and this puts Blacks off studying and mastering it.

The solution has been to scrutinise African societies for their indigenous Maths, especially the Dogon of Mali. They have been chosen as the chief model for all this, as they possessed extremely advanced astronomical and mathematical knowledge. In the 1970s there was a book, The Sirius Mystery by Robert K.G. Temple, which claimed that they owed this advance knowledge to contact with space aliens. Apparently this claim was subsequently dropped 10 – 15 years later, and the claim made instead that they were just superlative astronomers and mathematicians themselves. But Dogon Maths is held to be different from White, western Maths because it’s spiritual. History Debunked then goes on to demonstrate the type of pseudo-scientific nonsense this has lead to by providing a link to an Ethnomathematics paper and reading out its conclusion. It’s the kind of pretentious verbiage the late, great Jazzman, Duke Ellington, said stunk up the place. It’s the kind of postmodern twaddle that Sokal and Bricmont exposed in their Intellectual Impostures. It’s deliberately designed to sound impressive without actually meaning anything. There’s a lot of talk about expanding cognitive horizons and possibilities, but History Debunked himself says he doesn’t understand a word of it. And neither, I guess, will most people. Because it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just there to sound impressive and bamboozle the reader into thinking that somehow they’re thick because they don’t, while the fault is entirely the writers.

I think History Debunked is a man of the right, and certainly his commenters are Conservatives, some with extremely right-wing views. He’s produced a series of videos attacking the pseudo-history being pushed as Black History, and apparently Seattle in America is particularly involved in promoting this nonsense. But he expects it to come over here in a few years. Given the way Black History month has jumped the Atlantic, I think he’s right.

There’s been a particular emphasis on find ancient Black maths and science for some time I know. For a brief while I got on well with a Black studies group when I was a volunteer at the slavery archives in the former Empire and Commonwealth Museum. That was before I read their magazine and got so annoyed with it and its attitude to Whites that I sent them a whole load of material arguing to the contrary, and pointing out that in places like the Sudan, Blacks were being enslaved and oppressed not by White Europeans, but by the Arabs. I also sent them material about the poor Whites of South Africa, who also lived in grinding poverty thanks to Apartheid. This was stuff they really didn’t want to hear, and I was told that if I wanted to talk to them further, I should do so through someone else. They were also interested in finding examples of Black maths and science. I sent them photocopies and notes I’d made of various medieval Muslim mathematicians. These were Arabs and Persians, like al-Khwarizmi, who gave his name to the word algorithm, Omar Khayyam, best known in the west for his Rubayyat, but who was also a brilliant mathematician, al-Haytham, who invented the camera obscura in the 12th century and others, rather than Black. But they were grateful for what I sent them nonetheless, and I thanked me. This was before I blotted my copybook with them.

I’m reposting this piece because, although it comes from the political, it is correct. And you don’t have to be right-wing to recognise and attack this kind of postmodern rubbish. Sokal and Bricmont, the authors of the book I mentioned early attacking postmodernism, were both men of the left. Sokal was a physicist, who taught maths in Nicaragua under the left-wing Sandinista government. They wrote the book because they took seriously George Orwell’s dictum that writing about politics means writing clearly in language everyone can understand. And even if you believe that Black people do need particular help with maths because of issues of race and ethnicity, Ethnomathematics as it stands really doesn’t appear to be it. It just seems to be filling children’s heads with voguish nonsense, rather than real knowledge.

I also remember the wild claims made about the Dogon and their supposed contact with space aliens. Part of it came from the Dogon possessing astronomical knowledge well beyond their level of technology. They knew, for example, that Sirius has a companion star, invisible to the naked eye, Sirius B. They also knew that our solar system had nine planets, although that’s now been subsequently altered. According to the International Astronomical Association or Union or whatever, the solar system has eight planets. Pluto, previously a planet, has been downgraded to dwarf planet, because it’s the same size as some of the planetoids in the Kuiper Belt. Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince discuss this in one their books,The Stargate Conspiracy (London: Little, Brown & Company 1999), which claimed that the American intelligence agencies were secretly preparing a fake UFO landing in order to convince everyone that the space gods really had arrived, and set up a one-world dictatorship. This hasn’t happened, and I’ve seen the Fortean Times and other weird magazines trying to explain their book as a high-level hoax which people took too seriously. I don’t believe this, as they seemed very serious at the time. The Dogon believe that the first human ancestors, and some of their gods, came from the sky. Hence Temple’s claim that they were contacted by space aliens. Picknett and Prince, however, sided with sceptics like Carl Sagan. They argued instead ithat the Dogon owed it to a French priest, anthropologist or colonial administrator, I’ve forgotten which, who visited them in the 1920s and who was extremely interested in astronomy. This seems to me to be far more likely than that they either got it from space aliens or that they far better mathematicians and astronomers than they could have been at their level of development.

