Weinberg on the Crisis of Big Science

Steven Weinberg has a new article in The New York Review of Books on The Crisis of Big Science, which is based on a talk he gave this past January at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin (for some discussion of this, see here and here).

Weinberg is rather gloomy about prospects for particle physics, seeing dim prospects for a new generation of particle accelerators, especially in the US. He goes over the sorry story of the SSC, which he was deeply involved in, and worries that the same thing is happening to the James Webb Space Telescope project. He argues that progress is particle physics will be difficult without going to higher energies:

The discovery of the Higgs boson would be a gratifying verification of present theory, but it will not point the way to a more comprehensive future theory. We can hope, as was the case with the Bevatron, that the most exciting thing to be discovered at the LHC will be something quite unexpected. Whatever it is, it’s hard to see how it could take us all the way to a final theory, including gravitation. So in the next decade, physicists are probably going to ask their governments for support for whatever new and more powerful accelerator we then think will be needed…

That is going to be a very hard sell. My pessimism comes partly from my experience in the 1980s and 1990s in trying to get funding for another large accelerator….

During the debate over the SSC, I was on the Larry King radio show with a congressman who opposed it. He said that he wasn’t against spending on science, but that we had to set priorities. I explained that the SSC was going to help us learn the laws of nature, and I asked if that didn’t deserve a high priority. I remember every word of his answer. It was “No.”…

All these problems will emerge again when physicists go to their governments for the next accelerator beyond the LHC. But it will be worse, because the next accelerator will probably have to be an international collaboration. We saw recently how a project to build a laboratory for the development of controlled thermonuclear power, ITER, was nearly killed by the competition between France and Japan to be the laboratory’s site.

There are things that can be done in fundamental physics without building a new generation of accelerators. We will go on looking for rare processes, like an extremely slow conjectured radioactive decay of protons. There is much to do in studying the properties of neutrinos. We get some useful information from astronomers. But I do not believe that we can make significant progress without also pushing back the frontier of high energy. So in the next decade we may see the search for the laws of nature slow to a halt, not to be resumed again in our lifetimes.

He has similar worries about cosmology:

But cosmology is in danger of becoming stuck, in much the same sense as elementary particle physics has been stuck for decades. The discovery in 1998 that the expansion of the universe is now accelerating can be accommodated in various theories, but we don’t have observations that would point to the right theory. The observations of microwave radiation left over from the early universe have confirmed the general idea of an early era of inflation, but do not give detailed information about the physical processes involved in the expansion. New satellite observatories will be needed, but will they be funded?

I’m not well-informed about what is going on with large projects in astronomy like the JWST, but do see news reports about cancellation or possible cancellation of important and valuable instruments which people have been working on for years. It’s likely Weinberg’s arguments are highly relevant in these cases. About particle physics though, I fear he neglects to mention the underlying scientific and technological difficulties of going to higher energies. A major reason why things look gloomy for another generation of colliders is that it’s not clear what to build. Electron-positron colliders like ILC/CLIC would be very expensive, and not necessarily get to energy levels above those reached by the LHC. They would be excellent tools for studying TeV-scale physics, but if the LHC has shown there’s no new physics there, the case for building them will be hard to make. Probably the best bet for going to higher energy is the HE-LHC, an LHC upgraded with higher field magnets. The technological limits on such magnets though will make it hard to go to dramatically higher energies. If no new physics besides the Higgs shows up at the LHC, there won’t be a good reason to expect it at HE-LHC energies. The case for the LHC was a slam-dunk, because we knew that the Higgs or something doing the same job had to be accessible at LHC energies. What there will be for an HE-LHC to study is less clear.

