What Is Interesting?

By Sean Carroll | December 20, 2007 1:50 pm

Lurking behind the debate over the high energy physics budget is a meta question that rarely gets addressed head-on: in a world with many things that we would like to do, but limited resources to do them, how do we decide what questions are interesting enough to warrant our attention? This question arises at every level. If we have a certain number of dollars to spend on particle physics, how much should go to the high-energy frontier and how much to smaller-scale experiments? Within fundamental science, how much should go to physics and how much to biology or astronomy or whatever? And it’s not just money: within a university, how many faculty positions should go to historians, and how many to archaeologists? Within philosophy, how many logicians do we need, and how many ethicists? It’s not even an especially academic question: which book am I going to bring with me to read on the plane?

There are a number of issues that get tied up in such considerations. One is that certain activities simply require certain resources, so if we judge them sufficiently interesting to be pursued then we need to be prepared to devote the appropriate resources their way. A colleague of mine in condensed-matter physics was fond of complaining about all the great small-scale physics that his community could do if they only had half of Fermilab’s budget. Which is undoubtedly true, but with half of Fermilab’s budget you wouldn’t get half the science out of Fermilab — you wouldn’t get anything at all. If that kind of particle physics is worth doing at all (which is a completely fair question), there is an entry fee you can’t avoid paying.

But more deeply, the problem is that there is no intrinsic property of “interestingness” that we can compare across different academic questions. Questions are not interesting in and of themselves; they are interesting to somebody. If I happen to not be interested in the American Civil War, and a friend of mine thinks it’s fascinating, that doesn’t mean that one of us is “right” and the other “wrong”; it just means that we have different opinions about the interestingness of that particular subject. It’s precisely the same kind of personal decision that goes into preferences for different kinds of music or cuisine. The difference is that, unlike CD’s or appetizers, we don’t consume these goods individually; we need to make some collective decision about how to allocate our intellectual resources.

People pretend that there are objective criteria, of course. The standard battle lines within physics are drawn between research that is “fundamental” and research that is “useful.” I was once in the audience for a colloquium by Steven Weinberg, back in the days when we were still planning on the Superconducting Supercollider, and he was talking about why particle physics was worthy of substantial investment: “People sometimes object to the way we speak about particle physics, objecting that we give the impression that it’s more `fundamental’ than other fields. But I think it’s okay, because … well, it is more fundamental.” Contrariwise, I’ve heard condensed-matter physicists wonder with a straight face why anyone in the general public would be interested in books on string theory and cosmology. After all, those subjects have no impact at all on their everyday lives, so what is the possible interest?

In reality, there is no objective metaphysical standard to separate the interesting from the uninteresting. There are a bunch of human beings with different interests, and we have the social task of balancing them. A complication arises in the context of academia, where we don’t weigh everyone’s interests equally — there are experts whose opinions count for more than those on the streets. And that makes sense; even if I have no idea which directions in contemporary chemistry or French literature are interesting, I am more than willing to leave such questions in the hands of people who care deeply and have contributed to the fields.

The real problem, of course, is that sometimes we have to compare between fields, so that decisions have to be made by people who are almost certainly not experts in all of the competing interests. We have, for example, the danger of self-perpetuation, where a small cadre of experts in an esoteric area continue to insist on the importance of their work. That’s where it becomes crucial to be able to explain to outsiders why certain questions truly are interesting, even if the outsiders can’t appreciate all the details. In fundamental physics, we actually have a relatively easy time of it, our fondness for kvetching notwithstanding; it’s not too hard to appreciate the importance of concepts like “the laws of nature” and “the beginning of the universe,” even to people who don’t follow the math. Making a convincing request for a billion dollars is, of course, a different story.

Sadly, none of these high-minded considerations are really at work in the current budget debacle. High-energy physics seems to be caught in a pissing match between the political parties, each of whom wants to paint the other as irresponsible.

The White House and congressional leaders exchanged barbs Tuesday over who was to blame for the Fermilab impasse. Lawmakers said the Bush administration’s tight overall budget targets tied their hands, while a spokesman for Bush’s Office of Management and Budget said the Democratic leaders could have met the targets by cutting back on other discretionary elements of the budget.

Durbin said the $196 billion required for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left little room for budget maneuvering.

“We were left with stark choices: reduce funding for high-end physics or cut money for veterans; reduce spending at Fermilab or eliminate funding for rural hospitals,” Durbin said in a statement Tuesday.

Sean Kevelighan, a spokesman for the administration’s Office of Management and Budget, said Congress could have chosen instead to take more money from the $9.7 billion worth of earmarks designated for lawmakers’ projects.

“The choices were up to the Congress,” Kevelighan said.

As annoying as academia can be, politics is infinitely worse.

  • Matt

    Or maybe you defund the giant sucking whole called the “War in Iraq!”

  • http://www.leadingasenabling.blogspot.com Ryan Lanham


    What you describe here is what in my field(s) is known as “budget theory.” Some great minds have worked on it at length (Aaron Wildavsky and Gary Wamsley to name but two).

    So far, the tentative conclusion is this…you can’t compare buying jet fighters to paying for accelerators. You just can’t. We aren’t that rational. All you can do is largely tie it to last year’s thinking. Now, a lot of folks disagree and view it in different ways (trying to apply theories of biological equilibria, etc.) But the net is, it cannot be rationalized. Governments aren’t rational; they are political. Politics is emotion, bias, corruption, etc.

