Monday, April 23, 2012

Down with particle physics, up with Big Energy Research!

Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg has a big article in the New York Review of Books lamenting the crisis in Big Science. He focuses on two areas that are in danger of being deprived of funding: 1) particle accelerators, and 2) telescopes.

Weinberg is a particle physicist, one of the heroes who developed the Standard Model. Thus it is not surprising that most of his article concentrates on particle physics experiments. Unfortunately, I think that appeals for governments to pour more money into particle accelerators are A) doomed to fall on deaf ears, and B) not really very convincing in the first place. Let me explain why.

First of all, the Standard Model of particle physics is good. Really good. In fact, we've never conducted an experiment where it makes an incorrect prediction at any level of precision!! In that sense, it is one of the most successful theories ever. Now, the Model may or may not fail at ultra-high energies (such as those that could be produced inside a black hole or a multibillion-dollar particle accelerator), or at galactic distances. But these are not environments that will ever matter for human beings on Earth.

As Weinberg points out, the Standard Model is incomplete. It doesn't include gravity. But we have another theory, general relativity, whose track record is just as good, to describe gravity. Unifying these theories would increase our understanding of the nature of the Universe, but it's not clear whether it would improve our ability to predict our immediate surroundings.

In other words, new particle accelerators may be able to answer interesting questions, but they are unlikely to produce much of technological value.

In fact, this has proven true for the last several generations of particle accelerators. We've discovered a zoo of new particles, and these discoveries have improved our theories greatly. But none of these new particles has been something we can exploit for technological applications. In the early 20th century, new fundamental physics led rapidly to applications like nuclear bombs, semiconductors, lasers, and GPS. But to my knowledge, nobody is even trying to make a device that exploits the properties of B-mesons or neutrino mass.

To this, add another problem, which Weinberg discusses: We actually have no idea if the "next generation" of particle accelerators would find anything useful. In the past, we always had new theories that predicted stuff we should expect to see if bigger accelerators were built (for example, the Large Hadron Collider was built to search for the predicted Higgs Boson). As of now, new physics theories have made no new concrete predictions about what should come out of bigger and more expensive accelerators. If we build those accelerators, it will purely for speculative, exploratory purposes - to see what might be out there.

So basically, if physicists focus on asking for billions of dollars for new particle accelerators (the Large Hadron Collider cost $9B and the next one would certainly be a lot more), they are almost certain to be disappointed.

And guess what? It is hard for me to label this a tragedy. Yes, I think it is very important to push the boundaries of our understanding of fundamental physics. But our society is facing huge, immediate problems - most pressingly, the imminent end of the fossil fuel era.

The increasing cost of fossil fuels is an absolutely huge problem. It is nipping at the heels of our civilization like a T-Rex in the rearview mirror. At its most apocalyptic, the fossil fuel crunch threatens to yank back most of the gains our species has made in the last three centuries. Even a more reasonable assessment puts us in danger of shrinking economies, transportation breakdowns, declining living standards, and technological stagnation. And as for global warming, the only way we are going to halt climate change is by inventing clean energy sources so cheap that we simply leave coal and shale oil and tar sands sitting in the ground.

The energy crunch is a problem that Big Science is uniquely equipped to fight. Burning stuff is easy. Converting sunlight into electricity and transporting it hundreds of miles, then storing the energy in an electric car, is hard. Designing genetically engineered organisms to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and combine it with sunlight to produce oil is even harder. Creating controlled nuclear fusion is the hardest of all.

But if we are going to replace fossil fuels, we are going to have to do one or more of these hard things. There is just no other option. It's Big Science or bust. Our nation needs to be spending many, many billions of dollars - tens of billions each year, at the very least - on Big Energy research to create better solar power, better biofuels, and better nuclear power.

This may mean temporarily halting the progress of big-budget particle physics. Sure, the money for Big Energy Research could (and should!) be taken from other, even less useful government spending, such as the V-22 Osprey, oil company subsidies, or "health care". In fact, putting sufficient money into Big Energy Research is almost certainly going to require shifting money from all of these sources. But to the extent that the public is reluctant to shift unlimited government dollars into Big Science, there will have to be tradeoffs.