An HE-LHC would of course be built in Europe, so prospects for a new collider in the US are very dim indeed. Weinberg attributes the problem to a failure of the US to support scientific research, and the public good in general (please, take discussion of his political arguments elsewhere, I’m sick of this already, and November is a long ways away…). About support for science I think he’s a bit disingenuous though, arguing:

Funding is a problem for all fields of science. In the past decade, the National Science Foundation has seen the fraction of grant proposals that it can fund drop from 33 percent to 23 percent.

without noting that the NSF has seen sizable budget increases over the past decade. The fact that the number of Ph.Ds in the subject is increasing much faster than funding for them to do research is another problem…

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54 Responses to Weinberg on the Crisis of Big Science

  1. uair01 says:

    I hate to be obnoxious but isn’t there some truth in what the congressman says? At least something to take seriously? I’m not a scientist so for me the fundamental research into neutrinos and Higgs bosons is a beautiful cultural enterprise, akin with art and poetry, beautiful, inspiring and life-value-adding but not something that “puts bread on the table”. And if I have to spend my tax money on fundamental research then I would prefer to invest it in research on nuclear fusion – that scientists have been promising us for 50 years already – because that would solve a lot of our energy and climate problems. I don’t see deep particle physics or cosmology doing that – let alone all the money that is spent on string theory.

  2. Peter Woit says:


    Money spent on string theory is negligible compared to everything else being discussed. Similarly, funding for deep particle physics and cosmology research is small compared to energy and climate research. The usual argument that we can’t do particle physics because we need the money for X isn’t very compelling since typically money already spent on X is 1-2 orders of magnitude higher.

    To me, the question is whether the particle physics community can come up with a compelling plan that can be funded at a level around the historical budget fractions devoted to fundamental research of this sort. You’re always going to have people with different views on what society should fund, and maybe things will shift and those opposed to spending even a small fraction of the budget on fundamental research will impose their will. But no one should be under any illusion that eliminating particle physics funding is going to make a dent in overall budget problems.

  3. SteveM says:

    Increasing vision is increasingly expensive: peering deeper into space or the structure of matter takes bigger telescopes and accelerators, which simply cost more and more until there is a cut off. If the LHC finds nothing except the Higgs then it will probably be a last big accelerator project. But the congressman was flat wrong. The status of the US as a superpower depends in part on it being able and willing to pursue projects like the SSC. The purpose of fundamental research is that we don’t know what the long-term potential applications could be. I guess in the 20s the emerging field of quantum mechanics must have looked pretty useless but it eventually spawned the transistor, laser and microchip, leading to vast new industries and sources of wealth. The problem the US is facing in big science right now is that it is not losing out in just one area but that it is losing its edge, to Europe and Asia, right across the board: in particle physics, space/aerospace, fusion, biology etc. The space shuttle is now in a museum and pretty soon Fermilab will probably become a science museum. Some of these issues are also discussed in this video featuring a distinguished panel with James Simons, Michio Kaku, biologist Craig Ventor and others..


  4. Anonyrat says:

    In a country where about 40% of the electorate subscribes to the notion that taxation is theft, it is hard to gain support for large government-funded science projects. This is true even if overall spending on science is rising. The big ticket item still serves as a lightning rod.

  5. sam coleridge says:

    By far the most important system for in situ (under water) observation of the ocean for climate is NOAA’s fantastic TAO array which spans the entire tropical Pacific.


    Its annual running cost is of the order of $10m ( that’s m for million) yet the lead scientists are endlessly defending it. The array should be extended into the subtropical N and S Pacific, at the cost of a few more $10m. Fat chance. Folks should not blame the shortage of funds for HEP on climate research.

    By The Way whenever I have told taxi drivers about the TAO array they would go totally ape. They always said: “THAT is what we should be spending tax dollars on”.

    BTW(2) I am not funded by TAO nor NOAA.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    sam coleridge,

    No one is blaming the shortage of funds for HEP (to the extent there is one; as I tried to make clear, a big problem is that HEP is facing difficulties no amount of money can solve) on climate research. It’s a good idea to keep in mind though that if there’s a fight over funding for some particular HEP project and it gets canceled, I’m quite sure that the money is not going to be redirected to the TAO.

  7. Thomas Larsson says:

    SteveM. Physics discoveries like EM or QM may have been esoteric in their days, but they were esoteric on terrestial energy scales. TeV physics is relevant in supernovas or in the Big Bang, but will never be relevant on earth. You cannot build a nifty gadget if you need to carry around an LHC to create the relevant state of matter.

  8. Peter Woit says:


    Please avoid the unpleasant use of ad hominem arguments, they’re really unhelpful, so I’ve edited your comment to remove them.