    Your best bet is to form foundations related to what you want and go after long-term stable funding from the wealthy. That’s what the universities you have criticized (like Harvard) have done rather successfully. Foundations are the way to depoliticize a government-funded entity, or at least to make it secure in the face of politics.

    I spend my life on such theories. Don’t envy me. (Good blog by the way).


  • George Musser

    I don’t think Weinberg ever argued that fundamental physics is more “interesting” at a metaphysical level. In “Dreams” he just said it was more *fundamental*, which is a very different claim, having to do with the tower of theories, but not the inherent worth of specific problems.

    Within fields, of course, we have decadal surveys and competitive grants to help with weighing interestingness.

    I think a big issue here is consistency. If Congress decides that particle physics deserves, say, $1 billion a year, then it should hold to that amount, rather than pump and dump. The inconsistency results in huge waste.


  • Yatima

    “We were left with stark choices: reduce funding for high-end physics or cut money for veterans; reduce spending at Fermilab or eliminate funding for rural hospitals,”

    So, in these here modern times “high-end physics” is playing a zero-sum game with “rural hospitals” for 100 million USD while all the air is sucked out of the room by the 196 billion USD required this year for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which, after all, cost ‘only’ 1% of GDP.

    There must be something in the water mains inside the beltway. Where’s Fox Mulder when you need him?

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I think you’re right: “Interesting” is irrelevant here. You need friends in high places, plain and simple. You need sell it shamelessly to get their attention, basically. It’s cynical, it’s dirty, it’s against everything a serious academic in search of the truth is probably motivated by, but if American politicians ever really responded with action to the notion of intellectual pursuits for their own sake, they sure as hell don’t seem to now. If money is going to other fields like biomedical/tech, it’s because it’s dispersed in many districts where it generates plenty of capital, and hence has plenty of advocacy where it counts to rack up the votes. Plus, everybody thinks it’s all practical. You know, in ten years cell therapies will let you eat like Henry VIII and stay slim, grow a new brain, and increase your gender-specific endowment with real flesh. B.S.? Sure, but it’s tangible B.S.

    You look at things the Pentagon has funded, the amount of “you just can’t make this shit up” kinds of things. Gay bombs. Antimatter weapons. Gravitomagnetic propulsion.

    It’s a zero-sum game, as far as I can tell, which is sad. But that’s life. So somebody has to get that money. What fundamental physics really needs to get to the bottom of is “Why not us, when crap like X does?” I’m guessing the answer is probably pretty simple, just like the mentality of those who set the policy. I’d like to think a loftier approach could prevail in the end, but the evidence isn’t encouraging.

  • BlackGriffen

    “As annoying as academia can be, politics is infinitely worse.”

    Academia is politics, it’s just that the Calvinball rules are in a different state at the moment.

  • Elliot

    what is “relevantly absurd” is the continued funding of the nuclear missle defense program which even if you believe in it’s goals has no chance of ever operationally meeting them. One of it’s key assumptions, that decoys can be distinguished from the real target via infrared signitures has been shown to be just plain wrong. This is completely wasted money that could go elsewhere and shame on Congress for not cancelling the program entirely.


  • DaveC

    Sean, your comment about condensed matter physicists presents a misleading caricature which I think many condensed matter people like me will find quite annoying (and watch out: we outnumber you by a lot!) Many if not most of us believe that issues that arise in what’s called ‘condensed matter’ are absolutely as fundamental or ‘interesting’ as, say, quantum gravity. For instance, all the questions of order, symmetry, dimensionality, topology and criticality in phases and phase transitions; questions of decoherence and the measurement principle; questions of the emergence of effective theories for all kinds of many body system; and so on. Many of us who love physics also chose to do condensed matter studies because we feel a close link and strong feedback between theory and experiment is fundamental to good science, and in what you and Weinberg call fundamental physics the links are too fragile to be appealing nowadays. Many (but not all) of us would never say that the likely impact on everyday lives is much to do with why we do what we do.

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

    DaveC, it wasn’t a misleading caricature, it was simply a true story. As was the story about Weinberg. The post did not take sides about what is really fundamental or interesting or useful, nor stake out any claims in the tired particle-physics-vs-condensed-matter arguments; to do so was the opposite of my point.

  • Odani

    Sean states “the problem is that there is no intrinsic property of ‘interestingness’ that we can compare across different academic questions.” How can he be so sure? Has anyone ever really looked into the issue? Why don’t some of those brilliant high energy physicists that are about to become jobless develop a “science of interestingness” while awaiting their next physics gig?

    Sure, it’s a far-out idea. But is it really that much further out than string theory? To start things off, I suggest a new fundamental unit, called an Interestingness, designated by “I” and defined as 2.8e9 earth cycles per second. Take ‘er from there, gals & guys.

  • Haelfix

    Of course budgets are a zero sum game. The problem with physics is we don’t have many high powered lobbyists arguing our case, nor does many people even understand what we are doing.

    If every university physics department across the US put in say .1% of their budget into a lobbyist and PR group, I can more or less guarentee that the returns on investment would be considerable.

  • Charon

    Of course budgets are a zero sum game.

    We actually might wish this to be true, but it’s certainly not for the federal budget. We didn’t have the money to invade and occupy Iraq, but did anyway. National debt is a weird thing.

    As for Weinberg, he has gone to great pains to emphasize that he does not think particle physics is the most interesting or most important field when he says that it’s the most fundamental. (See, for example, Facing Up.) Sean does not indicate anything to the contrary, but I did have that impression until I read his comment, then reread the passage. Probably because Sean assumes “fundamental=interesting”, and the natural (but irrational) leap is to “most fundamental=most interesting”.