The Dogon are fascinating as their homes and villages are laid out to be microcosms of the male and female human body and the universe. The book African Mythology by Geoffrey Parrinder, London: Hamlyn 1967, describes the layout of a Dogon house thus:

The shape of the Dogon house is symbolical. The floor is like the earth and the flat roof like heaven. The vestibule is a man and the central room woman, with store rooms at her sides as arms. The hear at the end is her head. The four posts are the man and woman entwined in union. So the family house represents the unity of man and woman and God and the Earth. This is accompanied by the elevation and ground plan of a typical Dogon house. (p. 49).

There’s also this diagram of an idealised Dogon village:

The caption for the diagrame reads:

Like the house, the Dogon village represents human beings. The smithy is at the head like a hearth in a house. The family houses in the centre and millstones and village represent the sexes. Other altars are the feet. (p. 51).

Truly, a fascinating people and I have no problem anybody wanting to study them. But it should be in anthropology, ethnography or comparative religion, not maths.

But it struck me that if teachers and educators want to enthuse and inspire young minds with what maths Africans were studying, they could start with ancient Egypt and the great Muslim civilisations of the Sahara and north Africa, like Mali. Aminatta Forna in one of her programmes on these civilisations was shown an ancient astronomical text from the medieval library of one of these towns, which she was told showed that Muslims knew the Earth orbited the sun before Copernicus and Galileo. I doubt that very much. It looks like a form of a combined helio-and geocentric system, first proposed by the ancient Greeks, and then taken up by some medieval astronomers not just in Islam, but also in Christian Europe. In this system, all the other planets when round the Sun, which orbited the Earth. Close to the modern system, but not quite. But it showed that the Black citizens of that civilisation were in contact with the great currents of Muslim science, and that they would have had learnt and taught the same kind of Maths that was being investigated and researcher right across the Muslim world, from India to Morocco and further south to Mali. One of the Black educationalists would like to translate one of these books from Arabic, the learned language of Muslim civilisation, and use it as an example of the kind of maths that was also taught in Black Africa.

Or you could go right back to ancient Egypt. Mathematical texts from the Land of the Nile have also survived in the Moscow and Rhind mathematical papyri. These have various maths problems and their solution. For example, problem No. 7 of the Moscow papyrus is about various calculations for a triangle. This runs

Example of calculating a triangle.

If you are told: A triangle of 2 thousands-of-land, the bank of 2 of 2 1/2;

You are to double the area: result 40 (arurae). Take (it) 2 1/2 times; result [100. Take its square root, namely] 10. Evoke 1 from 2 1/2; what results is 2/5. Apply this to 10; result 4. It is 10 (khet) in length by 4 (khet) in breadth. From Henrietta Midonick, The Treasury of Mathematics: 1 (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1965) p. 71.

It’s amazing to think that the boys at the scribal school were being taught all this millennia ago. It gives you a real sense of connection with the ancient schoolkids reading it. You can imagine them, hunched over with their pen and ink, busily cudgeling their brains while the teacher prowls about them. The Babylonians were also renowned as the pioneers of early mathematics. They even uncovered a school when they excavated Ur of the Chaldees in the 1920s, complete with the maths and other texts the schoolboys – female education didn’t exist back then, but I’m willing to be corrected – were required to learn. As a schoolboy character in the Fast Show used to say: ‘Brilliant!’ You don’t need to burden modern African societies like the Dogon with spurious pseudo-history and pseudo-science, when the real historic achievements of ancient Egypt and medieval Africa are so impressive.