    I actually agree that it seems unlikely that better understanding of TeV scale physics will lead to practical applications. However, in the early part of the last century it might have seemed obvious that nuclear energy scales could never be practically relevant. Probably a lot of people believed this up until the day Hiroshima was annihilated.

    The interesting discoveries at the LHC will be the ones that tell us about the Higgs mechanism. It is not inconceivable (although I agree, not likely) that understanding the Higgs mechanism could in the distant future have some sort of application.

  9. Trulo says:

    Thomas, I agree with you on general grounds, but with one important caveat. If in 1980, say, I’d have asked you what use is GR on human or even terrestrial scale, I’m sure you’d have told me no use at all. Yet, today you probably have a GPS device in your car.

    The moral of all this is that natural laws must be there at our disposal when we need them. Much like books in a library, most of which hardly anyone ever reads. But still they must be there in case we need them. For that to be possible we need to discover them in the first place.

  10. SteveM says:

    Thomas, not sure what I said to merit an ad hominem response. (Now edited, before I read it.) But I really meant fundamental research in general, across the board in all areas, and not just in TeV-scale particle physics, which I strongly support nonetheless. Maybe I’m an idealist but I think fundamental big science research and the quest for pure knowledge–whether it can ultimately be applied or not–is the best investment there is, esp. for the US. Certainly money better spent than the trillions wasted on wars, “wars on terror”, and bailing out certain dysfunctional and dated financial firms.

  11. Z says:

    What are the prospects for a muon collier in the next 20-30 years? There was a lot of talk about such an idea a few years ago, with the principal reason being much higher energies, or lower cost compared to the ILC.

    But I haven’t heard much of this idea recently. What are the technical or economical problems with it?

  12. ChuckO says:

    If physicists would really like the government to fund the next-generation collider in the US, all they would have to do is convince Congress and the Pentagon that it would lead to the development of some sort of super weapon.

  13. uair01 says:

    The discussion raises interesting questions for me (as an outsider). I’m convinced by Peter Woit that the amount of money spent on “esoteric” physics is negligible compared to the rest of the research budget. But what about the intellectual energy? Would it be possible to redirect it in a fruitful way? For example, could people switch fruitfully from deep particle physics to nuclear fusion? And could young scientists be motivated to choose one field over another? And should we meddle with the mechanism or should we leave it to the “free scientific market” and could a “scientific plan economy” work at all? Thinking about all the serendipitous discoveries we should probably not try to steer the process, but then Woit & Smolin have already demonstrated that the process is not fruitfully self-regulating.

  14. Tony Smith says:

    Steven Weinberg said (New York Review of Books 2012) about The Crisis of Big Science:
    “… What really motivates elementary particle physicists is a sense of how the world is ordered – it is, they believe, a world governed by simple universal principles that we are capable of discovering.

    But not everyone feels the importance of this.

    What does motivate legislators is the immediate economic interests of their constituents

    Perhaps if the SSC had cost more, it would not have been canceled. …”.

    What if the USA physics community (prominent figures like Steven Weinberg, and associations such as APS)
    proposed a $1 trillion project to understand more about fundamental high-energy physics
    to create jobs for subcontractors which jobs would be required to be USA jobs spread out over the entire USA
    The $1 trillion would allow for at least 3 projects:
    1 – reconstruct the Texas SSC and raise its energy to 100 TeV
    2 – a Linear Collider (maybe on a midwest site)
    3 – a Muon Collider (maybe in the Pacific area on a site far from cities to minimize radiation hazard, say in eastern Oregon or Washington)
    Subcontractor jobs could be spread all over the USA.
    The projects should be built to a gold-standard with no cost cutting
    in order to guarantee spending all of the $1 trillion and maximize job creation.

    The $1 trillion could be directly funded by the USA government as part of the Quantitative Easing (effectively money-printing without raising any specific tax rates) program
    that has already put multi-trillion dollar amounts into propping up the Derivative Casino of the Big 5 Banks.

    Maybe the APS and prominent physicists might make a clear and loud case
    that understanding fundamental physics is more important to human civilization than any Derivative Banking Casino
    that a revived SSC will give more jobs/money to the bulk of the population
    than does putting trillions in the pockets of Derivative Casino Bankers
    will at $1 trillion actually cost LESS than the multi-trillion dollar QE bailouts already spent on the Big Bank Derivative Casino.


