Dark Energy Fundamentalism: Simon White Lays the Smackdown

By Sean Carroll | April 19, 2007 3:30 pm

Among the many fascinating blog posts you would get from me if I didn’t have a day job is one on “Why Everyone Loves to Hate on Particle Physicists.” I would not be in favor of the hating, but I would examine it as a sociological phenomenon. But now we have an explicit example, provided by respected astrophysicist Simon White, who has put a paper on the arXiv (apparently destined to appear in Nature, if it hasn’t already) entitled Fundamentalist physics: why Dark Energy is bad for Astronomy. Here’s the abstract:

Astronomers carry out observations to explore the diverse processes and objects which populate our Universe. High-energy physicists carry out experiments to approach the Fundamental Theory underlying space, time and matter. Dark Energy is a unique link between them, reflecting deep aspects of the Fundamental Theory, yet apparently accessible only through astronomical observation. Large sections of the two communities have therefore converged in support of astronomical projects to constrain Dark Energy. In this essay I argue that this convergence can be damaging for astronomy. The two communities have different methodologies and different scientific cultures. By uncritically adopting the values of an alien system, astronomers risk undermining the foundations of their own current success and endangering the future vitality of their field. Dark Energy is undeniably an interesting problem to attack through astronomical observation, but it is one of many and not necessarily the one where significant progress is most likely to follow a major investment of resources.

Simon contrasts the way that astronomers like to work — “observatory”-style instruments, aimed at addressing many problems and used by a large number of small groups — with the favored mode of particle physicists — dedicated experiments, controlled by large groups, aimed largely at a single purpose. He holds up the Hubble Space Telescope as a very successful example of the former philosophy, and WMAP as an (also quite successful) example of the latter. HST does all sorts of things, and many of its greatest contributions weren’t even imagined when it was first built; WMAP was aimed like a laser beam on a single target (the cosmic microwave background), and when it’s done everything it can on that observation it will gracefully expire.

His real worry is that the emergence of dark energy as a deep problem introduces the danger that the particle-physics way of doing things will take over astronomy. On the one hand, trying to understand the nature of the dark energy is undoubtedly interesting and important, and might only be addressable via astronomical observations; on the other, there is some danger that we devote too much of our resources to a small number of monstrous collaborations that are all tackling that one problem, to the ultimate detriment of the agile and creative nature of traditional astronomy.

I kind of agree, actually. More specifically, this is one of those cases where I disagree with all of the background philosophizing, but am sympathetic to the ultimate conclusions. (In contrast to the framing discussion, where I’m sympathetic to the philosophizing but disagree when it comes down to specific recommendations.) Dark energy is extremely interesting, and any little bit of info we can get about it is useful; on the other hand, there is a fairly narrow set of things that we can do to get info about it, and concentrating on doing those things to the detriment of the rest of astronomy would be a bad thing. Happily, astronomy is one of those nice fields in which it’s hard to learn about one thing without learning about something else; in particular, as the dark energy task force has recognized, the actual things that can be usefully observed in an attempt to get at dark energy will inevitably teach us many interesting things about galaxies, clusters, and large-scale structure.

Still, it’s worthwhile not going overboard. More than one working astronomer has grumbled that the way to get funding these days is to insert “dark energy” randomly into each paragraph of one’s proposal. (Not that such grumblings make it true; scientists applying for funding love to grumble.) But the backstory of “particle physics” vs. “astrophysics” (or “every other kind of physics”) is a misleading one. It’s not primarily a matter of cultures or sociology; it’s a matter of the science questions we are trying to address. There is something about particle physics that is different from most other kinds of science — you need to spend a lot of money on big, expensive, long-term experiments to get detailed information about the questions you are trying to ask. The LHC is an expensive machine. But if you choose to spend half as much money on building an accelerator, you won’t get half the results — you’ll get nothing. It might be that the results are not worth the cost; I disagree, but that’s a worthwhile debate to have. But if you decide that this kind of science is worth doing for what it costs, then big collaborations and expensive machines are the only way to get it done. (Not, obviously, the only way to get information about particle physics; that can come from all sorts of clever smaller-scale experiments. But if you want the kind of detailed information necessary to figure out the structure of what is really going on at high energies, big accelerators are the way to go.)

The issue for astrophysicists is not whether they want to continue to be small-scale and nimble and charming vs. giving into the particle-physics Borg. It’s what kind of questions are interesting, and how best to get at them. There is plenty of room out there for world-class astronomy of the quirky small-science type. But there’s also an increasing need for big targeted projects to answer otherwise intractable questions. Having a passionate debate about how to balance our portfolio is a good thing; casting aspersions on the sociological tendencies of our colleagues isn’t really relevant to the discussion.

Update: Rob Knop chimes in.

From comments: Here’s video/audio for the talk at KITP that Simon White gave last summer, on which this paper is based. (Thanks to John Edge.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science
  • lake

    Hi Sean,

    the actual things that can be usefully observed in an attempt to get at dark energy will inevitably teach us many interesting things about galaxies, clusters, and large-scale structure.

    I disagree with you on this. I think Simon White made a very important point that, due to the narrow interests those “fundamentalists” have in mind when designing these dark energy experiments, we might eventually get very little astrophysics out of them (unlike the astronomers’ survey such as SDSS) despite huge amount of investment. To me, it is significant for someone with the expertise and insights like Simon White to say:

    Such surveys may not enable significant progress in other areas of astrophysics. For example, deep photometric imaging of 2 square degrees of the sky has already been completed and provides data for hundreds of thousands of faint galaxies. Rather few studies of the formation and evolution of galaxies would benefit from the 1000 times larger but otherwise similar samples provided by Dark Energy surveys.

    Simon White accurately described the mentality of the “fundamentalists”: they ignore the complexity of astrophysics and regard it as irrelevant to the “Truth” thus uninteresting. So they won’t care very much to study stuffs like the properties, diversities and environments of low-z supernova. However, it appears very likely to me that the “boring” astrophysics will make the fundamentalist-oriented surveys to be fruitless in the end…

  • Laura N.

    And all this time I thought the way to get funding was to insert “Mars” in the proposal…thank god for search-and-replace keyboard functions.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Here is an idea: instead of disparaging the personality flaws and hypothetical motivations of other scientists, let’s make the positive case for the kind of science that we think is interesting, and why it deserves funding. In the long run that will be much more persuasive.