It struck me that even if you don’t use the original Egyptian maths texts to teach maths – which would be difficult, as their maths was slightly different. Their method of calculating the area of a field of four unequal sides yields far too high a figure, for example – you could nevertheless inspire children with similar problems. Perhaps you could do it with assistance of a child or two from the class. You could bring them out in front of everyone, give them and ancient Egyptian headdress, and then arranged the lesson so that they helped the teacher, acting as pharaoh, to solve it. Or else pharaoh showed them, his scribes, and thus the class. This is certainly the kind of thing that was done when I was a kid by the awesome Johnny Ball on the children’s maths and science programme, Think of a Number. And every week, as well as showing you a bit of maths and science, he also showed you a trick, which you could find out how to do by dropping him a line. It was the kind of children’s programme that the Beeb did very, very well. It’s a real pity that there no longer is an audience for children’s programmes and their funding has subsequently been cut.

Here’s History Debunked’s video attacking Ethnomathematics. He also attacks a piece of ancient baboon bone carved with notches, which he states has been claimed is an ancient prehistoric African calendar. He provides no evidence in this video to show that it wasn’t, and says its the subject of a later video. If this is the one I’m thinking of, then that is a claim that has been accepted by mainstream archaeologists and historians. See Ivor Grattan-Guinness, The Fontana History of the Mathematical Sciences (London: Fontana Press 1998) p. 24.

If you want to know more about ancient and medieval maths, and that of the world’s many indigenous cultures, see the book Astronomy before the Telescope, edited by Christopher Walker with an introduction by the man of the crumpled suit and monocle himself, Patrick Moore (London: British Museum Press 1998).

This has chapters on astronomy in Europe from prehistory to the Renaissance, but also on astronomy in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, India, Islam, China, Korea and Japan, North and South America, traditional astronomical knowledge in Africa and among Aboriginal Australians, Polynesia and the Maori. It can be a difficult read, as it explores some very technical aspects, but it is a brilliant work by experts in their respective fields.

A Blog Reading List

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 03/07/2020 - 11:50pm in

Today I’m sharing a list of blogs that I read frequently. Although I’m ostensibly a political economist, only two of the five blogs below are about economics. The other three are about physics. These physics blogs, however, are interesting because of the sociological aspects of science that they explore. So even if you’re not interested in cosmology or particle physics, it’s worth checking out what these physicists have to say. I think you’ll find that the problems they identify are shared by all areas of science.

1. Backreaction

Written by the German physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, Backreaction explores ideas in physics as well as general problems in science. Hossenfelder started the blog in 2006, back when blogs were more like diaries (web logs). But over time, she’s turned Backreaction into one of the most-read blogs about physics.

In 2018, Hossenfelder wrote a book called Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. She explores how the idea that theories should be ‘beautiful’ has led physicists into a scientific dead end. It’s a well-written book whose humorous tone belies its important message.

Hossenfelder explores many of the same issues on her blog. She has recently transitioned into video blogging, but her written blog remains home base. You can watch her videos on youtube and read the transcript on Backreaction. I always find her commentary informative, even when I don’t agree with her conclusions.

On a personal note, I respect Hossenfelder because she’s sacrificed her career to speak out about problems in physics. Although a veteran scientist, Hossenfelder hasn’t yet landed a tenured position. She’s put that ideals of science above careerism. I wish more scientists had the courage to do so.

2. Triton Station

Written by American astrophysicist Stacy McGaugh, Triton Station is a blog about the science and sociology of cosmology. I read Triton Station for two reasons. First, I love cosmology. There’s nothing that dispels human myopia quite like staring into the immensity of the cosmos. Second, McGaugh explores sociological issues that are common to all branches of science.

Permit me a brief foray into physics and cosmology. Our theory of gravity, you were probably taught, is among our most secure knowledge. Newton’s law of gravitation has been verified to exquisite precision within the solar system. And no experiment has ever contracted general relativity — Einstein’s theory of gravity. These theories, you probably learned, are overwhelmingly supported by evidence.

The problem is that this assertion is simply false. Everywhere we look in the cosmos, Newton’s theory of gravity fails. Pick any of the 100-billion known galaxies and watch the movement of stars. Inevitably, you’ll find that the stars move too fast to be bound by the matter we see. According to Newton’s laws, these galaxies shouldn’t exist — they should have long ago flown apart. And yet there they sit, happily disobeying the laws of gravity.