  • chris


    i have the impression that all the talk about accidental cuts done at the last minute by overworked congresspeople is simply wishful thinking on the part of physicists. leaving all the masquerading and words aside, the plain and simple truth is that 3 projects got axed. this is a very narrow target and does not look at all like the usual “let’s safe 10% in the last minute” action.
    first, there is the ilc. it was essentially cut to 0. this means, lhc is currently the last big hep project in the pipeline and will probably have no successor.
    second, nova got axed, eliminating the second future line of hep-ex research.
    the message can’t be clearer i guess. hep has no future. at least in the us. everything else is wishful thinking.

  • eric gisse

    It saddens me when science is cut because science is the one of the few parts of life that actually advances. Not to hate upon reading, but every book can be categorized in about 20 ways. People behave the same way now as they did a thousand years ago. The only thing that CHANGES anything is the technology.

    Science is exploring, and every year we know stuff that NOBODY knew before. This has the benefits of allowing us to build stuff today that we did not know about yesterday.

    I agree that the path from accelerator physics to gizmo is indirect at best, but considering cancer treatments and other medical techniques directly use accelerator technology, I wish people wouldn’t dismiss it outright.

    I wish science didn’t have to fight for what amount to scraps when compared against the defense budget. I can’t help but wonder what we’d discover if the billion/day Iraq expenditure was funneled into science.

  • Jason M. Hendler

    Ryan Lanham,

    Thankyou for stating the obvious. As with natural selection, it is never about what’s most “valued” by others, it is about those that exhibit behaviours more viable than their peers – a 180 degree flip. Universities have developed reliable sources of funding, so scientists / theorists / labs / facilities should hire away successful developers of university foundations to develop similar structures for themselves.

    Oh, and scientists should also quit whining and compete in the real world.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    ‘Interesting’ is not a good criterion on the level you are talking about. You explanation above sees an expertise problem because you’ve started at a level with already many details. Decisions should generally be made by people who are well qualified. This usually constrains the circle to those that have a certain expertise. Since this doesn’t work too well with democracy, you should give them a guide that comes from a larger group. E.g. you don’t just elect people into the parliament because you like their nose, you elect them because they represent a certain direction that you expect them to pursue – doesn’t always work, but that’s the idea of representative democracy. If you write down a new law, may it be about grass cutting on Sundays, you’ll have it to be in agreement with the constitution — ideally I’d want it to be derivable 😉

    Either way, to come back to the budget problem, you don’t ask a group of non-experts do we want more funding in string theory or American history, you don’t ask them do we want to spend some billions on the planned missile number soandso or on a space shuttle to Saturn, here are the construction plans. You will ask for guiding principles, internationally competitive? technologically advanced? intellectually free? well educated? being called stupid by the rest of the world? globally integrated? this might sound trivial but it’s not because you’ll have to set priorities, and find a balance. where do we want our society to go? what is more important to our so-called civilization, competition or collaboration? new developments or fixing present problems, studying our past or projecting the future, creativity or technical skills, learning or inventing, understanding or applying.

    So. Now that you have decided on a direction you can pass on to a group with more expertise to figure out how to distribute the money to best realize that. It’s not a question of what person A finds interesting, but why person A thinks spending money on Fermilab isn’t optimal for being called stupid by the rest of the world. It’s essentially the same procedure of why taxes aren’t set by a people’s vote. It would be a disaster. Instead you ideally ask your people what they want the whole society to cover for, and then you leave it to the elected representative to realize that, and distribute the expenses for into a tax (needless to say, that’s not the way it actually works).

    How it seems to work in practice however is nobody really cares what the guiding principles, the societies ‘interests’, are. Instead some people make a decision, supported by lobbyists, guided by career considerations, and then try to justify it with nice words that are currently fashionable but empty. Since I generally believe people mean well, I guess most often they just forget what their task is (restrictions apply — good politicians exist). You can see it happening on many levels, large and small, the result is governments and administrations that repeat mistakes because they base their decisions on the wrong basis, i.e. interests that come to arise within the small circle of people they are in constant contact with. The problem is very much amplified by a public that is not well informed about what is going on, by bad media coverage, and distorted reports. The result is that the ‘well informed’ people can say correctly, that the public doesn’t know what’s in their own interest, and their opinion can’t be trusted. Smart move, eh?



  • Spear Mark

    Well, I rarely have heard the condensed matter community acknowledge that cancelling the SSC did great things for their funding. Never, in fact.

    The heart of the matter, or matter, perhaps, is that we’ve not had a breathtaking discovery in experimental HEP for a long, long time. Not even breathtaking within community of physicists, that is, something that the best condensed matters guys look at and say `Wow’. Perhaps the last were the W and Z, which now even our string theorists yawn at.

    When the condensed matter community comes up with something as pedestrian as giant magnetoresistance they don’t need `Wow’, they have an applied community that loves it and gets it into the latest hard drive.

    Unfortunately we in experimental HEP have long ago settled into a kind of complacence. People viewed the SSC as an addition to the program, not a successor to Fermilab; we didn’t step forward and offer cuts and lateral moves from FNAL to Waxahachie, and I think that was noticed.

    Once the LHC was fully approved, did we need *two* experiments at the Tevatron? After all, the LHC will cross check. Note that with the budget cuts, the Tevatron run will still go on. That’s programmatic, not discovery-oriented.