  • http://www.amandabauer.blogspot.com/ astropixie

    i’ve personally seen the effects of large collaborations in astronomy. the first round of telescope proposals i submitted as a grad student were all turned down with the comment “wait for [insert large survey] data to be released”. the problem is that survey data takes years to be observed, reduced, sifted through by collaboration members and publicly released… which is/was too long a time scale for me to use in my dissertation. ultimately, i’ve been able to piece together a good dataset by combining many different publicly available datasets with my own spurious observations… but it is a disappointing prospect for my future in astronomy if i can’t continue to do interesting science without becoming a member of a large collaboration…

    (i guess its arguable that i just need to be a little more clever with my ideas… ;)

  • John Edge

    There are recordings available on the KITP website, both audio and video (in Real… format) of a “blackboard lunch” talk at the KITP given by Simon White in July 2006, entitled “Why Dark Energy May Be Bad for Astronomy”. Take this link. Very interesting ideas presented including some about the culture around astronomy – both within the professional community and in wider society.

  • Elliot

    So let me ask a simple layman’s question. If Dark Energy represents approximately 75% energy in of the universe, doesn’t it almost automatically jump to the top of the list of things that need explaining?

    I disagree with the entire premise that things are “good or bad” for astronomy. Nobody asked for Dark Energy to show up, it is an outcome of observations. Whatever ways make it understandable or accessible are fine with me. Be they small or large.

    Elliot

  • loonunit

    Sean: “lay the smack down.” Separate words. As opposed to “Dark Energy Smackdown! All z>2 supernovae, all the time! Call 1800555555 and ask your NSF funding provider for MORE SMACKDOWN!”

    Sorry, it’s driving me nutso.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Like many compound words, this usage of “smackdown” began life as two separate words, but is increasingly written as a single word (e.g.). Like we used to say “Inter Net.” I’m just a bit ahead of the curve.

  • loonunit

    Too far ahead of fashion is out of fashion.

  • Jack

    While I agree that we should try to be polite, I have to say: we don’t have *a clue* about what 75% of the universe is made of….and you want to tell me that the other stuff he mentions is “as interesting”? Come on. Being polite doesn’t absolve us of the duty to speak the truth. Dark energy *is* enormously more important than anything else, even if you don’t give a damn about particle physics!

  • gbob

    While I agree that White has some valid points about the need for balance and examining whether a particular project gives good scientific value for the dollar, its hard to get past the whining. Not to mention the gratuitous attacks on particle physicists, or that he apparently has no idea how particle physics collaborations actually work. And yet he claims astronomers are good at understanding complex interrelated systems with incomplete data…

  • Mark Srednicki

    This is an important issue, so it’s vital to get good data.

    Google shows 1.1 million hits for “smack down”, but 8.8 million for “smackdown”. (In fact, when you search for “smack down”, Googe asks if you don’t actually mean “smackdown”.)

    But the phrase “lays the smack down” wins out over “lays the smackdown”, 24,400 to 16,700. This validates the distinction made by loonunit. On the other hand, the top 10 hits for “lays the smackdown” include articles by MSNBC and AP, so this phrasing is being validated by MSM editors. (The top 10 hits for “lays the smack down” include no MSM sources.) I conclude that Sean is just about even with the curve.

  • Brian Gerke

    I haven’t had time to read the whole article, but while I’m sympathetic to the general argument, I’m suspicious that I’ll disagree with it in detail. For example, as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about ancillary science that you can get from dark-energy-oriented surveys, I’m completely dumbfounded by the statement (see comment #1) that a bigger dataset won’t help us much in understanding galaxy formation. I mean, look how much more we know about the local galaxy population now that we have SDSS! Two square degrees is bupkes by comparison. I work on a three-square-degree survey, and I can’t wait for the next generation of deep surveys.

    The point is this. The “culture of astronomy”–the tendency to be interested ina broad array of topics–really arose because, when you look carefully at the sky, you tend to see things that you weren’t necessarily looking for. This will continue to be the case, no matter whether we’re looking for Dark Energy, killer asteroids, or little green men. Heck, even WMAP, that supposedly laserlike “particle physics” experiment has produced science that has nothing at all to do with cosmology. (It’s become clear that we don’t totally understand the microwave emission from our own galaxy, for example.) So I think, as long as we’re doing astronomy, the “culture” of astronomy must remain, even as the budgets and the teams swell with particle types.

    Then again, Simon is both older and smarter than I, so what do I know? I’m probably just being a wide-eyed idealist grad student.

  • Christopher Hirata

    While I too agree with some of Simon White’s conclusions (especially that the broader impact on astrophysics should be an important criterion in selecting dark energy projects), I have to take issue with some of his other points. To be specific:

    1. There is plenty of interesting astrophysics to be done in large surveys of the type being considered for dark energy projects. The astrophysical figure of merit of an imaging survey is inherently many-dimensional, and includes angular coverage as well as sensitivity, number of filters, and resolution. For example:

    a) Most of the Galactic structure science that came out of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) would have been impossible in a survey that covered a few square degrees, even if it went to 30th magnitude.

    b) Galaxy clustering and galaxy-galaxy lensing have proven to be invaluable tools in probing the relation of galaxies to their host dark matter haloes. Yet even in the SDSS with 10^6 spectra and several times 10^7 source galaxies for lensing, some investigations (such as lensing by rare classes of objects) are still statistics-limited!

    Of course, opportunities like these can be lost if people from the relevant areas of astrophysics are not present (or are ignored) when the surveys are designed. I for one think this would be a shame.

    2. I do not think it would be a bad thing if astrophysicists did some “nourishing” of “data-processing/statistics skills.” I have seen more than a few papers on galaxy formation/evolution (no names here — I’m not trying to embarrass anyone) whose conclusions are suspect (or even wrong) because of data processing/statistics issues. I realize that astrophysics is often not a “precision” subject and it is much more than calculating error bars, but this does not obviate the need to get one’s error bars right.

    As an example of why astrophysics can benefit from advanced data processing, consider the maps of polarized Galactic emission from WMAP, which are the first all-sky Galactic polarization maps whose interpretation is not clouded by severe Faraday rotation. Nothing of the sort would be remotely possible in a culture where the images are reduced by a lone graduate student spending six months with a canned software package.

    To answer the concern about whether data processing is creative: there is a large amount of creativity involved in the process, although as with everything else each new idea takes a substantial amount of hard work (math, coding, etc.) to turn into reality. Also it is often hidden from view because e.g. WMAP talks always show a picture of the satellite and a picture of the CMB sky, but for some reason never show a viewgraph containing the code that estimates the sidelobes.