Our theory of gravity, then, is awash with evidence that contradicts it. This suggests that something is deeply wrong — that we need a new theory of gravity. What’s troubling, McGaugh observes, is that the vast majority of cosmologists don’t interpret the evidence this way. Instead, they assume that our theory of gravity is correct. The fact that stars move too quickly is then interpreted not as a contradicting Newton’s theory, but as evidence for a hidden form of matter — dark matter.

What is fascinating from a sociological perspective (and what is applicable in all areas of science) is the degree to which cosmologists are unaware of their underlying assumptions. McGaugh explores these issues vividly and lucidly. But more than being a good writer and philosopher of science, McGaugh is a great scientist. He’s done ground-breaking work exploring the motion of stars in galaxies. He’s shown that an alternative theory of gravity (called ‘modified Newtonian dynamics’) predicts almost all of the behavior that is observed in galaxies.

As with Hossenfelder, the sociological issues that McGaugh explores are applicable in all areas of science. When reading about dark matter, for instance, I’m reminded of economists’ concept of ‘technological progress’. The neoclassical theory of economic growth fails everywhere that it’s applied. The growth of capital and labor cannot (as the theory once predicted) account for the growth of real GDP. But neoclassical economists are undeterred. They turn this failed prediction into the ‘discovery’ of ‘technological progress’. In cosmology, scientists insert ‘dark matter’ wherever it’s needed to retain their theory of gravity. Similarly, economists insert ‘technological progress’ wherever it’s needed to retain their theory of economic growth.

If you’re interested in the universe, you should read Triton Station. And even if you’re not a cosmology junky, read Triton Station to understand the sociology of science.

3. Steve Keen’s Blog

Steve Keen is an Australian economist famous for his book Debunking Economics — an epic take down of neoclassical economics. Keen formerly blogged at Debt Deflation, but has since moved to Patreon.

What I like about Keen’s work is its eclecticism. He writes about monetary issues (the dynamics of credit), about the role of energy in the economy, and about the economics of climate change. It’s this last topic that I think is most important. Every few years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change writes a report that assesses the state of climate-change science. Included is a report about the economic impact of climate change. The average reader probably thinks that this economic-impact report is hard-nosed science, taking full account of the physical basis of our economy. But it’s not. The report is written largely by neoclassical economists who grossly misunderstand the threat posed by climate change.

Keen has recently devoted much of his time to debunking this fraudulent economics of climate change. His writing is accessible to the lay reader, but the analysis is anything but superficial. Keen brings to light the bizarre assumptions that are hidden deep inside the neoclassical sausage. It should be required reading for anyone who is concerned about sustainability.

4. Not Even Wrong

Written by physicist/mathematician Peter Woit, Not Even Wrong is a blog about problems in physics. Woit became famous for his book of the same name, which was among the first to criticize the path taken by modern physics (with its fixation on esoteric, but untestable, theories like string theory).

Woit has been blogging since 2004, so there’s an enormous archive to discover. His writing ranges from technical commentary on aspects of physics, to more general discussion about the sociology of science. It’s the latter that I find the most interesting. The blog’s name stems from a comment attributed to physicist Wofgang Pauli. The worst theories, Pauli observed, aren’t wrong. They’re ‘not even wrong‘. They can’t even be tested.

As a social scientist, I’ve come to believe that many of our social-science theories are ‘not even wrong’. They simply cannot be tested. Marginal utility theory springs to mind. It’s a theory that purports to explain all aspects of human behavior — an expansiveness that has seduced many economists. The problem is that this expansiveness occurs because the theory actually makes no falsifiable predictions. It’s impossible to show that someone is not maximizing their utility. Marginal productivity theory is not even wrong.

I read Woit’s blog with one eye on physics and one eye on the social sciences. True, he’s talking about problems in the foundations of physics. But the sociological issues he identifies are applicable to all branches of science. When one school of thought gets entrenched, alternative ideas are suppressed. In physics, the dominant school goes by the name of ‘string theory’. In political economy, it’s ‘neoclassical economics’. But the groupthink behaviors are remarkably similar.

5. Notes on the Crises

Written by economist Nathan Tankus, Notes on the Crises dives into the financial mechanics that underly governments’ reaction to the COVID pandemic. Tankus is a lucid writer, making what might otherwise be arcane details spring to life.