    PS – I would like to add another Steven Weinberg quote, from a 28 June 2011 Bloomberg article by Zinta Lundborg:
    “… the students who really are so good that they can feel they are going to be part of the effort of discovering the fundamental principles of nature … stay in the field.
    It’s the students who are not so sure of that who migrate into Wall Street.
    I don’t know of any cases where a student was doing really first-rate work who then moved into Wall Street. …”.

    That seems to me to be yet another reason for the projects of the first-rate students to get at least $1 trillion from the Quantitative Easing program that has already given multi-trillion to the Wall Street of the second-raters.

    PPS – To those faint-hearted souls who might say that such a project might not succeed in the political climate of today’s USA, I say that
    you will never find out unless you try: I CAN’T NEVER DID.

  15. Roger says:

    No amount of money is going to “take us all the way to a final theory”, as Weinberg advocates. As long as he states his goals in terms of these unachievable fantasies, the congressman is right to say “No”.

  16. Steven C says:

    Given current political environment, very expensive and high profile science projects are going to be hard political sell. Even overall science spending is relatively small in US budget, science bearing part of the cost of US fiscal problems is expected. I do have to agree that under current political environment, prioritizing projects are definitely necessary.

    If there is one thing I am against the tone of Dr Weinberg, what science folks should do is to sell/market/talk to the public the coolness, applications, and benefits of science. That would probably manage the expected science funding cut. I dislike the gloomy and negative tone (especially when some of the gloominess is not based on current physics possibilities as some poster stated already – you don’t build a particle collider for its own sake – one does need to show possibility of new physics from whatever new collider). Instead of talking about fear that we may fall behind, we may better off selling projects that we know it may work, and make the projects sexy to the public.

  17. Peter Woit says:


    The only problem with this plan is that if the Fed could be convinced that helicopter drops of cash should be directed elsewhere than the large banks, HEP physicists wouldn’t be the only ones with their hands out. We could however possibly convince Simons and Epstein to stop wasting their money on directly supporting science, and instead start pouring their billions into electing officials who would make sure HEP gets the lion’s share of any further QE. After all, that’s what other interest groups are doing…

  18. Aidyan says:

    People are getting more and more skeptical of the so called ‘big science’. And rightly so. The genome project promised us miraculous cures for genetic diseases, but now we know that it miserably failed. The ISS was advertised as a great revolution for material science, but so far not much came out of it. It is now half a century that they are telling us that controlled nuclear fusion would save us from future energy crises, but it is still unclear if it is possible even in principle to build the plasma containing walls. Astronauts were send to the moon but today everyone realizes that it was only about the cold war and politics, certainly not about science (and where is the ‘giant leap for humankind.’..?). The Space Shuttle was supposed to become cheap and reusable, instead it turned out to be a bottomless pit. Another half of a century on cancer research produced equally very partial and disappointing results. It is now at least three decades that I hear about the coming bio-engineering revolution that should save the world. And we are still waiting…. And responsible of this state of affairs are to a good extent not only politicians but also men of science (I remember Carl Sagan lobbying for sending men on Mars… oh, no please not….).

    But, what about funding several small science projects instead of a single big science one? Does it really make sense to divert all the funds, efforts and skills of people into the n-th mammoth project? It has become easier to get mi-bi-tri-zillions for conventionally accepted lines of research than for small and cheap original projects. I saw how it is sometimes almost impossible to get only 50.000 dollars for a post-doc working on a little but novel and original non-mainstream line of research just because it is new (i.e. risky), original (i.e. of uncertain effectiveness), and non-mainstream (read: who will take responsibility if the ‘black sheep’ will not bleat with the flock?). Of course, I know, I know…. some discoveries will never come from little projects, and the times of the lonely genius working in the patent office are over. But maybe we should reconsider this obsession for stratospheric projects. It is not about abolishing big science, it is about rediscovering the potentiality of the small scale one.