    3. I very much agree with Simon White that astrophysical systematic errors are a serious problem for dark energy investigations, and that proponents of certain projects have likely underestimated them. Right now, this unfortunate human tendency is checked mainly by the desire of each program to uncover everyone else’s warts. The good news is that there are people working on ways of identifying, constraining, and removing these systematics both in current data and working on algorithms for doing this in future data. The bad news is that (A) the ratio of project proponents to people doing hard work on systematics is too high; and (B) project proponents are often fearful of drawing too much attention to the open issues in systematics because they don’t want to look bad. I suspect that both of these problems in dark energy studies are fundamentally cultural. (A) occurs because trying to understand systematics in X cosmological probe is not a good way to get a job when there are people on committees who denigrate the work as “not real physics” or “only math/statistics”. (B) occurs because the standard of proof in astronomy is usually pretty low — I have seen claims of “significant detection” meaning that the *90%* confidence region excludes no effect that have been taken seriously by the community. (This would be laughed at in particle physics.) I suspect that trying to force the “traditional astronomy” culture (which has produced many advances, but also with many false steps that were eventually corrected) onto cosmology will not help these problems, it will only make them worse. I should add that (B) is also encouraged by the far too many people arrogant enough to believe they already “know” the answer to dark energy (w = -1 +/- 0) and accept uncritically any result that agrees with their belief. (I’m glad to report I haven’t seen this attitude on display here.)

    Like it or not, low-redshift cosmology needs to develop a culture in which eliminating instrumental and astrophysical systematics is just as valued as other contributions. The consequences if we do not are that we will remain ignorant of the basic phenomenological properties of 70% of the universe.

  • http://www.mikepeel.net/ Mike Peel

    Mark: interesting results. Will you be extending them to look at other search engines? What effects do you expect from Internet Variance (i.e. there’s only one internet)? ;)

    In relation to the article, I would say that being able to do general surveys is great – but they will only get us so far. Dedicated instruments looking for specific, important things are already routine – take the large amount of CMB experiments for example, or the many (radio) telescope receivers built for specific things – and inevitably additional information on the universe comes out of them (look at all of the galactic work that WMAP has done, for example). I really hope that we don’t go to the extrema that particle physics is at, with only a couple of research-class instruments in the world, but I doubt that will happen in the near (

  • http://www.mikepeel.net/ Mike Peel

    Oops: your blog doesn’t like less-than symbols. :-/ Here’s the rest of my post:

    … but I doubt that will happen in the near (less than 50 years) future.

    Fundamentally, astronomy is a science where you can go out and build a telescope/receiver relatively cheaply, and get publication-quality results out of it that contain interesting science. Until that changes, which will most likely be never (assuming technology keeps improving and dropping in price), we don’t have to fear becoming “particle-physics Borg”.

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben

    I will guess that to understand the aim of Simon White’s essay, one would also have to know more about the poltiical context. I will guess (and I really am guessing) that it is in part a reaction to recent developments like the Dark Energy Task Force and the Quarks to the Cosmos report (http://www.quarkstothecosmos.org/, http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/315/5808/59). I am sure that the Quarks to the Cosmos authors would disagree, but one interpretation is that it is a mid-decade redirection of priorities which rewrites the previous astronomy & astrophysics Decadal Survey. Specifically, it seems interested in selling astronomical projects as a tool for probing fundamental physics, and perhaps not so much as ends in themselves. (I’m not _yet_ ready to endorse this interpretation.) This predictably will get people’s backs up.

    By the way, Sean, if you’re going to call astrophysicists’ mode of operation “small-scale and nimble and charming,” why not go all the way and call us “quaint”? I don’t think you intended it to sound patronizing, but it does. It is Physicist Disease. I have a physics degree, and can recognize it.

    Finally, there are multiple cultural differences between large experimental physics collaborations and large astrophysical surveys. Just one example: Nearly all major astronomical surveys have obligations to release data in usable catalog forms (SDSS is one example). So far as I know, few particle experiments do this. They are not under the obligation to take data in such a manner as to enable other projects by other people. This may not be an issue for collider experiments, but it can spell trouble when grafting that model onto astronomy.

  • waveghost

    “astronomy is one of those nice fields in which it’s hard to learn about one thing without learning about something else”
    I agree with you!We must learn the world in many different ways,and understand the world in many different ways,and may be they will all or some of them are proven to be true,and this will give birth to a better way of understanding the world.

  • Hiranya

    I agree with three of Simon’s points:

    1. Concentrating on dark energy to the exclusion of everything else in astronomy is a Bad Thing (who is promoting or advocating this??)

    2. Dark energy experiments need to provide realistic (not optimistic) estimates of their systematic issues and how they plan to address them, and also be judged on the basis of serendipitous observations that benefit the rest of astronomy.

    3. One should not have to slap a “cosmology” label on a project which is of much more “astrophysical” interest than “cosmological”, in order to get it funded.

    I disagree with most of the rest of the paper:

    1. It seems to me to be very unscientific to “assume” the dark sector (95% of the universe) is extremely simple and there is nothing more to be discovered except errorbars tightening around w=-1. The 4% “we understand” is not “simple”. Many times we think we understand something and then try to go and measure it better, we figure out something amazing and new, and the discovery of dark energy is a case in point. The “physics experiment” WMAP has produced a nice model of the large scale magnetic field of the Galaxy. It also has the best measurements of the temperature of the atmosphere of Jupiter.

    2. Data processing and statistics of the sort employed in cosmology and particle physics are not creative…? It takes a lot of innovation, creative thinking, and yes, extremely hard work to learn about the universe with the methods of cosmology. Displaying a sneering attitude towards these skills and saying cosmologists are not generalists is very counterproductive. Most cosmologists I know have a huge dynamic range of research interests (out of necessity). In addition to cosmology talks, I go to almost all the astronomy talks and about half the physics talks, and this is very common of my colleagues. I completely agree with Chris’s point that many astronomy papers could use a good dose of rigorous statistical methods and clear distinction between assumptions, methods, results and interpretation – not all “physicist’s” skills are inapplicable to astronomers.

    3. I was very bemused by constant references to the public support astronomy gains from the amateur community, and that fundamental physics has little public support base. This is completely not in accord with my experience (speaking as a former amateur astronomer myself). I have talked at many astronomy clubs (and to members of the public in many other situations) and upon learning that I am cosmologist they often ask detailed and interesting questions, and they are mostly about black holes, the Big Bang, and yes, dark energy. A significant part of public is deeply interested in fundamental questions about the universe, which is something I find extremely gratifying.

    4. I am similarly bemused by the implication that a 2 degree survey has given us all the information we will ever need about galaxy formation / evolution, and a big, deep, multicolour imaging and spectroscopic survey can add nothing further.