Reading Tankus’ analysis, you’ll probably assume that he’s a PhD-trained economist. But he’s not. In fact, he has yet to finish an undergraduate degree. Tankus’ story reminds me of Freeman Dyson — one of the great physicists of the 20th century. While Dyson made important contributions to fundamental physics, he never completed a PhD. In fact, for his whole life he was a vocal critic of the PhD system.

There is a certain freshness that comes from not being bogged down by a graduate education. Writing clearly about science involves, in many ways, forgetting what you learned to do in grad school. Out with the obtuse literature review. In with the incisive commentary. Tankus has the knowledge of a PhD-trained academic, but without the accompanying hubris and scholastic baggage. If you want to understand the economics of the COVID pandemic, read Notes on the Crises.

What are you reading?

These are the blogs that I read frequently. There are many others not mentioned that I read occasionally. I’d like to hear what blogs you read. Leave a comment with your own blog list.

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STS and big science

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 26/06/2020 - 7:15am in

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Physics


A previous post noted the rapid transition in the twentieth century from small physics (Niels Bohr) to large physics (Ernest Lawrence). How should we understand the development of scientific knowledge in physics during this period of rapid growth and discovery?

One approach is through the familiar methods and narratives of the history of science -- what might be called "internal history of science". Researchers in the history of science generally approach the discipline from the point of view of discovery, intellectual debate, and the progress of scientific knowledge. David Cassidy's book  Beyond Uncertainty: Heisenberg, Quantum Physics, and The Bomb is sharply focused on the scientific and intellectual debates in which Heisenberg was immersed during the development of quantum theory. His book is fundamentally a narrative of intellectual discovery. Cassidy also takes on the moral-political issue of serving a genocidal state as a scientist; but this discussion has little to do with the history of science that he offers. Peter Galison is a talented and imaginative historian of science, and he asks penetrating questions about how to explain the advent of important new scientific ideas. His treatment of Einstein's theory of relativity in Einstein's Clocks and Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time, for example, draws out the importance of the material technology of clocks and the intellectual influences that flowed through the social networks in which Einstein was engaged for Einstein's basic intuitions about space and time. But Galison too is primarily interested in telling a story about the origins of intellectual innovation.

It is of course valuable to have careful research studies of the development of science from the point of view of the intellectual context and concepts that influenced discovery. But fundamentally this approach leaves largely unexamined the difficult challenge: how do social, economic, and political institutions shape the direction of science?

The interdisciplinary field of science, technology, and society studies (STS) emerged in the 1970s as a sociological discipline that looked at laboratories, journals, and universities as social institutions, with their own interests, conflicts, and priorities. Hackett, Amsterdamska, Lynch, and Wajcman's Handbook of Science and Technology Studies provides a good exposure to the field. The editors explain that they consulted widely across researchers in the field, and instead of a unified and orderly "discipline" they found many cross-cutting connections and concerns.

What emerged instead is a multifaceted interest in the changing practices of knowledge production, concern with connections among science, technology, and various social institutions (the state, medicine, law, industry, and economics more generally), and urgent attention to issues of public participation, power, democracy, governance, and the evaluation of scientific knowledge, technology, and expertise. (kl 98)

The guiding idea of STS is that science is a socially situated human activity, embedded within sets of social and political relations and driven by a variety of actors with diverse interests and purposes. Rather than imagining that scientific knowledge is the pristine product of an impersonal and objective "scientific method" pursued by selfless individuals motivated solely by the search for truth, the STS field works on the premise that the institutions and actors within the modern scientific and technological system are unavoidably influenced by non-scientific interests. These include commercial interests (corporate-funded research in the pharmaceutical industry), political interests (funding agencies that embody the political agendas of the governing party), military interests (research on fields of knowledge and technological development that may have military applications), and even ideological interests (Lysenko's genetics and Soviet ideology). All of these different kinds of influence are evident in Hiltzik's account in Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex of the evolution of the Berkeley Rad Lab, described in the earlier post.

In particular, individual scientists must find ways of fitting their talents, imagination, and insight into the institutions through which scientific research proceeds: universities, research laboratories, publication outlets, and sources of funding. And Hiltzik's book makes it very clear that a laboratory like the Radiation Lab that Lawrence created at the University of California-Berkeley must be crafted and designed in a way that allows it to secure the funds, equipment, and staff that it needs to carry forward the process of fundamental research, discovery, and experimentation that the researchers and the field of high-energy physics wished to conduct.