  19. Peter Orland says:

    Much of what I am seeing here has little to do with Weinberg’s original points about high-energy physics. Most of science, including most of physics (but perhaps excluding particle and h-e nuclear physics), has a bright present and a bright future. For every example above of a failure there is also a success.

    Some programs have not lived up to their technological promise – ventures always bring risks. People often conflate discoveries (or non-discoveries) hyped through the media with real progress- then become cynical when their expectations aren’t realized. So what?

    Who said science and engineering were easy?

  20. armin says:

    Nowadays, any big science project that spans several election cycles severely risks falling victim to the vagaries of politics.

    Why can’t we invest at least some resources to try to find entirely new and different answers to the technical question of how to precisely deliver a large amount of energy to single elementary particles? Sure, this will require going back to the drawing board, possibly even revisiting some 80-90 year old engineering concepts that underlie modern particle accelerators, but, given (1) the staggering costs of any future particle accelerators, (2) the enormous risk that they will not be completed and (3) the absence of exotic discoveries with the LHC so far that would further motivate the construction of such projects, this seems to me a worthwhile line of research to invest in. Arguing against this strikes me a little like arguing against modes of personal transportation that are entirely new and different from the latest high-end model horse carriage.

    BTW I don’t know of nor advocate any particular “alternative” approach to accelerating particles, but I do believe in out-of-the-box thinking.

  21. Ben says:

    Re: Tony Smith’s idea is naive. Also, in regard to Weinberg quote “I don’t know of any cases where a student was doing really first-rate work who then moved into Wall Street” We have a high profile example in Jim Simons, of Cern-Simons fame

  22. Clara says:

    Weinberg hides a failure. The failure of big science is first of all a failure of theoretical physics. We lack a good theoretical model. One that is so compelling that it excites everybody to test it with a big experiment. If somebody came up with a great theory, a theory that would get everybody excited in the style of “yes, now we really have a candidate of a TOE” and “Finally a TOE without nonsense, without strings and without a multiverse” and “Finally a TOE that is not obviously not even wrong” THEN the trillion dollar experiment would be no problem.

    Nobody will spend huge amounts of money if the chances for result are so low.

    The failure is one of theoreticians. They do not need big money. But they have produced only “Not even wrong” models since 40 years. They have focused on supersymmetry – because Weinberg promoted it for 40 years, among others – and now are finding out that they were chasing a fantasy.

    The real failure is people like Weinberg, who drove most theoreticians and experimentalists to search for supersymmetry. And this was a mistake. It was, first of all, Weinberg’s personal mistake. If Weinberg had not created such a “lemming climate” in theoretical physics, we all would have had a much better chance to have his “final theory” already on the table.

    The whole article is that of an old bitter man who tries to divert from the fact that he is one of the main culprits for the present sad situation.

  23. harryb says:

    Some authors claim up to 30% of current US GDP can be directly linked to applications of QM – transistors, lasers etc and their technological offshoots. A century earlier than that you could make the same argument I guess re Maxwell’s Equations.

    The cheapness of theoretical physics, chalk and PCs, suggests its economic leverage is potentially vast, and sad to see it come under such cost scrutiny.

    But, when taken down dead-ends, that credibility is undermined. The over-focus on ST has surely contributed to the lack of options now open to HEP.

    Its a crisis of ideology and theory as much as Big Science.

  24. David Bailey says:

    If nobody had known about General Relativity, I somehow doubt that this would have prevented satellite navigation. I think the engineers would have discovered the discrepancy and added an ad hoc correction to fix the error. Anyway, developing and testing GR had a much lower cost than anything being discussed here.

    I think Aiden makes a very strong point that (sadly) big science has not delivered in recent years.

    The problem seems to be that science just blurs into politics at this exalted level!

    More generally, unless the human race can expand into space and command much more enery than it can on earth, the quest for larger accelerators must end sometime – politics is just bringing that day forward!

  25. emile says:

    Clara: as you probably know, Weinberg came up with the theory that is currently being put to the test at the LHC (A model of leptons). To blame him for the current situation just sounds strange: he came up with a theory that we can test. Second, searching for Supersymmetry on the experimental is not a waste of time: it covers such a vast amount of final states that it is essentially a generic search for physics beyond the Standard Model.