    Discovery-oriented would be to cut to the max to get the ILC, or Nova, or even Project X. Bet the farm on the future.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Speaking of bad media coverage, why isn’t this front-page news on the New York Times web site? Why don’t I even see this in their science section? You’ve got a celebrated Nobel laureate calling this the worst funding crisis he’s ever seen at Fermilab, and the only major news outlets that seem concerned are in Chicago, who appear to be somewhat focused on the jobs (and hence tax revenue) angle.

    Talk about basic science needing public advocacy. US experimental HEP is being gutted, and it doesn’t even show up in the sci/tech section of Google News unless I dig. Apparently nobody cares. Why not??

    James Watson may be a jerk in his presentation, but he did have a point: Avoid Boring People (the verb). What is interesting? It’s more about what grabs attention and holds it at a reptilian level, sometimes. You look over our great democracy, and ask, what grabs folks and sucks ’em in? In general, it’s what’s bloody, sordid, and prurient. People can be wonderful, but they’re also kind of disgusting. Never forget this when you’re asking them to pay attention to you. So, how do you make them pay attention without being steeped in filth? How do you be interesting without being tawdry? Jeebus, physicists are SMART! Really smart. There’s gotta be a way they can figure out. Can you give ’em the ol’ razzle-dazzle somehow without pushing such overhype and hucksterism you make yourselves sick? There must be a way.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress Peter Woit

    Low Math, Meekly Interacting,

    The Fermilab disaster is hardly showing up at all on the blogs: this one and mine are about the only two places I’ve seen mentioning it. Not a peep on any of the blogs at the huge Science Blogs web-site. One reason this isn’t getting into the science media coverage is that science journalists figure that if science bloggers don’t thing this is worth mentioning, why should they?

    Spear Mark,

    “Bet the farm on the future.”

    Been there, done that (remember the SSC?). We’re living in that future. Given the politics, shutting down successful ongoing experiments is not necessarily going to provide cash for ambitious new ones, it likely would just mean no money for either.

  • Elliot

    Where is Representative Biggert? She is on energy committee and her district covers Argonne (not Fermilab) but you would of thought she would be pushing to get this funding. I guess she is too busy voting to spend billions support Bushes war and helping out her insurance industry patrons to focus on this issue.

    She needs to get voted out in IL 13 district in ’08.


  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I saw govt. spending at the micro level when I worked at a certain bio-related institute. The rule of money was always have none left at the end of the fiscal year. A small amount of red ink never hurts, actually. Funds saved through conscientious parsimony are rewarded with reduced budgets the following fiscal year, because the bean counters, naturally, assume what you didn’t spend you didn’t need in the first place. If this is a systemic disease, once a level of expenditure begins to decrease, for whatever reason, the new figure gains an incredible amount of intertia, making it far more difficult to increase than if it had been increasing incrementally all along.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    Hi Low Math: I’ve seen plenty examples of the same problem, in various shades and different places. Towards the end of the fiscal year money was thrown into everything that could possibly be justified whether or not one needed it, because otherwise the budget would likely have been cut, and one wouldn’t have the money if one really needed it. This usually resulted in technological upgrades (new computers etc), an expense that was easy to justify, just that (not a joke) dozens of brand new unused computers caught dust because there weren’t enough positions for people to actually use them. Other more sophisticated deals included trading money with other institutions/departments, on the agreement they would trade it back the next year (all of which was likely at least partly illegal). It’s so stupid it makes one want to bang the head against the wall, the most annoying thing is that scientists have to waste time thinking about these matters. Best, B.

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

    Charon writes:

    Probably because Sean assumes “fundamental=interesting”

    Someday, as an experiment, I will write a post consisting of the single letter X, and then see how long it takes before a comment pops up saying “Of course you would say that, since you obviously believe not X.”

  • Spear Mark


    I think the farm was actually not bet on the SSC, and that hurt
    the field. The SSC was viewed as an expansion, not a replacement.

    As for the Tevatron, sure keep one experiment operating,
    but why 2, when the LHC is just around the corner? Well, the
    reason is programmatic; 2 experiments has been programmed in
    and expectations are set. For sure, it is better to have 2 than one,
    and excellent science has always been done by both of the Tevatron
    experiments. But gosh, do we need 2 running right up until the
    moment the LHC starts?

    When we cling to our assets until our cold dead hands have to
    be pried off them, we are no longer fearless discoverers.

    I think the best guarantor of future funding is sticking with our
    core mission… at the energy or intensity or precision frontier by
    any means necessary. When we stick with 20 and 30 year old
    experiments which are kind of our versions of the Space Shuttle,
    it makes us appear to be entitlees.

    You know, it does all make me want to help Bill Foster.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/john John

    Yes, Dennis, why is this not news?

  • Elliot

    c’mon Sean, admit it you have never believed X. You are just setting us up right? 😉


  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress Peter Woit

    Spear Mark,

    I actually doubt that shutting down one of the experiments would save much money at all. Detectors are expensive to design and build, but not so much to keep running.

    In this case, two detectors is actually probably crucial to chances of observing a Higgs. You shut down one of them, you lose half the luminosity, and this is already marginal. Any observation will be at the limits of statistical significance, so if one experiment sees a bump people will not be sure, it will take two independent observations to convince everyone.

    The Tevatron is the energy frontier right now. The idea that the LHC will be doing useful physics next year is probably overly optimistic. It may be quite a while before the LHC is operating reliably, and the experiments there understand their detectors well enough to get interesting results. It’s entirely possible the LHC will turn up something that could be confirmed in a different channel at the Tevatron.