And more important than the money tradeoff may be the talent tradeoff. Currently, thousands of our best physicists are being shunted into careers in experimental particle physics, spending their lives working at CERN or Fermilab. These are our very best physics brains, and they are a very scarce commodity. In my opinion, we need these people to be working on solar power, biofuels, and nuclear power. Applied physics is not as intellectually thrilling or as nerd-glamorous as fundamental physics, but we can ill afford to pay our super-nerds to indulge their philosophical whimsy at a time like this.

So I am suggesting, not an abandonment of Big Particle Physics, but a pause. If and when energy stops getting more expensive and resumes its march toward abundance, our species will have the breathing room to look for answers to questions like how to combine gravity with the Standard Model. Until then, we are in crisis mode, and all of our Big Science resources - and more - should be going into fighting the T-Rex.

(Update: Some people have taken issue with me putting "health care" in quotes and saying we need to cut it. Actually I think we should nationalize healthcare, drive costs down, and implement a system where doctors are incentivized to improve health outcomes, not increase the number and cost of procedures...hence the scare quotes.)


  1. Anonymous3:39 PM

    My main worry with your proposal is that it seems like there's always a reason to defer basic research and focus on short-term problems. What's so special about our current batch of short-term problems such that we should delay science now, even though we shouldn't delay science later and we shouldn't have delayed science in the past? Are our problems really worse now than they were during other times, like WWII, when basic research continued and we're all better off for it? Or is the difference not with our problems but with our science, which does not have the same utility as earlier science? Obviously, this is not an insurmountable objection, but it does give me pause.

    1. Moreover, what Big Science problems are the ones that will never impact Real Life, and which ones aren't? It's not as if it was obvious that physics research in the early twentieth century would lead to many of the electronic and computing advances of today.

    2. I'm curious, now.

      I can't think of a significant fundamental science programme funded by the Allies in WWII that didn't have obvious-at-the-time practical applications. Nuclear physics: nope. Astronomy: nope. Graph theory, operations research, computation, and statistics: nope. Medical, physiological and psychological research: nope. Agriculture: nope. Geology: nope. Meteorology: nope. Physical and organic chemistry: nope. Electronics and electromagnetism: nope. Materials science: nope.

      Research in all those areas had urgent (desired) applications which were known in advance.

      What fundamental research was done in WWII that cost more than 0.001% of GDP and had no conjectured application? Archaeology?

    3. Anonymous2:41 PM

      WWII archaeology research was focused on finding the Arc of the Covenant to use as a weapon.

      Disclaimer: everything I know about WWII I learned from Indiana Jones moves.

  2. The increasing cost of fossil fuels is an absolutely huge problem.

    I'm not convinced. Fossil fuels have more than tripled in price over the past thirty years, yet we haven't run head-on into dire economic calamity.

    1. Anonymous3:46 PM

      I agree. From an engineering standpoint it is clear our current technologies are using far more energy than we need to accomplish what we do with them. As the energy supply decreases we will use more efficient technologies. The question is whether we can replace our current technologies with higher efficiency technologies apace with the reduction in energy supply.

      While disaster is possible, the dire predictions do seem remote in plausibility when I'm sitting in traffic alone in my car and looking at all the other lone passengers in all the other cars. The system we have got is running at some 10% efficiency, at most.

      Most of those cars are less than 20 years old. We can reasonably expect efficiency of cars to double within the 20 year "gestation period" necessary to replace USA's cars with the most current generation of technology (hybrid vehicles with ICE + battery/motors). Will energy supply halve within 20 years? It does not look like it will be that fast.

      Even if it is, though, we could weather the storm by carpooling, shipping less stuff, buying lighter alternatives to heavier ones, buying local alternatives to imports, etc., without any real crisis. Eventually the old capabilities would be restored via alternative power sources and increased efficiency.

