Big Science and the American Cutting Edge?
Somewhat recently, I posted an entry on a talk by one of my former Berkeley professors in the history of science, John Heilbron, who reported on the rise of 'Big Science' in the United States for UC Berkeley's 2006 Bancroft Centennial Symposium in his lecture on "Big Science and Big Bridges."
As things turn out, the torch for big science in the US that was originally lit by Ernest Orlando Lawrence may be passing from America, say not merely a few experts, but some very large-scale science is still going on with the partly government-funded fusion project in the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore Lab, as Daniel Lyons reports for Newsweek in "Could This Lump Power the Planet?" (November 14, 2009):
Big technological breakthroughs require taking big risks. They always seem hopeless and expensive -- until they work. Sequencing the human genome seemed impossible until thousands of researchers around the world got it done -- in 13 years, with $3 billion in government funding, plus investments by private companies. Like the genome project, fusion energy is something that requires a long-term sustained effort. This isn't like creating the next version of the iPod, or a new application for Facebook. These are scientists operating at the very edge of our knowledge about how to manipulate tiny particles of matter.That sounds good. Even if it fails, it succeeds! But what about those naysayers who argue that the torch of technological innovation -- whether government-funded or privately financed -- is passing from America? Here's what Fareed Zakaria reports for the same Newsweek issue, writing in his article "Is America Losing Its Mojo?" (Nov 14, 2009):
If fusion works, it's the ultimate green energy source. But NIF has other goals, one being to help scientists gain greater understanding of the universe itself; for example, they will be able to study conditions that exist inside stars.
Given all that, even if NIF fails -- if the whole place turns out to have been a $3.5 billion fiasco -- it seems to me that the risk will have been worth taking. The NIF team still will have made lots of smaller breakthroughs in laser design, optics, and materials science. They will have advanced the state of laser science. Then they will go looking for money to build an even bigger laser so they can try again.
[T]wo studies of global innovation have been released this year, both comprehensive, and both relying entirely on government statistics and other hard data: one produced by the Boston Consulting Group, the other by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. In both, the United States does considerably worse, coming in eighth in the BCG study and sixth in the ITIF one.How depressing. Only apparently shining brightly, our enterprising American core is already burnt utterly out. But we might manage to re-ignite that core even without a laser beam from the National Ignition Facility -- if we can just learn from the example of Israel, as Dan Senor and Paul Singe show in "Soldiers of Fortune," Newsweek (November 14, 2009), opening with a question:
Like a star that still looks bright in the farthest reaches of the universe but has burned out at the core, America's reputation is stronger than the hard data warrant.
How does Israel -- with fewer people than the state of New Jersey, no natural resources, and hostile nations all around -- produce more tech companies listed on the NASDAQ than all of Europe, Japan, South Korea, India, and China combined? How does Israel attract, per person, 30 times as much venture capital as Europe and more than twice the flow to American companies? How does it produce, for its size, the most cutting-edge technology startups in the world?Hint: It ain't because Israeli Jews manipulate the world's markets through a secret hierarchy of Zionist elders intent on world domination. Quite the opposite of a hidden hierarchy, Israel offers a society with a culture of open discussion, even in the military:
It creates an openness to challenging, debating, and probing -- even of one's superiors -- that permeates the Israeli startup scene; it helps produce unconventional solutions to tough business problems. Nati Ron is a lawyer in his civilian life and a lieutenant colonel who commands an Army unit in the reserves. "Rank is almost meaningless in the reserves," he says. "A private will tell a general in an exercise, 'You are doing this wrong; you should do it this way.'"Well, I wasn't in the military during my year in Jerusalem, but I noticed much the same attitude in the seminars that I attended while doing postdoctoral work at Hebrew University's Mt. Scopus campus. I'd say that we need more of this bold, assertive attitude in the States (and throughout the world), so long as the whippersnapper has the expertise . . . or even if the whippersnapper has none, for how better to learn than by asking sharp questions and properly challenging authority?
And if you're wondering, by the way, why I'm getting so much information from Newsweek this fine day, here's the scoop. My wife has a subscription to the Korean edition, and Newsweek has been kind enough to send along the English edition as well . . . unasked. I don't know why Newsweek is doing this generous thing, but I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth and count its teeth.
Though I suppose that one ought to check the belly of the beast, just in case of a Trojan horse . . .