Friday, November 20, 2009

Big Science and the American Cutting Edge?

Target Chamber
Lawrence Livermore Lab
(Image from Newsweek)

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.

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.
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):
[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.

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 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:
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 . . .

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At 5:06 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I blame the education system. I am one who happens to believe that the most creative minds do not always come from the elite.

There is a down grading of science in the average high school and some schools the public think that those students aren't deserving. I also think it is now becoming unpatriotic to believe in science.

At 6:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

When I now look back on my own high school education, I think that it must have been fairly good despite the poverty of the area.

Science and math were not badly taught in my school, though the humanities were somewhat neglected, but in college, I immediately had to face the fact that many if not most freshman students there were about one year ahead of me in math and science.

From what I've read, American schools seem to have declined since my school days, for all sorts of reasons -- even as some teaching methods have improved.

I don't know what, concretely, needs to be done, but I'm waiting to hear from the experts.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:41 AM, Blogger Sperwer said...

Interesting piece. Made me think of a provocative speculative observation Robert Buswell, scholar of East Asian, particularly Korean, buddhism made in an article to the effect that the effort that Goryeo Korea put into the creation of the Tripitaka Koreana (the Korean woodblock version of the corpus of buddhist literature), in terms of the allocation of national wealth and human resources, was comparable to the US space program in its heyday in the 1960s. Goryeo did it twice moreover, first beginning in 1087 when it had been invaded by the Khitans, creaters of the Liao Dynasty in Northern China, Manchurai and Mongolia, and again in 1236-1251, after the resurgent Mongols destoyed the original in their rise to power that eventuated in the impoisition of the Yuan Dynasty on China and Korea.

At 8:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting analogy, Sperwer, though I'd hope that the space program had more practical effect in our Cold War with the Soviets than the tripitaka had in the Korean struggle against the Mongols.

I had, by the way, thought of bringing in the need that Korean society has for some of that Israeli attitude . . . but figured that such a point would deserve a blog entry all its own.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:15 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

Just saw that California is going to raise University of California's tuition 32 percent.

I wonder how many theoretical physicist will remain at Berkley or in research with that much school debt.

At 7:23 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Poor California, utterly broke. And broken . . .

I'm glad I've already finished my official education.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:39 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

In 1962 my first years tuition was
$390 a year. Unfortunately for me I didn't graduate then. I finished school in 2005, thinking at the time it would improve my lot; didn't.
So now I'm retired (this month) with huge school loan repayments. The only way I can reduce my loan is to teach which requires that I get a Master's, which is mo money. There is a program where I could teach as I earned the degree, but...

At 5:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, I'm sorry to hear that.

I was lucky, but I do worry about my kids' education. I remember back in the 60s (which lasted till the 70s) that we expected a better world in the future. I suppose that some things are better, a lot better, but a lot of things are worse.

Listen to me . . . I'm beginning to sound like an old fogey, lamenting the good ol' days!

Jeffery Hodges

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