Based on your own experience, complete the following sentence found on a promotional website: “There can be no doubt that Paris is the place to be in summer 2010 for anyone interested in…”.
If your excited answer includes Physics Beyond the Standard Model (with capital letters) you’re probably reading this on a smartphone as you wait for French president Nicolas Sarkozy to open the 35th International Conference on High Energy Physics, or ICHEP.
What excites physicists rarely gets a mention outside scholarly circles, but the international media have devoted a fair amount of space to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Partly this is because of entertaining claims that the LHC would produce mini black holes that would transform the Alps into a gigantic Swiss cheese before munching their way through the rest of the planet. Citizens against the LHC even tried to stop the collider experiments in court.
A more common objection, and one that doesn’t need any knowledge of physics to grasp, is that projects like these are a waste of money . That was the view of the US Congress in 1993 when they stopped funding the Superconducting Supercollider. The LHC’s predecessor would have been three times more powerful, but it would also have been four or five times more expensive than the LHC’s $6 billion, and with the end of the Cold War, a favourite argument for the need to fund nuclear physics evaporated.
So what are the taxpayers’ billions being spent on? The sound-bite friendly answer is the “God particle”, or Higgs boson. The Standard Model does not include gravity and some of its features are arbitrary and unexplained. To overcome these shortcomings, physicists study symmetry, which in this context means that certain features observed in a system remain unchanged even following a transformation, such as rotation.
Theory predicted the existence of special particles to ensure this symmetry, and over the past few decades experiments have confirmed the predictions in collisions of particles at ever-higher energies. The Higgs boson is a major piece of the puzzle. According to the Standard Model, elementary particles get their mass by colliding with the Higgs particle, and if it exists, the power of the LHC is needed to detect it. If it doesn’t exist, high-energy physics will have to rethink its fundamentals.
Apart from giving insights into the origin of mass, LHC experiments study the “dark matter” that 96% of the Universe (and you and I) are made of, the secrets of the Big Bang, antimatter, and hidden dimensions of space.
So what? Couldn’t the billions be spent on something relevant to more pressing problems? The short answer of course is “yes”, but that would miss the point of how science works. Science’s goal is not to apply knowledge and know-how to creating useful things – that’s what technology does. Science creates the knowledge. The quantum effects physicists study are now an important parameter in designing digital cameras for instance (this post gives other examples).
The lack of understanding of what science is and how it works is due in part to the education system, but suspicion of science, and hostility towards it, is partly the scientists’ own fault. As the OECD Global Science Forum points out, “dialogue” is too often seen as simply improving the public’s understanding of science, rather than listening to what the public has to say.
If it wasn’t for Ed Roberts, who died today aged 68, blogs probably wouldn’t exist. After selling electronics kits to model rocket builders, Ed went on to design and build the Altair 8800 for MITS, a company based in his garage. The 8800 was promoted on the front page of the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics as the “World’s first minicomputer kit to rival commercial models”.
The young Bill Gates and Paul Allen read the magazine and contacted Roberts with an offer to write software for his machine. When he accepted, they moved to Albuquerque, where MITS was located, and founded a company known as Micro-Soft. Personal computing was born, and Ed Roberts is widely hailed as its father.
It wasn’t supposed to be like that. You may have seen some variant of the forecast attributed to IBM founder Thomas Watson that the global market for computers could reach five or six. And the history of technology is full of stories of predictions that turned out to be hilariously, or tragically, wrong. There are two basic mistakes.
The first is to imagine that the future is simply an extrapolation of the present. OECD Insights: International Trade tells how in the early 1980s, AT&T hired the consultancy firm McKinsey to study cellular telephony. McKinsey estimated that by the year 2000, there could be 900 000 cell phones worldwide. Today, twice that many handsets are sold in a week. McKinsey would have been right if phones and services had stayed much as they were at the time. In 1985, a mobile phone weighed 20kg and in the UK it cost the equivalent of 320 Euros at today’s prices to rent for three months.
The second mistake is to fail to see potential connections. Telephony and computing had been around for a long time before they got together to make the Internet.
In these cases we’re talking about technology, where companies are actively seeking to transform ideas into profits. In science, the issues are a bit different, but some of the poor thinking underlying technology forecasts is often at work.
Scientific research is routinely accused of being a waste of money. Partly, this is due to media stories like the formula for a perfect wife. At a more fundamental level, though, many people, including politicians who decide on R&D budgets, don’t understand how science works.
