Physics

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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.

The Malthusian problem for scientific research

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 21/04/2020 - 4:50am in

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Physics, Science


It seems that there is a kind of inverse Malthusian structure to scientific research and knowledge. Topics for research and investigation multiply geometrically, while actual research and the creation of knowledge can only proceed in a selective and linear way. This is true in every field -- natural science, biology, social science, poetry. Take Darwin. He specialized in finches for a good while. But he could easily have taken up worms, beetles, or lizards, or he could have turned to conifers, oak trees, or cactuses. The evidence of speciation lies everywhere in the living world, and it is literally impossible for a generation of scientists of natural history to study them all.

Or consider a topic of current interest to me, the features that lead to dysfunctional performance in organizations large and small. Once we notice that the specific workings of an organization lead to harmful patterns that we care about a great deal, it makes sense to consider case studies of an unbounded number of organizations in every sector. How did the UAW work such that rampant corruption emerged? What features of the Chinese Communist Party led it to the profound secrecy tactics routinely practiced by its officials? What features of the Xerox Corporation made it unable to turn the mouse-based computer interface system into a commercial blockbuster? Each of these questions suggests the value of an organized case study, and surely we would learn a lot from each study. But each such study takes a person-year to complete, and a given scholar is unlikely to want to spend the rest of her career doing case studies like these. So the vast majority of such studies will never be undertaken. 
This observation has very intriguing implications for the nature of our knowledge about the world -- natural, biological, and social. It seems to imply that our knowledge of the world will always be radically incomplete, with vast volumes of research questions unaddressed and sources of empirical phenomena unexamined. We might take it as a premise that there is nothing in the world that cannot be understood if investigated scientifically; but these reflections suggest that we are still forced to conclude that there is a limitless range of phenomena that have not been investigated, and will never be.

It is possible that philosophers of physics would argue that this "incompleteness" result does not apply to the realm of physical phenomena, because physics is concerned to discover a small number of fundamental principles and laws about how the micro- and macro-worlds of physical phenomena work. The diversity of the physical world is then untroubling, because every domain of physics can be subsumed under these basic principles and theories. Theories of gravitation, subatomic particles and forces, space-time relativity, and the quantum nature of the world are obscure but general and simple, and there is at least the hope that we might arrive at a comprehensive physics with the resources needed to explain all physical phenomena, from black-hole pairs to the nature of dark matter.

Whatever the case with physics, the phenomena of the social world are plainly not regulated by a simple set of fundamental principles and laws. Rather, heterogeneity, exception, diversity, and human creativity are fundamental characteristics of the social world. And this implies the inherent incompleteness of social knowledge. Variation and heterogeneity are the rule; so novel cases are always available, and studying them always leads to new insights and knowledge. Therefore there are always domains of phenomena that have not yet been examined, understood, or explained. This conclusion is a bit like the diagonal proof of the existence of irrational numbers that drove Cantor mad: every number can be represented as an infinite decimal, and yet for every list of infinite decimals it is simple to generate another infinite decimal that is not on the list.

Further, in this respect it may seem that the biological realm resembles the social realm in these respects, so that biological science is inherently incomplete as well. Even granting that the theories of evolution and natural selection are fundamental and universal in biological systems, the principles specified in these theories guarantee diversification and variation in biological outcomes. As a result we might argue that the science of living systems too is inherently incomplete, with new areas of inquiry outstripping the ability of the scientific enterprise to investigate them. In a surprising way the uncertainties we confront in the Covid-19 crisis seem to illustrate this situation. We don't know whether this particular virus will stimulate an enduring immunity in individuals who have experienced the infection, and "first principles" in virology do not seem to afford a determinate answer to the question.

Consider these two patterns. The first is woven linen; the second is the pattern of habitat for invasive species across the United States. The weave of the linen is mechanical and regular; it covers all parts of the space with a grid of fiber. The second is the path-dependent result of invasion of habitat by multiple invasive species. Certain areas are intensively inhabited, while other areas are essentially free of invasive species. The regularity of the first image is a design feature of the process that created the fabric; the irregularity and variation of the second image is the consequence of multiple independent and somewhat stochastic yet opportunistic exploratory movements of the various species. Is scientific research more similar to the first pattern or the second?

I would suggest that scientific research more resembles the second process than the first. Researchers are guided by their scientific curiosity, the availability of research funding, and the assumptions about the importance of various topics embodied in their professions; and the result is a set of investigations and findings that are very intensive in some areas, while completely absent in other areas of the potential "knowledge space".

Is this a troubling finding? Only if one thought that the goal of science is to eventually provide an answer to every possible empirical question, and to provide a general basis for explaining everything. If, on the other hand, we believe that science is an open-ended process, and that the selection of research topics is subject to a great deal of social and personal contingency, then the incompleteness of science comes as no surprise. Science is always exploratory, and there is much to explore in human experience.

(Several earlier posts have addressed the question of defining the scope of the social sciences; link, link, link, link, link.)