    5. The implication that cosmologists are (or will in the future) become uncreative “drones” in large collaborations seems to me to be a bit alarmist. For example, even now, most CMB experiments are small collaborations in which a group of people design and build an experiment, and take data and analyse it in such a way that this can be a student’s thesis. Also, the idea that the most creative people will be put off by being unable to get credit for first or single author credit in their field and not want to think about “fundamental physics” and go off into condensed matter and biology seems to me to be an over-generalization. There are plenty of the best people around who are not motivated in their research by credit and self-promotion, but by their deep curiosity about the universe.

  • Irate Particle Physicist

    I’m suppose to take seriously someone who labels me and my colleagues “fundamentalists”?!?

    Excuse me while I go kick an astro grad student. Might kill a puppy while I’m at it, too.

    -Irate Particle Physicist

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/interactions Rob Knop

    It’s not primarily a matter of cultures or sociology; it’s a matter of the science questions we are trying to address.

    To be fair, White does address that. It is a difference of culture, but the culture arises from the nature of the questions, and what is needed to address them.

    However, the immediate effects are cultural.

    I know from first hand experience that using the term “dark energy “doesn’t get you funding. When I was first at Vanderbilt, I was still trying to be a member of the Supernova Cosmology Project. I would write proposals. The reviews would come back saying that they loved the science, but what was *I* going to do? The problem was, I was part of a big group. I could describe my roll in the group, and describe the group’s plans for the next few years, but even though I was on the Executive Committee of the SCP, I was hardly in a position to dictate unilaterally a direction for the group.

    Perhaps my problem was honesty; perhaps I should have claimed more ability than I had, and perhaps I should have said “this is me, me, me, all me.”

    The fact is that I was coming from a group that was steeped in the culture of particle physics, and trying to convince a panel steeped in the culture of astronomy (where it is the Warrior Hero Professor and his or her Faithful Single Post-Doc and Two Graduate Students) to fund me. They didn’t “get” the group membership thing. And, yes, because people who don’t get funding always grumble, to be fair I have to say that I didn’t do a good enough job describing it. But it was frustrating; I wasn’t sure it could be described. It might be easier now, but I don’t know about it.

    Being in the particle physics community can be destructive for an astronomer’s career. Post-docs in the SCP would occasionally whinge that we weren’t getting enough papers out, in particular first-author papers. We were told, “oh, don’t worry, in particle physics people understand who made the contributions.” I’m not sure it’s worked, though. I will say that the letters of recommendation got me a job even though I had zero first-author SCP papers during my five years with the SCP at LBL, but it doesn’t seemed to have worked as well for most others.

    I have also talked to astronomers who comment on people applying from a large project like Sloane. “It’s impossible to know what they did,” is what I hear. I object that, well, if you look past the papers and at the recommendations and such, you can figure that out. But, the very reasonable response is: there’s enough of a supply of top-notch Steidel graduate students and the like that there’s no need to go digging into Sloane to figure out which post-docs are really worth it.

    It doesn’t make sense to “blame” the culture of particle physics, or the culture of astronomy — but the cultural divide needs to be recognized, and young people who think that they might be able to bridge the culture in one direction or the other need to be strongly cautioned that old attitudes die very, very hard.

    -Rob (who wonders why he didn’t just post all of this on his own blog!)

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/interactions Rob Knop

    Here is an idea: instead of disparaging the personality flaws and hypothetical motivations of other scientists,

    This is a great idea, and there would be a huge side benefit: faculty meetings would be much, much shorter if we stopped doing that!

  • anon

    Rob, it seems to me that if the culture of astronomy is preventing career progress for people who are interested in answering a fundamental physics question which can only be investigated through astronomical observations, the solution is not for young people to be cautioned from doing research in that area, but for the culture of astronomy to change to accommodate them and recognize their importance. It is unlikely that the hero(ine) professor and two grad students are going to solve the dark energy puzzle any time soon.

  • http://mollishka.blogspot.com mollishka

    I confess I haven’t read everything here yet (I had to dash to the airport after Hiranya’s talk yesterday), but here’s a manual trackback anyway.

  • Ellipsis

    agree with Hirata’s, Elliot’s, Gerke’s, Hiranya’s comments (and the others in this line of reasoning)…

    not to mention that the idea of “small astronomy” was, is, and certainly is becoming _far_ more of a myth than reality — HST, Spitzer, + large ground-based projects like Keck, Gemini, etc easily compete well with, and in the case of HST & JWST, easily beat, accelerator projects in cost. Not that that’s in the slightest bit wasteful, it’s just a fact, and there needs to be a moratorium on whining between fields about who’s taking a bigger (tiny) slice of pie.

    I’d posit that Simon’s argument is much more akin to “fundamentalist” religious types than the arguments of people after fundamental properties of nature.

  • David Bennett

    I agree with Simon’s views on the likely limitations of what we are likely to learn about dark energy and the importance of many areas of “non-fundamental” astronomy, I must say that I think his views on astronomy vs. physics culture are almost completely wrong. Astronomy gains much more than it loses by importing parts of the “physics culture”.

    Simon presents a caricature of physics culture as the culture of giant particle accelerator experiments, so I’ll retaliate by starting with a simplistic and somewhat unfair caricature of “astronomy culture”: astronomy is done on general purpose telescopes using general purpose instruments and general purpose data reduction software provided by NOAO or ESO. No “creativity” is involved in building the telescope, instrument, or writing the data reduction software, so sole credit for the science goes to the users of these tools. This traditional astronomy mode allows astronomers to address a very wide range of problems, but it often seems that astronomers rely upon this mode of research too much. As a result, a large fraction of the breakthroughs in astronomy come from physicists who cross over into astronomy. Examples include the expansion of astronomy into radio, x-ray and gamma ray wavelengths and the introduction of CCD detectors. Other examples include gravitational microlensing surveys and the type 1a supernovae surveys that produced the first convincing evidence for dark energy in the first place. As a founding member of the MACHO Project, I can say that something like 90% of astronomers thought that we would fail to get any useful results – largely because most astronomers couldn’t seem to imagine how a project requiring more than 10 people could succeed. The Supernova Cosmology Project also faced similar skepticism.

    The abhorrence for large projects by astronomers also seems to cause significant problems for astronomy when large projects are undertaken. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) is a good example of this. For many years it was considered a prime example of large project mismanagement, and it was only after a group of particle physicists was brought in that it succeeded (at something like 5 times the original projected cost). Similarly, part of the blame for the HST spherical aberration can be attributed to the distaste of astronomers for getting involved in such a large project (as is made clear in a famous “letter to the community” from Jim Gunn).