Often, we hear that it should be “useful”. But how do you know in advance where research might lead and what its uses could be? Take ornithology. You could make a convincing case that bird watching is a fascinating hobby, but governments shouldn’t be paying people to do it. It doesn’t have much economic value, except as a minor tourist attraction. Then along comes avian influenza, and the possibility that some national poultry industries could be wiped out, or that the virus could even mutate and infect humans. Suddenly, migration patterns, nesting habits and the like become vital pieces of information.
The same is true about another piece of news that hit the headlines this week. Researchers working in Italy discovered that toads may predict earthquakes. The scientists were studying breeding behaviour. They weren’t looking for anything remotely to do with seismology, but the finding could turn out to be a “useful” contribution to predicting Earth tremors.
One of the most positive aspects of globalisation is that connections that once would have been impractical or unimaginable are commonplace. Not just goods, but ideas and knowledge flow quickly around the world and we’re no longer surprised by Japanese whisky or Texan basmati rice or Iranian Lacanians. But we would be surprised if we knew what new combinations the future has in store.
Yesterday was “Mothering Sunday” in the UK, and the Sunday Times reported that a London fertility clinic is holding a prize draw for would-be mums this week. The lucky winner gets a human egg.
And not just any old egg, mind you, since she’ll be able to pick the “racial background, upbringing and education of the donor”.
The raffle is being organised to promote a partnership with a US company in the same business. The idea is to attract women in their forties and fifties who are unlikely to get pregnant using their own eggs.
For Josephine Quintavalle of CORE, a think-tank specialising in the ethics of assisted reproduction, “the capacity of the IVF industry to commodify human life reaches a new low with this latest deplorable initiative”.
Others may not be so outraged. After all, selling bits of their body can be a useful source of revenue for the needy. The London clinic’s own website boasts of the “superb” success of its Ukraine programme, enabling patients aged up to 56 to conceive. That said, it doesn’t specify whether the “donors” are from the Ukraine (GDP per capita $6400) or whether women from the UK (GDP per capita $35,400) are helping their Slavic sisters.
It is clear, though, that the clinic and its business partners have to steer a course through a “very wide range of laws, rules, guidelines and ethics”. The raffle is a useful navigational aid, enabling the clinic to get round legal constraints on selling eggs, since the treatment will be carried out in a US state that allows such sales.
That doesn’t make the ethical debate disappear. On the face of it, you’d expect people whose worldview is shaped by Judaism, Christianity or Islam to be delighted at the idea of an old, barren woman giving birth. After all, when Abraham/Ibrahim’s wife Sarah had Isaac she was over 90, and it was hailed as a wonder to be praised.
Some of the feeling of unease around IVF is to do with the fact that we’re talking about women in their 50s or 60s having a baby. Little is said about a man the same age fathering a child. When asked to explain their unease, many people would say that in the women’s case, it is “unnatural”.
Consciously or not, such a reply reflects a view of nature and the natural that in the West at least has changed little since the Middle Ages, when thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Engelbert of Admont developed ideas explored earlier by St Augustine, and Aristotle before him. For them, a child conceived and born when one parent is beyond the usual age was a typical example of a miracle “beyond nature”.
Augustine also used the Greek notion of “rationes seminales” – seminal reasons – to explain the coming into existence of things that didn’t previously exist in nature. He argued that the germs of things have existed since the creation, even if the conditions that allow them to evolve did not. Also, each thing is true to its own essence – a flower seed will not grow into an animal for instance.
Why bother with all this ontology? Because in the past few decades, science has given us the possibility of producing miracles and wonders on a daily basis. Doctors can now restore sight to the blind, make the crippled walk and easily cure leprosy and plague. Thanks to science, we can fly to the Moon.
But science can also do things many of us disagree with or are unsure about – build nuclear weapons, alter genetic material, keep the near-dead alive.
Policy makers can’t keep up. Partly this is because the pace of change in science is far faster than the pace of policy making. Partly, it’s because politicians, like most of the citizens they represent, don’t understand the science. And partly it’s because, again like many of us, they have ambivalent attitudes towards the latest discoveries, perhaps not agreeing with them on moral grounds, but unwilling to deny others any potential benefits.
Biotechnology: Ethical and social debtes from the OECD International Futures Project on “Biotechnology to 2030”
Improving the dialogue with society on scientific issues OECD Global Science Forum
Bioethics information resources from the US National Institutes of Health
Bioedge bioethics news site (incoporating the former Australasian Bioethics Information site)