  26. jpd says:

    this claim:
    “The genome project promised us miraculous cures for genetic diseases, but now we know that it miserably failed.”
    is wildly ignorant

  27. Anonyrat says:

    It may be interesting to plot for each year from 1890-2010, the age of the chief mover/shaker in theoretical physics that year. If there were several, include them all.

    Such a plot might show that physics is becoming more and more a field where long-established authority reigns.

    One data point is below
    {1905, 26}

  28. SteveM says:

    There are often useful technological spin offs and side applications that arise from big science projects not necessarily directly connected with the science itself: for example, advances in computing, engineering, supercomputing, software engineering, data mining/analysis etc., developed for particle physics and genome research; indeed the WWW originated at CERN. There were many technological advances and spin offs and new industries in the 70s, arising from the Apollo moon program. Cancer has not been cured as such but there have been considerable strides in treating and managing it, in everything from nuclear medicine to new drugs. Science and engineering are also difficult and often progress slowly but they do progress because ultimately the scientific method works; and some things just have to be done on a large scale and require huge effort. Clara: Weinberg predicted weak neutral currents and the W, Z bosons and these things turned up just like he described them. Supersymmetry was (and is) a compelling and powerful idea, compatible with both particle physics and Einstein gravity–it made total sense to pursue it, along with superstring theory, even if ultimately they do not describe nature as it really is. The jury is still out on susy and evidence of it could still turn up–a scientific discovery as significant as finding life elsewhere in the universe. (Personal opinion.) One should not describe this great physicist as a “bitter old man” but I suspect he is expressing a certain amount of frustration in that he would really like to know certain things within his life time.

  29. Aidyan says:

    Clara: “If Weinberg had not created such a “lemming climate” in theoretical physics, we all would have had a much better chance to have his “final theory” already on the table.”

    Agreed. But I don’t think we can make only Weinberg responsible for this. If few central figures like him could create a flock-like mentality among theoretical physicists it is only because they found a large number of them willing to behave like sheep in the first place.

  30. cormac says:

    Re “The observations of microwave radiation left over from the early universe have confirmed the general idea of an early era of inflation, but do not give detailed information about the physical processes involved in the expansion ”
    it seems a pity not to mention that we may currently be on the cusp of a breakthrough; E-mode polarization has already been detected in the CMB, and if the PLANCK satellite resolves B-modes, that will surely go some way towards pointing us in the right direction

  31. Neto says:

    I’m not a physicist, and I don’t want to get in a political talk, but the fact is that humanity (and governments) have limited resources. I think we are getting in a time where HE experiments are very expensive. It’s not about being pro or against science, but we can’t make all the Science at the same time. Of course, particle physicist – and myself, and I’m not a scientist – want to know the real truth about the nature, but the question should be, the billions and billions that would be used to build a new particle accelerator could be used in another science areas that could bring more sooner and direct benefits to humanity? I mean, we need to think like a business and make ROI analyses to decide what the priority is in science. We have some real problems getting closer, water polution, food to feed billions and billions of people, etc. We need to be reasonable.

  32. Peter Woit says:


    Since humanity is not a business,there’s no reason this question should be addressed by “thinking like a business”. It may be that understanding the fundamental nature of the physical universe is not something that ever is going to make anyone a buck (other than popular science writers, and that’s not a very well-paid profession…) or solve any social or environmental problem. Historically though, many human beings are interested in such understanding and society has devoted (a small fraction of its) resources to pursuing this understanding. To me, wanting the answers to such questions is a part of being human, and to decide we’re no longer interested enough to put any effort into this search would be a change in human nature, not necessarily one for the better.

    I think anyone proposing to change the historical fraction of society’s resources devoted to this research needs to either claim that it was a mistake to do this in the past, or explain what has changed. Weinberg is arguing I think that since the problems have gotten harder, physicists and astronomers need even more than in the past. I’m not sure this argument is going to convince people, and the lack of a very scientifically compelling argument for a higher energy collider is a huge problem for HEP. On the other hand, those who argue for cutting HEP funding also need to explain what has changed. The GDP or major nations is as big as ever, it’s just not true that all of a sudden they can’t afford this small fraction of their resources.