      We will probably see pure electric vehicles with hub motors, vastly lighter for lack of any mechanical engine or mechanical force carrier (with its need for wheel-to-wheel rigid stabilization), gradually take over the hybrids; perhaps even rapidly. These will also reduce production costs. Cheaper, lighter, more efficient, easier to repair, longer-lasting. I've little doubt that I will own and drive a 200mpg 4-passenger vehicle before I die, which I will buy (used) for less than the equivalent of today's $1000. This does not require any technological revolution, but only the time to implement what we have already learned.

      Cars are only one area, although they are the single largest item of energy expenditure in the USA.

      Meanwhile, computers continue to increase in energy efficiency at a rate sufficient to guarantee that humans will have enough power for our computers even after the death of the Sun: the radiant energy of distant stars will one day suffice to power what today we call a supercomputer. Consider that a single smartphone, which contains more computing power than the combined power of all computers assembled by humans in all years before 1950, uses less than one millionth of the energy necessary to supply even one 1950 computer.

      Humans will one day achieve the precision necessary to perform computations in which a single electron can represent a single informational "bit". There is also little reason to suppose that there will *not* be found new mechanisms to represent information when humanity's instrumental precision will have increased to that point. We don't know what we will find when we look in so close, but every time we have looked in the past, we found new means of creating smaller switches.

      Solar panels [based, by the way, on Einstein's Nobel-winning "other" discovery, the photo-electric effect -- demonstrating a 100-year gestation period for "basic physics research" to result in a technology capable of rescuing humanity from global disaster] continue to progress in efficiency at an exponential rate. If humans can duplicate the efficiency of biological photosynthesis (and there is every reason to suppose they will) then all of humanity's energy needs will be supplied continuously and sustainably for the life-span of the Sun. All this requires is the continuation of existing long-established trends in solar panel efficiency for a few decades, followed by a (50-year?) gestation period in which all of humanity's existing stored-solar-energy based unsustainable electrical production is replaced with direct-from-the-sun, multi-billion-year sustainable, already-plant-proven direct solar energy.

  3. Anonymous4:09 PM

    "But to my knowledge, nobody is even trying to make a device that exploits the properties of B-mesons or neutrino mass"

    That's because you don't do these things for a living. A good friend of mine (working at Fermilab, incidently) is trying (among other things) to develop neutrino detectors that, say, you can carry (currently a neutrino detector is the size of an apartment building). And THAT means technologies such as communications devices that can beam a signal straight to the other side of the Earth.

    I'm not disagreeing with your basic point--although if we had rational policy we almost certainly would continue to support high energy physics as well as the rest--but there are useful "things" that we think we can get out of this. Very useful.

    I think the point you mean to get at is in terms of marginal learning per dollar spent we can probably do better and we can absolutely do better in terms of marginal welfare improvements per dollar spent (even if we restrict ourselves to science). That I'd agree with.

    1. OK, yes, I may have made my point in overly black-and-white terms.

      Question: Does the mini neutrino detector use mass oscillations to modulate a signal somehow?

    2. Anonymous5:15 PM

      It relies on higher order interactions... See Will's statement below...

    3. It's this, right?

      Couldn't we do this even if neutrinos were massless?

    4. I'm not sure this makes sense? Neutrinos have minimal cross sections, there are fundamental limits (the fermi coupling is tiny!!). Even if your signaller could generate a super-nova worth of neutrinos, and you could make a material so dense you could pack a ton-of-water's worth of nuclei into something hand held, you'd pick up maybe 10? 15?

      Given that you can't possibly squeeze that much matter into something hand-held, you are probably looking at a fundamental limit thats two orders of magnitude smaller. So if your signaler can generate a super-nova worth of neutrinos, you can collect 1, sometimes? I don't think anyone is working on such an application.

    5. Will - That had previously been my understanding of the parameters involved.

    6. Noah, we could do the neutrino beam experiment even if they were massless. We can't even directly detect the mass of the neutrinos- they look massless as far as the experiment is concerned. Instead, we infer it from conversions between various generations of neutrino.

      And notice in the actual neutrino signaling experiment, they sent a highly redundant signal and even with several tons of water they still miss a great deal of the neutrinos.