    Finally, Simon’s attempt to support his claims with publication statistics seem particularly silly. The threshold to get a paper accepted for publication is so low that it is absurd to imply, as Simon does, that productivity is somehow related to some count of papers published. By Simon’s reasoning, the 70′s and 80′s would have been a much more productive period for CMBR spectrum measurements than the early 90′s when COBE/FIRAS provided the data set that settled all questions in the field. The 70′s and 80′s were full of measurements of different points on the spectrum with periodic blizzards of theory papers explaining each exciting (but ultimately wrong) data point that seemed to differ from the standard Big Bang.

    I think that the publication trends that Simon has identified are actually signs that the field is growing more healthy by abandoning some of the traditional astronomy culture of very small research projects in favor of larger groups when there is a clear scientific benefit. Our research would progress much more slowly without the help of the “physics culture”.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Ben (17) — I, on the other hand, do not have a physics degree; both my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in astronomy. So I can’t agree with your diagnosis.

    Does nobody get that when I contrast “nimble and charming” with “joining the Borg” I am exaggerating each position for rhetorical effect?

  • Diogenes

    “I’m suppose to take seriously someone who labels me and my colleagues “fundamentalists”?!?
    Excuse me while I go kick an astro grad student. Might kill a puppy while I’m at it, too.”
    -Irate Particle Physicist

    With respect, I think that you’re taking this entirely the wrong way. That a leading astrophysicist like Simon White would single out the “culture” of particle physics as being such a threat because “The pursuit of a deeper truth, of a fundamental theory which underlies all the others is a powerful motivator in physics” actually sounds rather complimentary to me. I mean, who wouldn’t want to “abstract from the complexity of the world a truth which embodies the ultimate foundation of the physics of particles and fields, thus by extension, of all physics, chemistry, and biology”? What an endorsement! Can we put this guy on retainer?

    All along I have been puttering along in my reasearch, looking at the data here, “constucting many Dark Energy Models consistent with the observed expansion and structure growth histories” there, … an innocuous activity, I assumed, but at least I got to work on something that interested me. So it was intensely gratifying to me to be informed that my dabblings represented the embodiment of an “alien” value system so irresistably seductive that astromomers would be temped to adopt it even though it would “risk undermining the foundations of their own current success and endangering the future vitality of the field”. I had no idea that I was having so much delightfully nefarious fun!

  • skeptic23

    I must have been reading a different paper, or perhaps just putting it through an astronomer filter, but I don’t see this as an attack on the culture of particle physicists. What I read Simon’s main point to be is:

    If we have a limited pot of money to fund observatories and astronomy in general, astronomers have traditionally done better by spending this money on infrastructure which is designed to be as general as possible so as to allow the brilliance of individual investigators on relatively small projects to drive the scientific discoveries instead of building a super-instrument to go after one tiny corner of astronomical data-space, and then another super-instrument to go after a different corner once we’re done with that. So perhaps we should think twice before devoting a significant chunk of the resources we’ll have for the next decade to projects which are all geared to obtain good data on one small corner of astronomy.

    In this I think Simon is absolutely correct – as he points out, while WMAP is a success, if you were to create a figure of merit to judge scientific discoveries (even per dollar spent or per year), HST would beat WMAP hands down because it has been able to make discoveries in so many different parts of astronomy.

    That said, I am a member of two different groups proposing to do dark energy surveys, and I think most of the members of the groups are already in agreement with one of Simon’s main points, although from a slightly different point of view – if we’re going to spend all this money to build observatories with the primary goal of measuring dark energy, we’re going to build these to also bring back the best, most widely-varied data sets possible in the course of doing this.

  • Eugene

    I actually have some interesting things to say about this, but I believe my comment will be eaten up by the InterNet again, and I am too lazy to write to the editors so I will simply go back to computing some 3 points.

  • Eugene

    Wow, my comment survived, so I am going to post after all!

    (a) Hiranya and Chris made the best points about how “big time particle physics” have taught the astronomy community how to do statistics. And handle large amounts of data too, for that matter.

    (b) It is not fair to compare HST with WMAP, since these two projects are orders of magnitude different in terms of money needed to run them, and isn’t White talking about money at the end? One project is Battlestar Galactica, and the other is small one man fighter sent to take out the Death Star. Being focused is not a bad thing.

    (c) The next big NASA project is the Jim Webb telescope, for all I know, a Battlestar Galactica class project.

    (d) There is nothing wrong with trying to pin down what Dark Energy is, we have to temper our enthusiasm about *what* actually we can do at the moment. No names here, but I think the current slate of experiments proposed to pin down w(z) is overly hopeful about what they can do. And I don’t mean in the systematics sense, but in the theoretical sense. I mean : how many of you actually believe that w(z) is going to vary sufficiently around the limited z-range we can probe? We built the LHC because years of research tell us that we *gotta* see the Higgs (and if not, we will be even be happier in some sense). But where is the similar amount of theoretical research behind the dynamics of w(z)?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    That should be “Imperial Battle Cruiser,” not “Battlestar Galactica.” You don’t want to be mixing metaphors, do you?

  • Eugene

    I know, but I am very partial to Battlestar Galactica, which I think is the greatest TV show on Earth, and I don’t even own a TV.

  • David Bennett

    The HST total life-cycle cost was recently estimated at $14 billion, and I think that WMAP was something like 100 times less. So, it is pretty doubtful that HST really beats WMAP in science results per dollar.

  • http://thechocolatefish.blogspot.com/ Yvette

    From Hiranya in #19…

    3. I was very bemused by constant references to the public support astronomy gains from the amateur community, and that fundamental physics has little public support base. This is completely not in accord with my experience (speaking as a former amateur astronomer myself). I have talked at many astronomy clubs (and to members of the public in many other situations) and upon learning that I am cosmologist they often ask detailed and interesting questions, and they are mostly about black holes, the Big Bang, and yes, dark energy. A significant part of public is deeply interested in fundamental questions about the universe, which is something I find extremely gratifying.

    See, the way I see this is how, when it comes down to it, an amateur astronomer can go out into their backyard and do real science using what are essentially smaller versions of what the pros use. This is different from fundamental physics because, well, it’s not like you can get your own private particle accelerator and set it up in your backyard when you have a moment.

    Here’s the ultimate test in my mind- go to any major newsstand, and see what science magazines are sold beyond the general stuff like Discover. You will not see a physics magazine (or a chemistry or a biology one, at that), but you will see at least one or as many as five astronomy ones. This happens for a reason!