    In any case, again, when the plug gets pulled on the Tevatron, there’s no guarantee at all that any money liberated by this will go to new projects. It’s entirely possible that if the HEP community had proposed shutting down the Tevatron this coming year since the LHC is starting up, the new budget would not just shut down ILC and NOvA, but Fermilab completely.

  • Spear Mark


    Sure, there are never any guarantees, and seeking guarantees doesn’t bring riches; it tends to make us look like entitlees. My guess is that no politician could support the actual shutdown of Fermilab, but the product we have is a bold exploration of the future, and if we don’t pitch that, we atrophy.

    I think we do best when we are bold and when we don’t go after tenure and guarantees. By the way, whatever our strategy has been since about 1985 it has not worked that well… Isabel, SSC, SLC, BTeV, Kopio, KAMI, CKM, Braidwood… even the best managed project, Pep-II/Babar was a duplication of KEK/Babar. The Tevatron Run 2 program was by consensus of everyone the most important, and it fouled up its schedule and budget big time. We have atrophied big time.

    I personally don’t think the extra sqrt(2) (since they are background limited) in Higgs search reach brought by the second TeV experiment helps much. At best we’ll get another blurry picture of the emperor’s nose. The clear and compelling demonstration will come (if it does) at the LHC.

    And if that comes in 2012 as I bet it will (if it does come at all), the extra couple of years is pretty trivial in the big picture.

  • Belizean

    Sean’s question, “What is interesting?”, is itself extremely interesting.

    Ultimately, the definition of “interesting” that matters is that of those paying for the research, not that of informed specialists.

    The former definition, that of John Q. Public, can probably be paraphrased as,

    interesting — whatever research programs seem most likely to maximize
    my quality of life over the foreseeable future.

    This doesn’t in principle rule out experimental particle physics. But, unless there’s great argument that I haven’t thought of, it rules it out in practice.

    However, expanding our view beyond the welfare our friends, colleagues, and students to that of our entire society, we might notice that the gutting of budget for experimental particle physics can be a good thing.

    It’s signal informing us that we should temporarily stop trying to scale the shear cliff face that is particle physics, and instead explore the lush forests of quantum information and condensed matter theory. A couple of generations of this and the growth of wealth and knowledge in our society (image, for example, the staggering economic benefits of widespread quantum computation) will be such as to make deca-Tev scale particle physics relatively affordable.

    It seems to me that all bona fide laws of physics are equally interesting. So we should allocate funds in manner that maximizes the number of such laws discovered per funding dollar. If that means gutting accelerator budgets, I am, as a citizen, okay with that. Even though it personally means I’ll never get to work at Fermilab again, and it will be 10 times harder to get grant proposals funded.

  • poke

    I don’t think interest should be a strong concern. Ideally you invest in things that can make progress regardless of how interesting you or anyone else personally finds them. You invest in things that are more fundamental, not in the metaphysical sense, but in the sense that they have a knock on effect in other research areas. You target bottlenecks that apply to the widest range of research and invest heavily in those (but only if greater investment will help). I don’t think there’s a more democratic level academia can justify itself on than “bang for your buck.” It also makes sense from a scientific perspective.

  • Nico

    This just was distributed:


    In light of recent funding cuts, Illinois members will meet to discuss strategy

    WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Barack Obama (D-IL) and Representative Judy Biggert (R-IL) today sent the following letter to Jim Nussle, Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), calling on him to increase next year’s funding for the High Energy Physics (HEP) program, which supports research at Fermilab in Illinois, and at several other laboratories and universities across the nation that are doing vital, cutting edge research.

    Durbin, Obama, and Biggert are in discussions with Congressional appropriations and authorization committees and the Department of Energy to address the current funding situation and avoid potential layoffs during fiscal year 2008. They also plan to call for an Illinois delegation meeting in January with representatives from Illinois labs and organizations to discuss a strategy to avoid potential job loss at Fermilab. The spending bill, approved by Congress this week, provided the HEP program with $88 million less than was requested. This challenges Fermilab’s ability to remain one of the world’s preeminent research facilities after it has achieved outstanding success in research on neutrinos, the high energy frontier, and particle astrophysics.

    Adequate funding for the labs is critical to ensure that our country maintains its technological edge and that we continue to add to our high-tech manufacturing base. Fermilab is the nation’s premier high-energy physics laboratory. The laboratory leads U.S. research into the fundamental nature of matter and energy, and in 2007, Fermilab’s researchers and facilities achieved results judged by the American Institute of Physics as among the Ten Top Physics Stories from around the world.

    [text of the letter is below]

    Dear Director Nussle:

    We are writing to you concerning a matter of critical importance to our country, to science in America, and to our global competitiveness. As you continue to develop the President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2009, we respectfully request that you increase funding for the High Energy Physics (HEP) program in the Office of Science at the Department of Energy.

    As you know, the budget approved this week by Congress dealt a severe blow to HEP, which received $88 million less than requested. This budget rejected funding for the NOvA neutrino experiment at Fermilab, and drastically cut funding for research and development on the International Linear Collider. These cuts could cripple Fermilab’s ability to remain one of the world’s preeminent research facilities. And this is at a time when Fermilab has achieved outstanding success, with significant results in each of its central areas of research: neutrinos, the high energy frontier, and particle astrophysics.

    The facilities at Fermilab are essential for the basic scientific research that nurtures technological and scientific advances, and that fuels American innovation. Fermilab is one of a handful of our nation’s premier training sites for scientists, and a centerpiece of the system of DOE National Laboratories. Disruptive funding shortfalls have ripple effects throughout the American scientific community, displacing today’s scientists and discouraging tomorrow’s. We must work together to restore funding in basic physics research to maintain America’s role as the innovator in technology, to retain our leading scientific institutions and their skilled workforces, and to provide opportunities for future scientists.

