Friday, July 23, 2010

Fantastic Future Friday: Big Science


I’m writing this post because a several thing have entered my mind at the same time from wildly different sources so the ideas aren’t as focused as I’d like them to be. Hopefully after writing them down I’ll come back in a month or so and make a polished post on these ideas.

I read a few things recently that reminded me of the importance of “Big Science” (Government run research spread out over the thousands of colleges in the nation), one was a post by a teabagger that asked what Government Research has ever turned into consumer products? I answered off the top of my head, Jet Airplanes (completely researched and developed by the Air Force then turned over to private companies). Computers (Originally purchased for the US Census, then IBM got the contract to use them for the Nazi Holocaust, then the US Navy needed them smaller to fit on ships, making them room sized but powerful enough for the government and large corporations, then NASA needed one small enough to go to the moon and the foundations of the modern PC was born). The Internet (Started as a DARPA experiment). Communication Satellites, launched by Government Rockets. GPS developed by the Air Force and the technology was given away so they would have a civilian backup. The list can go on and on.

The reply was the standard, “La, La, La, I can’t hear you.”

The second thing that got me thinking of the importance of “Big Science” was Stephanie’s post on Ask me Anything about why Space Probes cost so much.

Her post didn’t go into this but the research that goes into making the Multi-Million Dollar probes later come back to Earth, so to speak, in the form of new products. For instance the research into radiation-hardened computer chips for extended Interplanetary Missions gets put into chips for new Satellites, new Nuclear Power Plants, new Medical Equipment, ect. It’s these extreme technological feats that chip away the costs of new products. While the research in these extremes nearly always pays off in the long run, a private company can’t put billions of dollars into developing products with a 30 to 40 year payoff. For instance if you were very, very farsighted in the early 50s you could spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year building your own private Internet. By the mid-90s you’d be a Trillionaire, but in the 40 years in-between you’d be a crazy kook that no one would invest money with.

The final thing I read on this subject was Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World Revisited”. In that book he examines how the world of 1958 was moving towards the different futures that he and Orwell had written about.

One example he used was the Soviet Union, because of the science race between the US and the USSR the Soviets had to use different methods of control for different classes. For the general population the more Orwellian methods of fear and forced labor worked, but for the technological class they needed to move more to the “Brave New World” model of control. With the techies the highly ordered, no sharing of ideas, isolating people is highly counterproductive. Science and Technology flourish in an environment that allows the free exchange of ideas. So in the former Soviet Union while the people in general were under terrible oppression the scientist and engineers were given the freedom that was associated with the western world.

It was this freedom that eventually led to fall of the Soviet Union when Heinlein suggested to Reagan the “Star Wars” program. In order to keep up with the US in making this impossible project the Soviet Union would need to vastly increase its technological research. The difference between the two classes of citizens would need to be so obvious that it would lead to open revolt.

One of the biggest benefits that our current system of open research using Government Funding to pursue scientific research across thousands of campuses is the freedom from oppression as research into new frontiers needs a place of open exchange of ideas.

By increasing commitment to scientific progress, we not only get the consumer products that make life better, we get a society that encourages the free and open exchange of ideas letting its citizen’s minds to be free and open. This freedom that “Big Science” encourages leads us into a Fantastic Future.

By Darrell B. Nelson author of Invasive Thoughts


Stephanie Barr said...

I do love the way your brain works. I wish others understood the value of this research and how much what people use day to day was seeded and nurtured with public funding.

Project Savior said...

I'm planning on cleaning this up and thanks to Outbrain recommending something I might be able to throw in some real concrete examples of what happens when that funding goes away.