    7. That's why I am saying, I don't think the recent discovery of neutrino oscillations gives us any new technological opportunities, even if the parameters did make a "neutrino phone" feasible, which I had always thought they did not.

    8. Anonymous8:07 PM

      I don't want to defend what other people are doing with their research, but it is not true that it is impossible to detect neutrinos this way. I'm sorry, but I've been to numerous seminars where people are trying to do exactly this and the physics involved requires very precise knowledge of neutrino-related parameters including masses and mixing angles, the mixing angles in particular have to be large if I recall correctly.

      It's possible, or at least people smarter than me think that it's possible. And as I say, a good friend of mine is working on exactly this problem, albeit somewhat peripherally. That said, no one has done it yet.

  4. Anonymous4:17 PM

    Oh, and I forgot to mention that neutrino oscillations (contrary to your argument) are not included in the standard model. In fact, the particular form of the neutrino mass matrix directly contradicts the SM (giving leptons a mass, generally speaking, is problematic)--and you do need particle accelerators to do at least some of the experiments involved there.

    1. But electrons, muons and tau all have well defined mass? Are you saying that this is not in the standard model?

    2. Thats not actually true. The standard model is a collection of particles and their symmetries- after that if its not explicitly forbidden its required. Because there aren't any right handed neutrinos, adding a mass term requires a higher order coupling (probably why their masses are so small). Its the only dimension 5 operator you can put into the standard model.

      Back in the day, a lot of people used to argue that all physical models should be renormalizable. Those who didn't buy it suggested neutrinos should have small masses.

    3. Anonymous5:09 PM

      The reason that the Higgs was invented in the first place is that yes, mass is problematic for all leptons... It's really neutrino oscillations that are really problematic because they mean off diagonal elements to the mass matrix. You can get around that to some degree, but the SM needs serious modification either way.

    4. Anonymous5:12 PM

      I second Will's statement, but I'm too rusty to get this exactly right on my own.

    5. To be clear, above I was repaying to bseconomist's statement. Neutrino masses ARE standard model. So are lepton masses.

    6. Anonymous8:13 PM

      To be clear, what I meant to say was that the Higgs is required for lepton masses (you need a symmetry breaking mechanism) but this doesn't work for the off-diagonal elements--so the standard model doesn't include neutrino mixing angles and this is why so much interest in neutrino oscillations. But yes, the SM has lepton masses--because it includes the Higgs field. I remember this very clearly because the first confirmation of neutrino oscillations happened when I was in grad school.

  5. The problem is that once you shut down an entire field of science, there's no one left to teach the young people when you want to restart it. You don't just learn these things from a textbook. One example: due to the cancellation of the SSC, no big accelerator was built anywhere for a while, before the LHC. As a result, the community lacks competent accelerator physics specialists, and is scrambling to train new ones.

    If you want smart people to work on solving big problems, start by stopping them from going into finance, expanding higher education opportunities, and giving them an actual budget.

    1. I'm not worried about that. They can re-learn. Maybe in the process they'll find something that the original people were doing wrong.

  6. The comparison shouldn't be between basic and applied research; It should also be between basic research in physics and basic research elsewhere. Even from the perspective of funding basic science, I'd say that there are projects we can put that $9 billion into that would have much higher payouts in terms of pure discovery.
    From my own field (ecology), we've had major projects for much less than that that have paid massive dividends to understanding, such as the Census of Marine Life [$650 million over ~ten years] or the Long Term Ecological Research Network [~$30 million per year, based off skimming grant reports]. The upcoming National Ecological Observatory Network [$10 million/year] promises to also add pretty massively to our baseline knowledge. We're able to advance basic science for considerably cheaper than $9 billion, and I suspect the marginal rate of discovery would shoot up astronomically if we did get that sort of funding; I highly doubt we're the only field where this is the case. I suspect that these are also the fields where if we started poring more money in, we'd have larger payouts in terms of applied benefits of basic research.