  33. Neto says:


    It’s not about the humanity being a business, but about rational use of the resources.

    I’m as curious about the our nature as you are, that’s why I keep visiting your blog and a lot others even without being a physicist. Actually, I spend a lot of my time looking for answers about the big questions, and I really would like to see great improvements in my lifetime.

    But, I live in a third world country, and maybe because of this I can see that there are some really urgent areas that we should be investing into now, not only enviromental ones, I don’t wanna look like an enviromentalist, but health, energy, and so on.

    I’m not favorable to cut any resource that is being used in HEP physics today, I have a moderated view, I just think that before making new huge investiments in the big questions now, we should look for some big problems first.

    If I could choose, I would give up being alive when the big questions get answered by sooner improvements in peoples lives around the world, I wouldn’t hesitate.

    Maybe if my life was dependent of HE physics, if I was a physicist myself, my view would be different.

    If what you’re saying is that the next HE particle accelerator would consume relatively as much as LHC, then I think it’s justifiable.

  34. Anon says:

    @Neto, what is so wrong with looking like an environmentalist? Indeed, if I had had the opportunity to answer that congressman, I would have said that a century or two from now only two things about our era are going to truly matter to our descendants. The first is how we treat the environment, and the second is what we have achieved in fundamental research. Unfortunately, experience has shown that our political system is not remotely able to address either of these issues, and that makes me deeply pessimistic about the future.

  35. Mike says:

    Sounds like a good time to get into molecular biology or bioinformatics – it doesn’t require a lot of capital expenses (like large machines) and the results are applicable to the human condition ( = more funding). That being said, there is a surplus of PhDs in the life sciences as well.

  36. Neto says:


    Nothing wrong about it. I just didn’t want to look like a radical, maybe I was not clear.

    I think that there are more things that will matter to our descendants. A more equal, more safe world, for example.

    Fundamental answers are… Fundamental. But I don’t think it’s the only way to measure humanity evolution. At least not this time in history.

  37. Einstein_kid says:

    Hi everyone!
    I’m new to posting but not to the blog itself. I feel this debate is a good one for me to start contributing because it does not deal with high energy physics details (of which I am not an expert) but with the public face of sciences in general and physics in particular, where I think I may have my 2 cents to share (I am indeed a physicist). Discussing about public money calls for addressing public needs: the very first one among those, I believe, is accurate information. The public is curious: just look at all the “LHC will create a black hole” thing! And the public is reactive and powerful: take the mobilization behind the last servicing mission of the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009. It might sound too simple and obvious but if there is no public engagement toward theoretical physics, there is not going to be much funding for it in the future, which to me means not only no HE-LHC or NASA satellites but also no students, no professors and no universities. “Engagement toward theoretical physics? are you crazy” no, I’m not: there is a lot of things that can be told (and done), starting from emphasizing the word “Hadron” in the LHC acronym, which goes hand-in-hand with hadron-therapy, a technique that might have cured some listeners’ friends/relatives’ tumor.
    For these reasons I think that public engagement has to become a funding priority for every scientific project or collaboration. I like to think of this problem “quantum-mechanically”: if there is no efficient scientific communication, your project’s case does not exist; same holds true for the results already achieved by an experiment: if these results only live inside the ivory towers of universities and research institutions, they do not exist for the public.
    I truly believe that the scientific community has to become more actively involved in scientific communication in order to stay alive.

  38. william c wesley says:

    Ahh….reality check time. We spend 10 times more on sports than on science. Think about that. Bet we spend more on pornography than on science, ditto fashion and entertainment . Our military budget is the largest expenditure in history and I’m sure what is spent on religion is incalculable, like what the Egyptians spent on pyramids.
    No one EVER questions these other expenditures, why? So lets see, how many economic spin offs have come from ALL these other expenditures combined….ahhh, near Z E R O!
    Now how many industries and jobs have spun off from scientific investments? NEARLY ALL OF THEM. Most of us virtually owe our existence to scientific investment.
    People who don’t think shouldn’t control investment nor should they be given a platform on which to offer opinions about investment ether.