    While we recognize the formidable challenges you face regarding the demands on the federal budget, we respectfully encourage you to increase the funding request for the Office of Science, particularly for the HEP program, in the President’s FY2009 Budget.

    Barack Obama
    Richard J. Durbin
    Judy Biggert

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    “with half of Fermilab’s budget you wouldn’t get half the science out of Fermilab — you wouldn’t get anything at all.”

    Could we build a lab with the same physical capabilities as fermilab in a third world country with lax saftey standardsand tiny wages for half the cost? After all, we’ve off-shored shoe factories and laptop assembly lines; why can’t we do the same with photon factories?

  • Ross Presser

    Please see:

    Weaver, Warren. (1959). “Report of the Special Committee.” Science 130, 20 November 1959. Reprinted in A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown (Prentice-Hall, 1963), ed. R. Baker, pp 153-154.

    It is also in Science and Imagination, and a very brief excerpt is visible on this digitised page 24: http://tinyurl.com/27k45n

    The next sentence proposes that to solve the problem of allocating limited resources, there should be a special committee….

  • John Merryman

    I don’t see what the problem is. Say it’s to make better weapons and go to the DoD.

  • http://aeolist.wordpress.com Ponder Stibbons

    “Not a peep on any of the blogs at the huge Science Blogs web-site.”

    That’s probably because there isn’t a single experimental particle physicist blogging there.

  • f15mos

    For John lamenting ever diminishing funding for HEP since SSC disaster.

    From Kurt Vonnegut’s “Hocus Pocus” (1990):

    “I asked Charlton if he had come all the way from Waxahachie, Texas. The last I’d heard, he was running experiments with the enormous atom-smasher, the Supercoffider, down there. He said the funds for the Suprecoffider had dried up, so he had moved to Geneva, New York, not that far away. He was teaching Fresh-man Physics at Hobart College.

    I asked him is there any way the Supercoffider could be turned into a prison….”

    This is by a non-physicist, but a visionary, predicting the demise of the SSC 3 years prior.

    Some of the folks in HEP remind me of frogs sitting in a water which is being gradually boiled. The smart ones are long gone for the greener pastures.

  • http://disorderedcosmos.blogspot.com Chanda

    If physicists jumped willy nilly from field to field like John Kerry does with his opinions, no substantive progress would be made in many fields (and George Bush might legitimately win another election). What if the project managers on Hubble had jumped ship? That thing took DECADES to build! And it was worth it. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who really thought it hasn’t contributed something meaningful to the world we live in.

    What if the scientists working on it had just walked away in the middle because it was “the smart jump to make”? Not only would we be missing the wondrousness that Hubble has contributed, but we would have lost a major financial investment. The same goes for Chandra, for Keck, for Fermilab … Moreover, what kind of example does that set for budding physicists? “Never finish a problem unless the political winds are always blowing in your direction”? “When the going gets tough, the tough give up”? This is exactly the opposite of what we teach in physics: all of that painful problem solving is intended to teach us to persist, not to quit.

    True, sometimes if a problem is intractable it is worth walking away. But the biggest problem here isn’t in the physics — it’s in politics.

    Much of experimental science requires a tremendous and profound time commitment from its participants, one that all of us should deeply respect. As a theorist, I recognize that in the end, the physical validation or invalidation of all my work rests on the shoulders of those who are willing to undertake these large experiments and see them through, from Auger to GLAST to the LHC. Without them, we’re only dreamers. With them, we are dreamers making sense of the physical world.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    What would the “fundamental physics” and “useful physics” factions think if a substantial slice of physics funding went into exoplanetology? After all, it is neither, but a lot of people find it interesting.

  • Charon

    Someday, as an experiment, I will write a post consisting of the single letter X, and then see how long it takes before a comment pops up saying “Of course you would say that, since you obviously believe not X.”

    Well, Sean, either my comment was correct or you have two totally unrelated ideas linked by “contrariwise” in your post. And your quote from Weinberg is a complete non sequitur, given that he’s talking about what’s fundamental, which clearly has nothing to do with what’s interesting. And don’t claim that Weinberg linked the two, because he didn’t in that quote. He was talking about what’s important, which is very weakly correlated with what’s interesting.

    You’re generally a good writer, Sean. It appears that ability briefly broke down in that paragraph, but I’ll hope you’ll excuse me for believing what you wrote.

  • f15mos


    I find what you wrote pretty naive. Your alluding to the political wind evokes association with “Pissing against the wind”.

    1) The wind is not blowing towards HEP in US since the demise of USSR. That is 15 yeas now. Does not look like politics to me, more like a trend.

    2) The enthusiasm about HEP in the 50s and 60a was a residue of nuclear weapons programs. A spin off so to say.

    3) Realization that HEP will not make any new weapons in the near future finally set in.

    In this situation the “tough” you mention, turns into “dumb” who is stuck in a rut.

    The smart are opportunists, they are not marathon runners. (Richard Feynman comes to mind).