    Density Functional Theory has solved a lot of our non-time-dynamic calculation problems but solving quantum systems with time is still expensive (in terms of computer calculations).

  8. I would argue that accelerator physics IS energy research. But even still, the biggest reason to keep a few accelerators going is that we use them to do material science (scattering experiments) and to treat cancer. If a first-wall fusion material is going to be created, it will be tested in accelerators.

    That being said, I would love a big-energy type project. My view of the world was completely shattered when I finished my phd and no one wanted to hire me to do anything other than finance and insurance. Is the best use for our scientists really creating financial instruments and identifying sick people for insurance to deny care to? We need to create demand for scientists TO DO SCIENCE.

    1. I agree with all of this. So yes, my post was simplified.

      And no, I didn't talk about the finance brain-drain, but it's real. Subject for another post.

  9. Anonymous7:26 PM

    Scientists should of listened to Palin.
    Then they wouldnt sound like goofs

    Take this howler:
    "The increasing cost of fossil fuels is an absolutely huge problem. It is nipping at the heels of our civilization like a T-Rex in the rearview mirror. At its most apocalyptic, the fossil fuel crunch threatens to yank back most of the gains our species has made in the last three centuries"

    Guys, natural gas is cheaper than its been in almost 40 years, WITHOUT inflation.

    America's got 500 years worth of oil, and in the last four years we've figure out how to drill for it.

    We can strip mine enough coal out of Wyoming to get our power for another 800 years.

    So, Ahem, our Optimal National Energy Policy: Drill baby drill.

    All them blowhard profs, made to look like clowns, by some cutiepie dingbat. I figure it doesnt get any worse than that. What do you figure?

    1. A lot of misdirection in that comment.

      "natural gas is cheaper than its been in almost 40 years, WITHOUT inflation."

      Tell that to the Japanese. In the USA, gas is under $2 per thousand cubic feet for idiosyncratic reasons. In Europe, gas is $6. In Japan, $15.

      Try to look at things from a global perspective.

      "America's got 500 years worth of oil, and in the last four years we've figure out how to drill for it."

      If 'America' refers to the United States, this is not true. The greater part of that "500 years of oil" is the oil precursor kerogen, which has to be retorted in-ground to be converted to crude oil. People have been trying to do that profitably since at least 1920. The best method involves lots of steam. But there's not enough water for more than a few hundred thousand barrels per day of production.

      The "we've figure it out in the last four years" bit is wrong too. Directional drilling and multi-stage fracking are both over 20 years old. But they were generally too expensive to use together, until the price of oil rose in the last four years.

      The more important point is that the "500 years'" figure applies to original oil in place, at current rates of use. We have to apply the technically possible recovery fraction (say 0.35) and then de-rate for population growth and the escalating energy cost of extraction.

      And then, we have to ignore price. In the real world, US oil products demand is down 6% from a year ago, and falling. When demand falls under a million barrels a day, people will say "the US has enough oil for 5,000 years".

      "We can strip mine enough coal out of Wyoming to get our power for another 800 years."

      Wrong for similar reasons. The professors do, it turns out, know what they are talking about. Palin doesn't.

  10. Marty9:16 PM

    I believe your premise is flawed. When the most significant impediments are political and sociological rather than technological, as I believe they are for "clean energy," pouring more resources into technology development isn't going to solve most of the problem.

    Too many people, especially in the US, don't appreciate the need for the "clean" in "clean energy" -- to them, fossil fuels are fine as long as we can get to them economically. It's the cost of energy NOW that counts to so many people. Those who are worried about the long term consequences of short term choices are viewed as "alarmist" or "left wing enviro-nuts." Sheer ignorance, often willful when the facts don't agree with tidy (but wrong) preconceptions, is a big hurdle to overcome. While it dominates as it does now, good luck with getting the long term commitment to the sort of program you envision.