  39. Serge says:

    @Peter Woit
    Couldn’t TeV energy physics become practically relevant in unpleasant sense if something heavy hit nearby black hole in 1600 ly from us? Or more remote black hole which happen to point axis on us, or would point as result of collision? Does gamma ray burst modelling not require any new physics?

  40. Peter Woit says:


    TeV energy scales are so high that there aren’t known astrophysical objects that probe them. The things that we still don’t understand about possible TeV scale physics are typically very weakly-interacting phenomena, such as the Higgs or possible WIMPs. Such phenomena would be responsible for a vanishingly small fraction of whatever potentially dangerous radiation would be coming from some nearby astrophysical object.

  41. Satan Claws says:

    “One day sir, you may tax it.”

    Michael Faraday’s reply to William Gladstone, then British Chancellor of the Exchequer (Minister of Finance), when asked of the practical value of electricity (1850), as quoted in “The Harvest of a Quiet Eye: A Selection of Scientific Quotations” (1977), p. 56

    Can you use something like that?

  42. Zathras says:

    The issue with funding particle physics is that there is not much left to do. It’s been slow for 40 years, and there is no indication that this is going to change. The next energy gap to predictions is just too big. The only argument for a bigger collider is maybe we will see something new, but selling predictions of null results will be very, very difficult. There is no point in even trying to sell a next generation collider unless the LHC finds something unexpected.

  43. science rules says:

    uair01, fundamental research can do more than put bread on your table. It already put the web on your hands, so that you can discuss here and do much more with it. This has changed the way we live and on top it was given to the world for free. There are countless examples of money badly spent by governments everywhere everyday. There are few enterprises more useful, rewarding and honorable than fundamental research.

  44. Another Peter says:

    It seems a bit strange to me to take as granted that the general public will constantly support fundamental research. We do what we do mainly because we are interested in it. Most of the time we don’t think of applications and many regard questions of “applicability” as being close to insulting. Unless we teach, we are satisfying our curiousity using tax money. The general public will support this if it makes people feel great (or superior) and if they can afford the luxury to pay for this feeling. I think we have to understand that we are being lucky that we are paid at all (again, teaching excluded). Financially speaking, it is natural at a time of crisis to restructure your “investment portfolio” by shrinking the high-risk component (and gambling) and by getting rid of the “little indulgencies” that you may otherwise have.

  45. Peter Woit says:


    Please, repetitive, tendentious argumentation not carrying any new information is not appreciated here. This is not Slashdot, which now has a new posting about this, so take such arguments there:


  46. vorpal says:

    It would seem to me that in the 21st century, China would be the appropriate place to build a next generation high energy exploration instrument. They are a big country, with lots of money and hightly motivated to establish themselves among the technologically elite nations.

    The U.S. is a nation in decline, mostly because it’s interests have become synonymous with the interests of large corporations. I just don’t see a lot of corporate lobbyists pleading U.S. representatives for a new facility so they can get some supercollider contracts.

    Besides, even as a theoretical physicist, I would rather see the money go to the NIH for basic research into aging, cancer, stem cells etc.

  47. Pingback: La necesidad de la ciencia pura y la inutilidad de la ciencia aplicada por si sóla. « Ciencia DiY

  48. Owen Patterson says:

    Does every thing that humanity delves into have to have some immediately tangible benefit? I can think of a lot of wasteful junk that people spend lots of money and time on that does little more than immediate, temporary pleasure and is even often harmful. Our “souls” need nourishment too, otherwise let’s just go back to the caves and grunt around the fire.

    As for ignorant lawyer-trained politicians – to heck with them.

  49. Art Brown says:

    Dear Physicists and Rocket Engineers,
    In case you didn’t notice, we won the cold war. Congrats and our deepest gratitude for your contributions: we got to the moon first, and while you didn’t develop any bigger bombs since the ’50s, you showed convincingly that the other side wouldn’t either. As a bonus, the Standard Model looks quite serviceable for all our future conceivable needs.

    So again, hurrah for you: we contemplated a ticker-tape parade, but after Feynman passed, there just wouldn’t be much star power there, would there? Going forward, the obvious new threats are biological in nature, so we’ll be directing our resources that way. We hope the graduated reduction in your funding gives you all a chance to adapt.
    Best regards,

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