    Yes, there is a huge interest in funamental questions, of course, but I think the tendency amongst amateurs from my experience is to bunch that all under astronomy rather than to think of it as physics (because why would you be looking up without wondering about those questions in the first place?). It can be disguised very well actually- I didn’t realize until I encountered physics in uni that what I was in love with was the physics behind all the stuff I was observing. It was an interesting realization to make.

    Anyways, tirade over now…

    So I read it over, and my entire conclusion from the paper was basically “don’t be stupid and compromise good science in the name of science.” Makes sense. Didn’t we already know that though?

  • Hiranya

    Yvette: I completely agree with you – I was an amateur astronomer as a kid too, and realized in high school it was the physics and maths I was in love with. I think its stupid to drive a wedge between physics and astronomy just because you don’t like a “culture”, and say if you are an astronomer, you can’t do research on certain questions. Cultures can change, but the entire universe is the cosmologists’ playground.

    Skeptic: I doubt very much Simon intended to compare HST and WMAP in the way you are doing and state that “HST wins hands down”. HST is $14 billion dollar mission with its own Institute of hundreds of scientists to support it, and the whole NASA publicity bandwagon to promote it. WMAP is a Midex mission of 150 million (I believe 120 million of that was for the launch) and the data was processed and analyzed by a couple of dozen scientists and then made public for anyone to use. In case you don’t know, despite its relative economy, WMAP was responsible for 1% of world science in 2004, and has over 9000 citations in the SPIRES-HEP database. HST’s impact on world science is comparable. HST and WMAP are *both* spectacularly successful by any metric, and if you are arguing one over the other you gotta have *some* filter on…. I think (hope) Simon’s point is that you have to have some observatories and some focused missions (a diverse portfolio).

    Eugene: go BSG!

  • Plato

    As a lay person Elliot’s point in relation to what constitues most of the make up of the universe would seem extremely important to me as well.

    So in the earlys days of the “disaster scenarios” at the collider, strangelets were suppose to be a consequence of this collsion process. Clarifciations were done to answer this?

    Now to me this sets up what comes after, and “what if” any can contribute to the dark energy. As well, what and how it contributes to the geometrical propensity of this universe.

    While highly astronomical energy events in terms of the galaxies, what stage can these reach to contribute? You needed a reductionistic view in which to see how such contributions would fuel the dark energy/matter aspect?

    Particle showers from cosmic particle collisions? So while you have an experimental situation set up with the LHC, there was a natural process being spoken to as well.

  • Pingback: Guest blogging, insulting engineers, and insulting particle physicists « The e-Astronomer

  • Bill C

    As a particle physicist who crossed over into cosmology, I am surprised by the apparent misunderstanding on both sides of the aisle about the other. First on particle physics…
    1. It doesn’t consist only of huge collaborations, unless you consider 40-50 huge. One recent example is Kamland where a relatively small team of particle and nuclear physicists put together an experiment quickly and (again relatively) inexpensively to study neutrinos from Japanese reactors. Not only did they make an important measurement of the fundamental properties of neutrinos (oscillations) but they even found weak evidence for geo-neutrinos from the center of the earth.
    I could give other examples if people are interested.
    2. Even the huge collaborations are not monolithic. Collaborations like CDF or D0 (about 500 each) are actually federations of smaller teams studying a very wide range of phenomena in a focused way. Sure the discovery of the top quark involved hundreds but most of the publications are really the work of 3-4 people backed by cooperative working groups of 10-20. Is this unattractive to new students? It shouldn’t be. If you are a student with a good idea, you have a powerful detector at your disposal and an experienced team to help you acquire and process the data.
    3. Particle physicists don’t work in big collaborations just because they like to publish with 500 of their closest friends. Rather it is a “what the science requires ” attitude. We went through the evolution of studying diverse limited topics with small teams until it reached the point of diminishing returns on most fronts. Astronomy and astrophysics are beginning to confront similar issues in some (but not all as Simon White correcty points out) areas. Science advances by developing the necessary and appropriate tools.

    And on the astronomy and astrophysics side:

    1. I have a very healthy respect for the subtleties of astrophysical systematics. As a newcomer, many of the techniques and procedures did seem “quaint” to me at first but the more I learn the more I understand that there are good reasons for most of ways things are done. Even if I still don’t understand all the systematics I do know very well that they are there and that they will have to be understood. Any new dark energy project will have a well-thought out program for addressing them.
    2. While I freely admit that I am personally motivated by the fundamental aspect s of dark energy, I agree that an investment of the magnitude required should also address the needs of the broader astronomical community operating within their own culture. Look at all the astronomy that has come out of the SDSS and HDF. Now image 10 square degrees to 30th AB magnitude in nine well-calibrated
    bands from optical through near infrared and 4000 square degrees to 28th magnitude in the same bands, both with exquisite PSF. Studying dark energy an d traditional astronomy can co-exist in the same project. Looking at the total science per dollar is a reasonable thing to do.

  • http://www.geekier.com/ Grant K Rauscher

    what about a distributed system to allocate our interest using value trust metrics?

    seriously it is against the grain of your represented interests to attempt convincing others toward your perspective

    no conflict – collaboration is favored in surplus economies, supporting interdisciplinary engagement, so competition takes a back seat. slight indirect correlation between dollars & scientific value. :)

    in my opinion “dark energy” may attract our memetic focus unduly by misinterpretation as potential source of energy flow… seems more like inverted potential energy of finite quanta pattern

    every “point” in the dimensionally resonant universe is equally accessible to the source of infinite energy – unordered chaos – patterns osmos characteristic energies to fill sinks in harmonious balance with flow toward desired outcomes of patterned attachment

    feels like limitlessness in magnitude is assured via 2 parts unstructured energy into pattern accompanied by 1 part dissolving decay outward. energy flows in *balance* across duality into interwoven dimensions, providing less/more equivalence between contextual components/states.

    allowing the unknown/known aspects of 2 parts inward to settle toward intended results without judging fulfillment intermittently offers suspension of disbelief & necessary shifts discerned by pattern… meta-level removed from centric conscious notice

  • anonymous

    I would like to ask a very naive question (I am a grad student in astrophysics): how much attention do particle physicists pay to data analysis? Mind you, I do not doubt their results/abilities, just curious how different astrophysicists and particle physicists are when it comes to data analysis. Could someone explain in detail?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I’m not the one to give you details, but the short answer is: particle physicists pay an enormous amount of attention to data analysis. They’re the world’s experts, to a good approximation. The data rate is huge (the LHC will be recording less than a millionth of its data), and you have to be able to sift through it carefully.