    I also wonder why you think that gutting high energy physics is going to help. History shows that cutting high energy experiments doesn't lead to a transfer of money to other programs -- no, the program just gets canceled and that's that. (For example, cancellation of the superconducting super-collider, an accelerator that would have made the LHC unnecessary, led to no meaningful increase in condensed matter research funding, even though at least some condensed matter folks naively thought it would when they pushed for its cancellation.) To think it would be different now seems generously optimistic, especially when the need to get fiscal deficits under control is going to increasingly make Big Science programs (like "clean energy" for example) especially juicy targets for elimination -- it lets short-sighted politicians claim they are acting fiscally responsible, even though nothing could be further from the truth once long term consequences are taken into account. Again, the real issues are political and sociological.

    It's also not clear to me why "big science" must lead the charge. Since you are a budding economist, I'm very surprised you don't see the role of government subsidies of corporate research with the promise of guaranteed markets as the most viable route to pursue your vision. This path has been very successfully pursued in the past, particularly in the electronics and aviation industries, where the role of the military and government more generally was able to greatly speed up the development of these now-huge industries. This could be complemented by grants to universities and national labs. One big advantage of letting industry take ownership is elimination of the difficult transfer of technology, manufacturing, marketing, etc. to industry once the technologies have been developed.

    Finally, your comment is puzzling:

    Currently, thousands of our best physicists are being shunted into careers in experimental particle physics, spending their lives working at CERN or Fermilab.

    You seem to believe that research direction is chosen by some anonymous body of "others" rather than the students themselves. That certainly isn't how things work where I am a physics grad student. If a research area excites someone because they want to be part of an enterprise that tries to unlock Nature's secrets, telling them to go to work on "clean energy" instead isn't going to cut it. For sure, some people will do that if what they really want is a physics degree and don't care if it's in condensed matter or high energy physics or cosmology. (In reality, the kinds of research you advocate falls best under the heading of "condensed matter," not "high energy" physics.) But a lot of others are willing to put up with the poor TA/researcher pay, years of hard work, and often lower lifetime earnings that accompany getting a PhD because they have a passion. You can't dictate someone's passion.

    1. You certainly can. If there aren't any available PhD scholarships in pure / particle physics, there won't be any (or very few) students who pursue it. People do pursue a PhD out of passion, but they still have to be funded in doing it. If funding for pure (particle, theoretical) physics is cut, then there will be less faculty positions, less funding for the faculty positions that exist (and hence less grad students), less postdoctoral opportunities, etc, etc.. This will directly cut the number of people going into the field.

      PhDs don't exist in a vacuum. There's a huge trickle-down funding system that indirectly influences the number of people pursuing graduate school in certain fields. If you fund an area, you get a growth in the number of graduate students as people migrate to the opportunities. Lots of people pursuing physics right now can and would migrate to other areas if that was the option. The contrast between *not* pursuing *a* passion in graduate school and doing one that isn't exactly precisely what you wanted is large enough for most people. The ones who truly will not do anything but their one overriding passion in life will still do it ... the ones who drift into it as they leave undergrad / enter grad school will just drift slightly to the side and end up in applied or more applicable theoretical areas.

      Remember: it's a rare person who has an idea in their head for possible grad school work in the 3rd/early 4th year of their undergrad who actually ends up doing that idea for grad school. You get accepted, you find an advisor, you drift into their area of expertise, you get a research project, etc, etc.. Funding cuts to theoretical particle physics will directly influence the number of people who drift into those areas. That's just basic economics.

  11. Although I was a distant observer of the SSC debate, not a participant as Prof. Weinberg was, my memory of the incident is slightly different than his account. A somewhat ad hoc
    process, started after World War II, resulted in a sort of consensus budget for how much the country would spend on high energy physics. For many years the physics community lived
    within that constraint. Older, smaller, accelerators were shut down as new ones were built. There was consolidation as fewer and fewer could be built and operated within the budget. The final generation was Fermilab and SLAC. Building the SSC required that the old
    consensus budget be broken. High energy physics needed much more than its historic share. The attitude of the high energy physics crowd was that high energy physics was clearly the most important science and, more, high energy physics was the intellectual raison d'etre for the human race. They failed to convince the other scientists to give up their budgets, and they failed to convince the politicians to give them more of theirs. A counterproposal,similar to yours, to build the SSC within budget but over a much longer time, was rejected on the grounds that the discipline could not survive such a hiatus. As Prof. Weinberg states in his article, the high energy physics crowd still cannot comprehend why they failed.