STS scholars sometimes sum up these complex social processes of institutions, organizations, interests, and powers leading to scientific and technological discovery as the "social construction of technology" (SCOT). And, indeed, both the course of physics and the development of the technologies associated with advanced physics research were socially constructed -- or guided, or influenced -- throughout this extended period of rapid advancement of knowledge. The investments that went into the Rad Lab did not go into other areas of potential research in physics or chemistry or biology; and of course this means that there were discoveries and advances that were delayed or denied as a result. (Here is a recent post on the topic of social influences on the development of technology; link.)

The question of how decisions are made about major investments in scientific research programs (including laboratories, training, and cultivation of new generations of science) is a critically important one. In an idealized way one would hope for a process in which major multi-billion dollar and multi-decade investments in specific research programs would be made in a rational way, incorporating the best judgments and advice of experts in the relevant fields of science. One of the institutional mechanisms through which national science policy is evaluated and set is the activity of the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and similar expert bodies (link). In physics the committees of the American Physical Society are actively engaged in assessing the present and future needs of the fundamental science of the discipline (link). And the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health have well-defined protocols for peer assessment of research proposals. So we might say that science investment and policy in the US have a reasonable level of expert governance. (Here is an interesting status report on declining support for young scientists in the life sciences in the 1990s from an expert committee commissioned by NASEM (link). This study illustrates the efforts made by learned societies to assess the progress of research and to recommend policies that will be needed for future scientific progress.)

But what if the institutions through which these decisions are made are decidedly non-expert and bureaucratized -- Congress or the Department of Energy, for example, in the case of high-energy physics? What if the considerations that influence decisions about future investments are importantly directed by political or economic interests (say, the economic impact of future expansion of the Fermilab on the Chicago region)? What if companies that provide the technologies underlying super-conductor electromagnets needed for one strategy but not another are able to influence the decision in their favor? What are the implications for the future development of physics and other areas of science of these forms of non-scientific influence? (The decades-long case of the development of the V-22 Osprey aircraft is a case in point, where pressures on members of Congress from corporations in their districts led to the continuation of the costly project long after the service branches concluded it no longer served the needs of the services; link.)

Research within the STS field often addresses these kinds of issues. But so do researchers in organizational studies who would perhaps not identify themselves as part of the STS field. There is a robust tradition within sociology itself on the sociology of science. Robert Merton was a primary contributor with his book The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations (link). In organizational sociology Jason Owen-Smith's recent book Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Future provides an insightful analysis of how research universities function as environments for scientific and technological research (link). And many other areas of research within contemporary organizational studies are relevant as well to the study of science as a socially constituted process. A good example of recent approaches in this field is Richard Scott and Gerald Davis, Organizations and Organizing: Rational, Natural and Open Systems Perspectives.

The big news for big science this week is the decision by CERN's governing body to take the first steps towards establishment of the successor to the Large Hadron Collider, at an anticipated cost of 21 billion euros (link). The new device would be an electron-positron collider, with a plan to replace it later in the century with a proton-proton collider. Perhaps naively, I am predisposed to think that CERN's decision-making and priority-setting processes are more fully guided by scientific consensus than is the Department of Energy's decision-making process. However, it would be very helpful to have in-depth analysis of the workings of CERN, given the key role that it plays in the development of high-energy physics today. Here is an article in Nature reporting efforts by social-science observers like Arpita Roy, Knorr Cetina, and John Krige to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the decision-making processes at work within CERN (link).

Big physics and small physics

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 25/06/2020 - 2:02am in




When Niels Bohr traveled to Britain in 1911 to study at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, the director was J.J. Thompson and the annual budget was minimal. In 1892 the entire budget for supplies, equipment, and laboratory assistants was a little over about £1400 (Dong-Won Kim, Leadership and Creativity: A History of the Cavendish Laboratory, 1871-1919 (Archimedes), p. 81). Funding derived almost entirely from a small allocation from the University (about £250) and student fees deriving from lectures and laboratory use at the Cavendish (about £1179). Kim describes the finances of the laboratory in these terms:

Lack of funds had been a chronic problem of the Cavendish Laboratory ever since its foundation. Although Rayleigh had established a fund for the purchase of necessary apparatus, the Cavendish desperately lacked resources. In the first years of J.J.’s directorship, the University’s annual grant to the laboratory of about £250 did not increase, and it was used mainly to pay the wages of the Laboratory assistants (£214 of this amount, for example, went to salaries in 1892). To pay for the apparatus needed for demonstration classes and research, J.J. relied on student fees. 