  • http://www.deepgraceoftheory.wordpress.com Janet Leslie Blumberg

    Hmmm. This is fascinating, hearing different “tribes” and “alien cultures” within physics talking it out and wondering where resources should be allocated. Asad Raza over at 3 quarks daily analyzed the Dawkins-Eagleton animosity as two academic cultures — empiricim and culture studies — duking it out over “cultural capital and resources.” But you-all are so much more civilized about it!
    So here’s my question (which I’m pursuing over at my weblog, http://www.deepgraceoftheory.com). If we stepped back and returned to Plato and Aristotle for a fresh look at the various legitimate and genuine ways of knowing, could scientists seeking knowledge of various complex facets of the natural world and theists seeking knowledge in various religious traditions and areas of theology of the practice of their relationship with God ever respect one another and “affirm one another’s full humanity”?
    It’s tragic that hardheaded scientistic religious people are wrongheadedly attempting to foist their “creation science” onto science classrooms. They do so because they too have been indoctrinated by this reductive late-modern outlook that scientific “fact” is the only kind of truth that matters, that is “really” true. That is how I would define “fundamentalism,” as the belief that only one’s OWN way of knowing gets at “fundamental reality.”
    But isn’t it equally tragic for equally hardheaded scientistic scientists to use science to attack people’s most treasured experiences and practices, by claiming that science can somehow know these are illusory, when science isn’t addressed to exploring such questions or areas of human experience at all. Will the fundamental GUT when it arrives and if it arrives show that our well-nigh religious devotion to music or sports or other things we humans hold sacred are unreasonable because they do not explain the workings of the physical world?
    Religion has many many aspects and is a complex social phenomenon, but in my own fields of epistemology and literary theory, it has always been deeply respected in various manifestations as carrying our exploration of realities we formalize further. Religious thinkers, who include Plato and Aristotle, have thought within their disciplined interpretive communities with great precision and rigor, and history has not undone the value of their contributions any more than science has left behind Newton’s contributions while recasting or re-orienting them.
    I understand the rancor that arises when one tradition threatens another in its very identity, as religious fundamentalists threaten the science classroom and scientific methodology.
    But wouldn’t greater clarity about where our ways of knowing LEAVE OFF contribute to more honesty and intellectual clarity in the future? I suspect the polls showing support for IT or creation science to be taught along with evolution reflect a deep sense of unfairness and disesteem that people feel over the way that evolution has been taught and represented as demolishing faith in God.
    Human beings whose religious practice is central to their identity know they are being patronized and discounted in a way that is not fair or intellectually honest. (Personally, I don’t think we would have the red-state phenomenon in such an extreme form if university intellectuals hadn’t been so consistently arrogant towards less “educated” people, another thing the Greek vision of the ways of knowing tends to alleviate.)
    One has only to look at the quality and numbers of scientists who are devout Christians, or Jews, or Muslims (and so on) to see this unfairness. These human beings belong to both cultures and include great scientists like Polkinghorne or Polanyi.
    P.S. I ask a question about Copenhagen interpretations of quantum mechanics vis-a-vis “physical reality” over in my Pages, under “The Fundamental Paradox of Late Twentieth-Century Thought.” Could anyone help me out with that? http://www.deepgraceoftheory.com

  • http://masonmade.com Mason Inman

    I’m not sure why Sean says this paper is supposed to appear in Nature. The arxiv page says, “Essay commissioned for publication in Reports on Progress in Physics.”

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Oops, that was a mistake; it just seemed to be formatted in Nature’s style.

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben

    Sean, re (27), sorry, I should have been more clear that I didn’t think you were patronizing, but that the language is charged enough to be playing with fire. I appreciate that you were trying to exaggerate two opposing positions, but it is an asymmetric situation. Some (not all) people near the top of the funding pyramid may not mind the comparison to the Borg. They want to run a big enterprise. The rest of us are a little defensive about realignments of funding priorities.

    I don’t think the comparison of HST and WMAP was well-chosen. There are plenty of relatively directed astrophysical or astronomical projects like WMAP, nor should any rational person say WMAP was imposed on the astrophysics world by physics outsiders. A better comparison of the two cultures might be HST to LIGO or (God help us every one, in terms of schedule at least) Gravity Probe B.

    Although JWST is a very large project, it is a general purpose observatory with a GO (Guest Observer) program, like HST and like most major observatories. By comparison, you can’t even get access to LIGO data without joining the consortium. Now, there are reasons for this, and if I had access to LIGO data I wouldn’t know what to do with it. But running the next big project like a Dark Energy Telescope/Satellite (whatever it happens to be) in this way could be a real problem.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/interactions Rob Knop

    not to mention that the idea of “small astronomy” was, is, and certainly is becoming _far_ more of a myth than reality

    This is wrong, by the way.

    There still are a vast number of astronomers who live primarily using small telescopes.

    Some of them also use national facilities– but nowadays, a 4m telescope is considered small.

    All of the observing I’ve done since leaving the Supernova Cosmology project has been done on 1m, 1.5m, and 3.5m telescopes. I have put in an HST proposal or two, but they’ve been turned down. I’ve got a Chandra proposal waiting.

    But, there’s another way in which it’s wrong.

    JWST and HST, while being as costly as a particle physics project, are not monolithic projects the way particle physics detectors are. The typical accelerator will have a collaboration of no more than a handful of mammoth groups each building a big detector complex.

    In contrast, in astronomy, the expensive “general use” facilities get used by a wide range of observers, from groups large and small. This is another way in which “small” astronomy very much does exist. Not necessarily in cost, but certainly in the organization of the research teams.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/interactions Rob Knop

    The HST total life-cycle cost was recently estimated at $14 billion, and I think that WMAP was something like 100 times less. So, it is pretty doubtful that HST really beats WMAP in science results per dollar.

    I’d take that bet in a second.

    100x more science from HST than WMAP? Easily!

    100x as much “high profile” science? No. More like 10x as much.

    But as for science itself, I’d guess that HST has generated many more than 100x as much science as WMAP.

    -Rob

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/interactions Rob Knop

    It doesn’t consist only of huge collaborations, unless you consider 40-50 huge.

    To an astronomer, that is huge.

    The mere fact that various cosmology groups– supernova groups and the like– came in with author lists this size and required the AAS to re-think the way they handled author lists for papers submitted to their conferences indicates that 40-50 is a regime of author number that had not been much explored by astronomy before the late 1990′s.