Star Trek: Was Gene Roddenberry Influenced by Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ Novels

This is just a bit of SF fan speculation before I start writing about the really serious stuff. I’ve just finished reading Isaac Asimov’s Pirates of the Asteroids. First published in 1952, this is the second of five novels about David ‘Lucky’ Starr, Space Ranger. In  it, Starr goes after the Space Pirates, who killed his parents and left him to die when he was four. He tries to infiltrate their organisation by stowing away aboard a remote-controlled ship that’s deliberately sent into the asteroids to be attacked and boarded by the pirates. He’s captured, forced to fight for his life in a duel fought with the compressed air push guns NASA developed to help astronauts maneuver during spacewalks. After fighting off an attempt on his life by his opponent, Starr is taken by the pirates to the asteroid lair of a reclusive, elderly man, one of a number who have bought their own asteroids as retirement homes. The elderly man, Hansen, helps him to escape, and the pair fly back to Ceres to meet Starr’s old friends and mentors from the Science Academy. Starr and his diminutive Martian friend, Bigman, decide to return to the old hermit’s asteroid, despite it having disappeared from its predicted position according to Starr’s orbital calculations in the meantime. Searching for it, they find a pirate base. Starr is captured, his radio disabled, and literally catapulted into space to die and the pirates plan to attack his spaceship, left in the capable hands of Bigman. Starr and Bigman escape, travel back to Ceres, which they find has been attacked by the pirates in the meantime, and the hermit, Hansen, captured. Meanwhile Earth’s enemies, the Sirians, have taken over Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede. Starr reasons that the pirates are operating in cahoots with them to conquer the solar system, and that the pirates are taking Hansen there. He heads off in hot pursuit, seeking not just to stop the pirates and their leader before they reach Ganymede, but thereby also prevent a devastating war between Earth and Sirius.

In many ways, it’s typical of the kind of SF written at the time. It’s simple fun, aimed at a juvenile and adolescent readership. Instead of using real profanity, the characters swear ‘By space’ and shout ‘Galloping Galaxies’ when surprised or shocked. It also seems typical of some SF of its time in that it’s anti-war. The same attitude is in the SF fiction written by Captain W.E. Johns, the author of the classic ‘Biggles’ books. Johns wrote a series of novels, such as Kings of Space, Now to the Stars, about a lad, Rex, and his friends, including a scientist mentor, who make contact with the civilisation behind the UFOs. These are a race of friendly, humanoid aliens from Mars and the asteroid belt, who befriend our heroes. Nevertheless, there is also an evil villain, who has to be defeated by the heroes. It’s a very long time since I read them, but one thing a I do remember very clearly is the anti-war message expressed by one the characters. The scientist and the other Earthmen are discussing war and the urge for conquest. The scientist mentions how Alexander the Great cried when he reached the borders of India, because there were no more countries left to conquer. The characters agree that such megalomaniac warriors are responsible for all the needless carnage in human history, and we’d be better off without them. This is the voice of a generation that lived through and fought two World Wars and had seen the horror of real conflict. They weren’t pacifists by any means, but they hated war. It’s been said that the people least likely to start a war are those who’ve actually fought in one. I don’t know if Asimov ever did, but he had the same attitude of many of those, who had. It’s in marked contrast with the aggressive militarism of Heinlein and Starship Troopers, and the ‘chickenhawks’ in George W. Bush’s administration way back at the beginning of this century. Bush and his neocon advisers were very keen to start wars in the Middle East, despite having done everything they could to make sure they were well out of it. Bush famously dodged national service in Vietnam. As has the latest incumbent of the White House, Donald Trump.

But what I found interesting was the similarity of some the elements in the book with Star Trek. Roddenberry, Trek’s creator, was influenced by another SF book, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, as well as the ‘Hornblower’ novels. The latter is shown very clearly in Kirk’s character. But I suspect he was also influenced by Asimov as well in details like the Vulcan Science Council, subspace radio and the energy shields protecting Star Trek’s space ships. The Science Council seems to be the chief organ of government on Spock’s homeworld of Vulcan. Which makes sense, as Vulcans are coldly logical and rational, specialising in science, maths and philosophy. But in Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ books, Earth’s Science Council is also a vital organ of government, exercising police powers across the Terrestrial Empire somewhat parallel to the admiralty.

Communications across space are through sub-etheric radio. This recalls the sub-etha radio in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and shows that Adams probably read Asimov as well. In Star Trek, space communications are through ‘sub-space radio’. The idea of FTL communications isn’t unique to Asimov. In Blish’s Cities in Flight novels, the spacefaring cities communicate through normal radio and the Dirac telephone. The ansible, another FTL communication device, appears in Ursula K. Le Guine’s 1970s novel, The Dispossessed. What is striking here is the similarity of terms: ‘sub-etheric’ and ‘sub-space’. These are similar names to describe a very similar concept.

Star Trek’s space ships were also protected by force fields, termed shields, from micrometeorites and the ray weapons and torpedoes of attacking aliens, like Klingons, Romulans, Orion pirates and other riff-raff. The spacecraft in Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ books are protected by histeresis shields. Histeresis is a scientific term to describe the lag in materials of the effects of an electromagnetic field, if I recall my ‘O’ level Physics correctly. Roddenberry seems to have taken over this concept and imported it into Trek, dropping the ‘histeresis’ bit. And from Trek it entered Star Wars and Science Fiction generally. The idea is absent in the recent SF series, The Expanse. This is set in the 23rd century, when humanity has expanded into space. The Solar System is divided into three political powers/ groups: the Earth, now a united planet under the government of the United Nations, the Mars Congressional Republic, and the Belt, which is a UN protectorate. The Martians have gained their independence from Earth only after a war, while the Belt is seething with disaffection against UN/Martian control and exploitation. The political situation is thus teetering on the brink of system-wide war, breaking out into instances of active conflict. The ships don’t possess shields, so that bullets and projectiles launched by rail guns smash straight through them, and the crews have to dodge them and hope that when they are hit, it doesn’t strike anything vital. The Expanse is very much hard SF, and I suspect the absence of shields is not just the result of a desire to produce proper, scientifically plausible SF, but also a reaction to force fields, which have become something of an SF cliche.

But returning to Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ novels, it does seem to me that Roddenberry was influenced by them when creating Star Trek’s universe alongside other SF novels,  just as Adams may have been when he wrote Hitch-Hiker. Asimov’s best known for his ‘Robot’ and ‘Foundation’ novels, which have also been highly influential. But it looks like these other books also exercised a much less obvious, though equally pervasive influence through Roddenberry’s Trek.