Students ordinarily paid a fee of £1.1 to attend a lecture course and a fee of £3.3 to attend a demonstration course or to use space in the Laboratory. As the number of students taking Cavendish courses increased, so did the collected fees. In 1892, these fees totaled £1179; in 1893 the total rose a bit to £1240; and in 1894 rose again to £1409. Table 3.5 indicates that the Cavendish’s expenditures for “Apparatus, Stores, Printing, &c.” (£230 3s 6d in 1892) nearly equaled the University’s entire grant to the Cavendish (£254 7s 6d in 1892). (80)

The Cavendish Laboratory exerted great influence on the progress of physics in the early twentieth century; but it was distinctly organized around a "small science" model of research. (Here is an internal history of the Cavendish Lab; link.) The primary funding for research at the Cavendish came from the university itself, student fees, and occasional private gifts to support expansion of laboratory space, and these funds were very limited. And yet during those decades, there were plenty of brilliant physicists at work at the Cavendish Lab. Much of the future of twentieth century physics was still to be written, and Bohr and many other young physicists who made the same journey completely transformed the face of physics. And they did so in the context of "small science".

Abraham Pais's intellectual and scientific biography of Bohr, Niels Bohr's Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity, provides a detailed account of Bohr's intellectual and personal development. Here is Pais's description of Bohr's arrival at the Cavendish Lab:

At the time of Bohr's arrival at the Cavendish, it was, along with the Physico-Technical Institute in Berlin, one of the world's two leading centers in experimental physics research. Thomson, its third illustrious director, successor to Maxwell and Rayleigh, had added to its distinction by his discovery of the electron, work for which he had received the Nobel Prize in 1906. (To date the Cavendish has produced 22 Nobel laureates.) In those days, 'students from all over the world looked to work with him... Though the master's suggestions were, of course, most anxiously sought and respected, it is no exaggeration to add that we were all rather afraid he might touch some of our apparatus.' Thomson himself was well aware that his interaction with experimental equipment was not always felicitous: 'I believe all the glass in the place is bewitched.' ... Bohr knew of Thomson's ideas on atomic structure, since these are mentioned in one of the latter's books which Bohr had quoted several times in his thesis. This problem was not yet uppermost in his mind, however, when he arrived in Cambridge. When asked later why he had gone there for postdoctoral research he replied: 'First of all I had made this great study of the electron theory. I considered... Cambridge as the center of physics and Thomson as a most wonderful man.' (117, 119)

On the origins of his theory of the atom:

Bohr's 1913 paper on α-particles, which he had begun in Manchester, and which had led him to the question of atomic structure, marks the transition to his great work, also of 1913, on that same problem. While still in Manchester, he had already begun an early sketch of these entirely new ideas. The first intimation of this comes from a letter, from Manchester, to Harald: 'Perhaps I have found out a little about the structure of atoms. Don't talk about it to anybody... It has grown out of a little information I got from the absorption of α-rays.' (128)

And his key theoretical innovation:

Bohr knew very well that his two quoted examples had called for the introduction of a new and as yet mysterious kind of physics, quantum physics. (It would become clear later that some oddities found in magnetic phenomena are also due to quantum effects.) Not for nothing had he written in the Rutherford memorandum that his new hypothesis 'is chosen as the only one which seems to offer a possibility of an explanation of the whole group of experimental results, which gather about and seems to confirm conceptions of the mechanismus [sic] of the radiation as the ones proposed by Planck and Einstein'. His reference in his thesis to the radiation law concerns of course Planck's law (5d). I have not yet mentioned the 'calculations of heat capacity' made by Einstein in 1906, the first occasion on which the quantum was brought to bear on matter rather than radiation. (138)

But here is the critical point: Bohr's pivotal contributions to physics derived from exposure to the literature in theoretical physics at the time, his own mathematical analysis of theoretical assumptions about the constituents of matter, and exposure to laboratories whose investment involved only a few thousand pounds.