    I completely agree with you about the importance of energy research. I disagree with your proposal that energy research should be funded by cannibalizing high energy physics. Society should fund basic scientific research because that is a good thing to do, not because of imagined economic benefits. Our society can afford to fund a number of scientific and artistic efforts at a relatively low level at the same time that we fund large existential projects such as health, education, welfare, defense, etc.

    At a "micro" level, senior professors like Weinberg are extremely reluctant to shift abruptly from particle physics to biofuels research. Graduate students, however, are exquisitely sensitive to shifts in funding. Present company included.

  12. Andrew C4:35 AM

    Hi Noah, I'm wondering if you've ever done a post describing why you left physics for economics. I, for one, would be interested to read about it. I'm someone who also went to grad school in econ after majoring in physics, but is now heading back to physics (starting a grad program at Stony Brook coincidentally enough).

    -Andrew (long time reader, first or second time commenter).

    1. Beware! Most of the physics phds in my cohort ended up in finance, management consulting and insurance- not by choice but by lack of other opportunity. You are likely to spend a lot of time learning physics just to end up doing work that econ might have better prepared you for.

  13. Anonymous8:15 AM

    excellent post and comments

  14. Great post and thread, but the supply of energy just gets us to the real problem faster:

    1. No! Consider these two economies:

      1. A static, non-growing economy, with a high standard of living, powered by renewable energy

      2. A shrinking economy, with a low and falling standard of living, powered by a shrinking supply of fossil fuels

      I think I know which one I'd prefer!

    2. No disagreement! Energy and technology, however, it seems to me are secondary issues. The main show is how we get from here to your item 1. and that is a political question more than an economic one.

      If you solve the political problem, all the means are easily available to address the technology and energy (particularly if finance experiences a brain drain, so far as human capital is concerned finance is the ultimate malinvestment).

      I like William Gibson's quote "the future has arrived, it's just poorly distributed"! The distribution is an economic problem, but one our politics is entirely uninterested in addressing.

  15. Hi Noah,

    Before I read your take on this, I wrote my own blog piece, at, which you might be interested in. I'm sympathetic to your argument, but ultimately I disagree (unsurprisingly, since I am a cosmologist and did my PhD in a particle physics department!).

    I think there is a very important argument in favour of particle physics and cosmology that isn't made enough - basically, it is exciting, and it draws people in to study science, both at school and at university. Most of these students later do something else, but even if they shift to, say, economics, their earlier scientific education is a net benefit to society. More so of course if they shift to working on new energy sources.

  16. You forget the enormous amount of research that goes into building new electronics and physical components for these machines. You can't just go to Best Buy and pick up an LHC kit. Often times these things do not lead to widely used consumer technologies but many modern industries often benefit from technologies first produced to solve a research problem.

    Just a few such instances:

    Also your argument is flawed in saying that we need to find a solution to our "Energy Crunch" because I hate to break it but the technology to do that has been around for the past couple decades. The biggest problem is that the production of a product, like solar panels, electric cars, energy efficient electric grids, etc. follow economies of scale. This is to say they are not cost effective yet because the demand is not high enough, and that is something research won't fix but instead is left to social and political forces.

  17. Anonymous8:57 PM

    For a science article to talk about fossil is pretty f... ignorant. Maybe you missed the memo. Nasa found 2 lakes with more oil (well liquid hydrocarbons of various sorts) on one of the moons of jupiter YEARS AGO. these two alone are bigger then the entire worlds reserves for the last 100 years. That means one of two things A) oil is abiotic its never going to run out its generated by geological processes from deep within the earth. or B) Billions of Dinosaurs flew in mass millions of years ago to a moon of jupiter and died thus turning into oil.
    Which one do you think is more plausable.

    I can see why it maybe is just to expensive because we have other needs like helping people in need basic education ect...