    IMHO the US has decided that Europe will be running the show for the ones who cannot adapt for the next 10 years. And those will be doing it remotely, cause the travel money will not be given. The glory of discoveries at LHC (which I doubt will amount to much beyond observation or non-observation of SM Higgs) will belong to Europeans. In these conditions it will be hard to get any new students/postdocs in the US. In the last 10 – 15 years the majority of students/postdocs in HEP were foreign (China, Russia and lately Korea). As scientific opportunities improve in their home countries, and investments into science increase, they will tend to stay there (which is already happening with China). In the end high energy physicists, whatever small army of them will remain, will be teaching freshman physics in some college of art someplace just like Kurt Vonnegut has predicted. As for Fermilab – the land will be sold, only the FCC(Feynman Computing Center) will remain to provide computing serve to the small community of remote users. Stuff to operate this computer center will amount to 100 people or so. And the Tevatron will be turned to prison (here I am joking).

  • Peter


    I am in experimental HEP, with no particular plans to leave the field. I choose to address the scientific problems that I find the most exciting with the resources available: the science drives me, not Congressional appropriations. Of course this is idealistic, but if you don’t think your work is worth doing and fighting for money for, why do it? Because you desperately want to have the job title of “scientist,” but don’t care about what science you do? In any “fundamental” science, this is an extremely odd position to take.

    The real issue here is the US funding system – as witnessed by the zeroing of ITER (a treaty-level obligation) or the ignoring of the COMPETES act, we are almost incapable of creating R&D plans and seeing them through to the end, whereas the EU is. This is not something to be proud of in the slightest, and I think is more indicative of a complacent superpower that has forgotten what it was like not to be the scientific/technological hub of the world than of a sensible post-Cold War policy.

  • Joseph Beli

    I’ve been a fairly frequent reader of the comments section of science blogs. Seems kind of a fun place to gather almost gossip like information on science. But I’m amazed, after this recent budget debacle, how there seems to be a certain kind of commenter that has no real agenda other then to write nasty comments – almost always not well thought out – just to incite either other readers or the bloggers themselves to respond in outrage. Maybe this is the problem with anonymous commenting. When there is absolutely no consequence to bad behavior some people will leap at the chance to be classless. I doubt many of the above that fit into this category had put much thought at all into HEP funding before given the opportunity to harass those that have. I think my advice to the bloggers is to just flat out remove these comments. If you don’t feel fundamental physics is worth funding then there is no real point to visit this site other then to deride those who do feel it is important. Go visit digg or slashdot which appear to me a home base for the malcontent. I would rather spend time reading and thinking about comments from people who are truly interested in this field.

  • Nico

    A word about luminosity and two detectors. In a hadron collider the luminosity is set by the total allowable tune shift in the interaction regions. Aside from complications from so-called parasitic collisions, the tune shift budget could all be consumed in one interaction region. So one would not lose statistically. Now comes the however. Two detectors allows for different designs with different systematics. Two detectors means disentangling fewer tracks coming from each centimeter in the luminous region – not such a big deal at the Tevatron, but a technical headache at the LHC.

    Then there is the question of sociology. These experiments are hard; they take many talented people who think in different ways, with different insights and responsible for a hierarchy of tasks. You might say that each collaboration is already “crowded”; doubling the size would make life very difficult especially for those lower in the food chain. So someone will say get rid of all those salaries. Scratch only slightly below the surface and you see that the university programs that support these researcher make up only ~20% of the HEP budget. Those folks are not what is so expensive.

    Bottom line two detectors make a lot more sense than one for Tevatron and LHC.

  • f15mos


    This is good thing that your are enthusiastic about what you do. I do research in HEP as well, and I enjoy every minute of it. But sometimes, in the days like these I sit back and I think, am I digging my own grave? Are there more than 2,000 people interested in what I personally do? Am I turning in a kind of mental masturbator, who, in addition needs to ask kind folks of the US to give me the money to continue to enjoy myself?

    I keep going back to SSC cause this experience struck me pretty hard. I never could’ve imagined that a project can be canceled after so much has already been spent. I recall that physicists were drawing all sorts of lessons from SSC. Among those the chief lessons were mentioned
    1) have effort international to attract external funding
    2) do not promise what you cannot deliver.

    Interestingly that is seems that (1) is not working! ITER and ILC both have “International” in its name. Both are axed! The real reason I believe is that american people do not want to share, they want (in their hearts) to be exclusively superior or they need nothing at all. ISS is still limping along though…

    (2) was still violated in Tevatron Run II TDR. The luminosity Tevatron delivered in 2007 was promised to be delivered in 2002! However successful Tevatron now, it still looks like a failure to anyone outside. This compound a cool attitude towards Fermilab.

  • Spear Mark

    Well, I think the case has always been and always will be strong to keep doing HEP research. We are exploring matter and energy at one extreme.. highest energies and shortest distances empirically possible.

    The real reason is not to fill in entries in tables about the Standard Model or even Supersymmetry. Actually, those are just the default hypotheses.

    The real reason is to find an incredible surprise. It happened before… in the 1920’s Rutherford himself likened any practical uses of nuclear energy to moonshine. Simultaneously he urged his young colleagues to search for the neutron, so Chadwick’s prepared mind was ready to discover the neutron when the Curies missed it. Then there was the whole trail to fission, with Fermi himself mentioning the false discovery of Ausenium and Hesperium in his Nobel lecture, and it taking the exiled Lise Meitner to sort it all out. All entangled with Nazis and well… one of the greatest stories ever told.

    The point is: it could all happen again. Our default hypotheses could be as wrong as Rutherford in the 1920’s.

    I thought it was a good idea to have 2 experiments at the Tevatron. We all hoped the second would be clever and innovative at low cost, and I think in many ways, D0 has done so. Certainly they influenced calorimetry at the LHC.