Now move forward a few decades to 1929 when Ernest Lawrence conceived of the idea of the cyclical particle accelerator, the cyclotron, and soon after founded the Radiation Lab at Berkeley. Michael Hiltzik tells this story in Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex, and it is a very good case study documenting the transition from small science to big science in the United States. The story demonstrates the vertiginous rise of large equipment, large labs, large funding, and big science. And it demonstrates the deeply interwoven careers of fundamental physics and military and security priorities. Here is a short description of Ernest Lawrence:

Ernest Lawrence’s character was a perfect match for the new era he brought into being. He was a scientific impresario of a type that had seldom been seen in the staid world of academic research, a man adept at prying patronage from millionaires, philanthropic foundations, and government agencies. His amiable Midwestern personality was as much a key to his success as his scientific genius, which married an intuitive talent for engineering to an instinctive grasp of physics. He was exceptionally good-natured, rarely given to outbursts of temper and never to expressions of profanity. (“ Oh, sugar!” was his harshest expletive.) Raising large sums of money often depended on positive publicity, which journalists were always happy to deliver, provided that their stories could feature fascinating personalities and intriguing scientific quests. Ernest fulfilled both requirements. By his mid-thirties, he reigned as America’s most famous native-born scientist, his celebrity validated in November 1937 by his appearance on the cover of Time over the cover line, “He creates and destroys.” Not long after that, in 1939, would come the supreme encomium for a living scientist: the Nobel Prize. (kl 118)

And here is Hiltzik's summary of the essential role that money played in the evolution of physics research in this period:

Money was abundant, but it came with strings. As the size of the grants grew, the strings tautened. During the war, the patronage of the US government naturally had been aimed toward military research and development. But even after the surrenders of Germany and Japan in 1945, the government maintained its rank as the largest single donor to American scientific institutions, and its military goals continued to dictate the efforts of academic scientists, especially in physics. World War II was followed by the Korean War, and then by the endless period of existential tension known as the Cold War. The armed services, moreover, had now become yoked to a powerful partner: industry. In the postwar period, Big Science and the “military-industrial complex” that would so unnerve President Dwight Eisenhower grew up together. The deepening incursion of industry into the academic laboratory brought pressure on scientists to be mindful of the commercial possibilities of their work. Instead of performing basic research, physicists began “spending their time searching for ways to pursue patentable ideas for economic rather than scientific reasons,” observed the historian of science Peter Galison. As a pioneer of Big Science, Ernest Lawrence would confront these pressures sooner than most of his peers, but battles over patents—not merely what was patentable but who on a Big Science team should share in the spoils—would soon become common in academia. So too would those passions that government and industry shared: for secrecy, for regimentation, for big investments to yield even bigger returnsParticle accelerators became the critical tool in experimental physics. A succession of ever-more-powerful accelerators became the laboratory apparatus through which questions and theories being developed in theoretical physics could be pursued by bombarding targets with ever-higher energy particles (protons, electrons, neutrons). Instead of looking for chance encounters with high-energy cosmic rays, it was possible to use controlled processes within particle accelerators to send ever-higher energy particles into collisions with a variety of elements. (kl 185)

What is intriguing about Hiltzik's story is the fascinating interplay of separate factors the narrative invokes: major developments in theoretical physics (primarily in Europe), Lawrence's accidental exposure to a relevant research article, the personal qualities and ambition of Lawrence himself, the imperatives and opportunities for big physics created by atomic bomb research in the 1940s, and the institutional constraints and interests of the University of California. This is a story of the advancement of physics that illustrates a huge amount of contingency and path dependency during the 1930s through 1950s. The engineering challenges of building and maintaining a particle accelerator were substantial as well, and if those challenges could not be surmounted the instrument would be impossible. (Maintaining a vacuum in a super-large canister itself proved to be a huge technical challenge.)

Physics changed dramatically between 1905 and 1945, and the balance between theoretical physics and experimental physics was one important indicator of this change. And the requirements of experimental physics went from the lab bench to the cyclotron -- from a few hundred dollars (pounds, marks, krone, euros) of investment to hundreds of millions of dollars (and now billions) in investment. This implied, fundamentally, that scientific research evolved from an individual activity taking place in university settings to an activity involving the interests of the state, big business, and the military -- in addition to the scientific expertise and imagination of the physicists.