    -Rob

  • David Bennett

    Rob, re (48) – by science results per dollar, I really meant to refer to the total scientific value of the science results – not the number of results. The folks that foot the bill for WMAP and HST (i.e. taxpayers) do not care about the number of papers published – they expect major scientific advances from these expensive instruments. So, your numbers seem to imply that WMAP should beat HST by a large margin in “high profile” science per dolar. I suppose that HST also provides some value beyond the pure science results, however, since it provides a lot more support to the astronomy community and does much better at communicating with the public than any other astronomical facility.

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    Rob Knop is absolutely correct, astronomy is still dominated by small groups, but it should be pointed out that there is a move in at least some observatories to favour large projects with presumably a large number of astronomers.

    This is being done by setting aside a large fraction of available observing time for large projects. For someone who does not work on such a team, the chance of getting observing time goes down. If you are doing optical observing, there are plenty of 1 to 4 M class telescopes so it won’t be too much of a hindrance. It is a hindrance if one wants to do radio observations since there are far fewer radio telescopes than optical telescopes. This has been my own experience.

    Does anyone know what the policy will be with regards to small progects versus large when ALMA and the SKA are completed ?

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    I should also add that there are not that many 8 or 10 m class optical telescopes either, so I wonder if people wanting to do small projects with are having a harder time.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/interactions Rob Knop

    Rob, re (48) – by science results per dollar, I really meant to refer to the total scientific value of the science results – not the number of results.

    As did I.

    I do not equate “high profile” with “high scientific value,” necessarily.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/interactions Rob Knop

    I should also add that there are not that many 8 or 10 m class optical telescopes either, so I wonder if people wanting to do small projects with are having a harder time.

    I’m on the NOAO time allocation committee. Formally, the oversubscription of the 8m Gemini telescopes isn’t all that much higher than the oversubscription of the 4m telescopes, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. I know that there is a sense among astronomers that it’s “hopeless to get 8m time,” and so won’t as readily apply. It would be extremely challenging to correct for this systematic effect.

    There’s also the fact that a fair number of institutions have some sort of dedicated access to 1m class telescopes. I do here at Vanderbilt. However, only a very, very few select institutions have dedicated access to 10m class telescopes. (If you’re at Caltech, you’re as glass-wealthy as one can be.) Not even very many institutions have much dedicated access to 4m telescopes, although that number is probably 5x as high as the number that have dedicated access to 10m class telescopes.

    I think, at the moment, the Europeans have it better than the USAians.

    While the largest single chunks of the national 8m telescopes are probably going to larger projects (although, again, “larger” in astronomy tends to be 10-20 authors rather than 100-500), most of the time still goes to a large number of projects with relatively few (

  • Hiranya

    Hi Rob, it seems to me that “high scientific value” is inherently in the eye of the beholder and at least somewhat influenced by one’s own research interests. For example, NASA uses the Science News metrics to evaluate the science impact of its space missions, and these do not show the dramatic difference in impact you claim between HST and WMAP. Also, if one’s research interests are limited to astro-ph, one may miss the dramatic impact the latter has had on hep-th. I really don’t see why we should be forced to choose one over the other (I am certainly not going to criticize either, as I worked on one and am funded by the other!).

    Addressing this question more generally, maybe this is naively idealistic, but in the face of scarce funding, should we be casting aspersions on one another’s science, or banding together and lobbying for more funding? I mean, now we are forced to choose between LISA, Con-Ex, JDEM etc. All promise wonderful science returns. I would find it very sad to have to choose.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/interactions Rob Knop

    Hiranya — I fully agree. And, indeed, while Simon White is taking a bit of a beating in these parts, I think that’s part of his point as well. He isn’t arguing that the culture of high energy physics is bad, or that Dark Energy isn’t something that should be fully investigated. What he’s arguing is that in times of budget crunch, the danger of jumping on that bandwagon is that we might lose other opportunities.

    We have to recognize that there *is* another culture, and that valuable science remains to be done both ways.

    -Rob

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw/ Ben

    I think we do have to make tough choices, although hopefully without permanent damage from backbiting. The Decadal Survey is part of that – every ten years the astronomy community tries to rank its priorities. I have heard that funding sources and Congress appreciate this exercise in self-evaluation. However, mid-decade reviews may revise this previously constructed set of compromises, for example the NSF Senior Review and the Quarks to the Cosmos initiative I referred to above. Some of this is because new connections with physics are attracting attention, like dark energy, and some is because of major budget crunches and funding shifts – NASA’s exploration initiative and (cough) our government’s current overseas expenditures.

    Some amount of difficult choice making is inevitable. However, for example look at the Quarks to the Cosmos non-technical briefing book (warning, 35 MByte pdf slideshow). It will all be great science, but it’s also all about how we should observe the universe in order to do physics. There isn’t any mention that the astrophysical sources are interesting in their own right. Maybe that is a deliberate choice to sell the program to a physics constituency. However, it leads to worries that astrophysics will be the side order to the physics dinner.

  • Hiranya

    But are these worries founded in fact? I have read the Decadal Survey and the highest priority on that is an observatory, JWST, which appears to me to have a firmly secure line of funding. The Decadal Survey appeared to have a nicely balanced set of astronomy-based and physics-based funding priorities. Rather than the astronomy-based programs, it’s the physics-based programs (the Beyond Einstein missions) that appear to have been hit with funding cuts and reordering of priorities. Maybe the Quarks to the Cosmos initiative is an attempt to stem this trend (I have never heard of this before so I don’t know for sure). In any case, the budget crunch appears to be affecting the BE missions, not the astronomy/observatory ones, and it can only be a bad thing if astronomers turn on them too.

  • WeemaWhopper

    I think White’s essay is a satire.

    To characterize High Energy Physics by two projects… WMAP and one dedicated dark energy experiment had me laughing out loud, and when White characterized astronomers as `generalists,’ I fell off my chair.

    How could a generalist be so ignorant of the scope and range of High Energy Physics? White is simply pulling our legs with a joke essay.

    High Energy Physics is not just looking for dark energy and the Higgs. It includes matter-antimatter mixing (recent results on B_s and D_0 mixing), lots of spectroscopy (D_s** and D** have had a lot of play in the past few years), study of a wide variety of particle production and decay mechanisms, and an extremely wide variety of experimental technique. Many of these techniques for a rather rich loam that all sorts of innovation arise from… let’s see, who developed the technique that led to the Keck Mirrors? Why, an ex-HEP physicist from Luis Alvarez’ group.

    And the data processing for LSST? HEP again.

    Simon White is parading around with no clothes, and it is really quite hilarious. He must be an exhibitionist.

    Now if there are specific projects like a dedicated DE explorer that are poor projects, by all means go after them. But to indict a whole field in order to do so is laughable.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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