    But also the importance of tracking and the solenoidal spectrometer of CDF won. D0 started arguing to keep up with CDF. Eventually all the cleverness of the very capable D0 guys is better applied to one of the two detectors at the LHC. In human terms it is hard to accomplish… people want to optimize their gadget and it is hard to pick up and move to another continent (both physically and intellectually). Well, in the end, it is happening naturally.

    I think 2 detectors at the LHC is OK.

  • Chris W.

    Chanda, thanks for your comment.

    People should understand that most of the world’s current problems—the most important ones—aren’t so different from difficult research problems in physics, in precisely this sense. They will require many years of sustained problem-solving efforts, and a willingness to preserve the infrastructure and learning communities that contribute to those efforts. Sometimes I really wonder if there is any serious comprehension of this among the country’s business and political leadership. The societal dynamic referred to by the phrase “creative destruction,” that free market ideologues are so fond of, allows little room for such sustained efforts.

    [The above may be stated too categorically, but maybe that will provoke a discussion.]

  • http://Capitalistimperialistpig.blogspot.com capitalistimperialistpig

    Jason H. “Oh, and scientists should also quit whining and compete in the real world.”

    Be careful what you wish for! Wolfgang B, physicist turned financial guy, has pointed out that converting high energy physicists to investment bankers has produced some scary results. Think about the path from Omega prime to omega sub-prime.

  • Ike Solem

    There is one political factor here that is being ignored: the push for patented, profit-generating research in the nation’s universities. Anyone who has been around biomedical research knows this is true, and the philosophy has largely been adopted by many leading university administrators. This means they steer funds towards patent-generating research (which doesn’t include high-energy physics, cosmology, or many other areas of science).

    The key thing in basic research is the free and open exchange of ideas and information. This is completely opposite to the key thing in private research, which is protecting the company’s trade secrets from competitors and being the first to patent. Unfortunately, the latter philosophy is becoming the norm in many university research departments – to the serious detriment of basic scientific research across the board.

    This might be affecting the distribution of funds between solid-state physics and particle physics, but more importantly it might also be affecting the direction of research away from basic inquiry and towards proprietary research. There’s a simple fix to this, however: make all publicly funded research and patents available to all under non-exclusive licensing agreements.

    This would have some very beneficial effects on U.S. academic research – basic research would come back to the fore, with the traditional free exchange of data and ideas, and large corporations would go back to the AT&T Bell Labs model of private research – which was very successful, having produced the semiconductor-based microchip as well as the semiconductor-based solar panel. These proprietary inventions can then be used to expand the scope of basic research (The Hubble Telescope is powered by solar panels, for example).

    A simple reform of the Bayh-Dole Act is all that is needed: universities may patent their inventions, but any research that involves public funds must be made available to all under non-exclusive licensing agreements.

  • Nico


    You did not show the causal relationship between your patent law proposal and the supposed benefit of bringing basics research to the fore.

    I’d also note in the Omnibus Bill the Congress let the R&D tax credit expire; so much for encouraging the Bell Lab model.

    Finally how does proposed change affect to compensation model in universities. In many universities the faculty retain an intellectual property interest in their inventions (unlike at most companies). Removing this benefit removes in a statistical sense at least faculty compensation. Does this make academia less attractive for the most inventive faculty? I don’t know, but I do know that one should consider unintended consequences before changing intellectual property law.

  • Ike Solem

    Nico – those are good arguments, but I’m going to rely on Ernest Rutherford for the response – and as he said, “You cannot serve God and Mammon both.”

    The relationship between patent law and basic research should be pretty obvious. Essentially, if large corporations are denied sole control of university patents (which, as human growth hormone has shown, can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars), then they will suddenly realize the value of Bell Labs -style support of technical research. This is a good role for corporate interests – to move basic research concepts into commercially viable applications. In fact, this has been the traditional role of corporate research – until Bayh-Dole came along in the early 1980s.

    Once corporate business interests are kicked out of the university system, the focus on basic research will be re-invigorated. Why is basic research important? There are hundred of examples. There are no commercial applications of Hubbert’s discovery of red-shifted receding galaxies, but isn’t that an fundamentally important discovery that has had major impacts on our view of the universe?

    The fact of the matter is that U.S. academic science is in a serious crisis due to this obsession with patentable, profitable research. There is no reasonable excuse for doing proprietary research on the public dollar, period. The best solution to this dilemma is the previously described reform of Bayh-Dole law.

  • http://disorderedcosmos.blogspot.com Chanda

    City On A Hill Press, the UC Santa Cruz student paper, did a series of articles a couple of weeks ago on privatization at the University of California. I’m having a hard time finding the links because their website appears to be failing to function, but here is the link to one by Claire Walla, the Co-Editor in Chief, that I posted on my blog.

    Ike – I agree with your assessment, and I think the impact is much more insidious than what happens to research. Education also completely gets lost in the mix! The university I go to now is a good example of what happens when you let a corporation (RIM, maker of BlackBerry)** run the show: resources are unevenly distributed (for example, the Institute for Quantum Computing is awash in money but the physics department can barely pay its TAs), the students don’t care about anything except getting that hot corporate job, and the idea of a broad and meaningful education for the sake of learning is totally lost on a significant portion of the population.

    I think the academy should do everything possible to maintain its independence from corporate interests. This means that the public should remain committed to maintaining the academy’s integrity and providing the academy with the funding it needs.

    **It should be noted that I am completely aware of Perimeter’s relationship with RIM’s co-founder Mike Laziridis.

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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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