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News Is physics becoming too expensive?

  1. Feb 11, 2005 #1
    Is research in macro and micro physics becoming too expensive? It seems that new experimental data requires constantly more expensive devices. Not long ago the materials and devices were so cheap that even a single person could afford to make the experiments. Today the particle accelerators and and space telescopes often requires the pooling of the resources of many nations. Another effect seems to be increasing lead time before the experiments can start.

    Maybe one explanation is that experimental physics increasingly operate at the limits of technology. One effect may be that physicists now construct theories which are increasingly difficult to test empirically.

    So should physics take a time-out regarding the macro and the micro world while waiting for technology to advance? And maybe instead concentrate on areas like meteorology, oceanography, plate tectonics and areas shared with chemistry and biology?

  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 11, 2005 #2
    Interesting question. However, most physics I know, though it sounds expensive, is pretty inexpensive when compared with some part of the economy it is associated with. For instance, the laser lab at a nearby research has several million dollars in grants. While that is a lot, the science he does is exceptional, and compared with the economic value of lasers, a few million is dirt cheap. Next door the astro lab has some excellent results using equpment that costs tens of thousands of dollars. Not cheap, but not a space telescope either.

    What portion of physics do space telescopes and particle accellerators make up? In my humble opinion, I think you are considering only those parts that are expensive, and in fact the overall science is not overly costly. I'd be interested in a more complete posing of your problem.

    Thanks for the interesting post.
  4. Feb 11, 2005 #3


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    It is an interesting question - some of the more fundamental discoveries in physics were accomplished by individuals with very little in the way of apparatus. Galileo found the relationship between gravity and acceleration by rolling little balls down a ramp.

    I think, in general, there is a relationship between the complexity(there is a better word....) of the discovery/theory and the equipment needed to discover/collect data to validate it. Astronomy and the cost/complexity of telescopes provides great examples of this.
  5. Feb 13, 2005 #4


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    I have several points to make here, because it is something that comes up regularly. Experimental physics has often been on the verge of what is technologically feasible (because that's where new stuff can happen ! Otherwise it would already have been "on the verge of what is technologically feasible" in the past), and because technology advances, more complex, big, "expensive" experiments simply become possible. The space telescope (even a smaller one) was NOT possible, even with the largest budget in the world, in the 1960ies for instance. The LHC collider wasn't possible in the seventies, even if we tried. It is only now that the DEVELLOPMENT of the technology becomes possible. And that's what I would like to stress: even if the ultimate goal of these big science projects are about fundamental science (and rightly so), most of the money is in fact for TECHNOLOGY DEVELLOPMENT. It is not that the technology now commercially exists, and that you simply place a huge order for billions of $. No, it becomes possible to *devellop* the technology. So, I repeat, a big, big part of the money is for develloping new technology, of which an important part will get more mundane spinoff.
    So if you subtract that "return on investment" from the initial cost, I think that the *absolute cost* for the fundamental scientific information you get out is pretty low (or even negative !).

    The next point I'd like to make is that, even though the numbers of certain scientific projects might seem large, they are still a tiny scratch on the surface of the total economy. Look at something like the Hubble space telescope: Earth made ONE such a thing, it has been working for what, 10 years ? I don't know the numbers, but if you distribute the cost of this telescope over the Earth's GNP summed over 10 years, it is peanuts. And it brought us on the scientific side an unestimable value.
    It is ironical that it could still work for 5 more years if NASA spent ONE shuttle flight to it, but they won't because they need all the flights to get the garbage out of that third rate disney resort called ISS where the main mission of the astronauts is to survive until the next crew comes in and where the main technology advance is to get a better vacuum cleaner in the loo.

    Finally a third point is that these big science projects do have a great value on the pedagogical side, which is also very hard to convert in $$. It is a great adventure to go, as a student, into such a big international collaboration. You have the opportunity to become a bit more a "world citizen". Also, you have the advantage of learning from others, who didn't go through the same system and professors and all as you did. So you really learn a lot. As most students going through such a collaboration will not stay in the field, they then bring this oxygen to whereever they will go in their later life.

  6. Feb 16, 2005 #5


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    Five hundred years ago, if you asked you friend for a few drachmas to build a device that looks into the heavens, he would assume you've lost your marbles. Now with the level of international co-operation that is prevalent within the scientific community, it is possible for nations to pool their resources into what they feel is worthy.

    So, there's also the effect of the broadening of possibility (in terms of resource pooling) and the availability of the money that encourages the designing of projects that tap this potential.
  7. Feb 16, 2005 #6


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    This is something all scientists, not just physicists, need to think about. The vast majority of us are supported by public funds, so it is a responsibility to ensure that we are doing things in the most cost-effective way possible and carefully designed so that we are giving the tax-payer a return on their investment. The challenge is that in the early discovery phases of anything, the future applications are not always obvious, so it can be difficult to assess whether it's really worth the expense or not. The approach physics has taken of pooling resources to have a few shared facilities for projects that really are extremely expensive is a good model for science in general. While I know it's a frustration to those who need to use the facilities, the demand for them and the need to schedule time well in advance also has an added effect that it probably forces those who might have otherwise been sloppy in their work to very carefully plan to make the most of limited time available to use those facilities. You won't want to be wasteful if you can't just go back the next day and try again if it isn't done right the first time.
  8. Feb 16, 2005 #7
    And it's not just the hugely expensive international facilities, according to an antarctic researcher I interviewed. The same goes for collecting samples after flying half way across the world, sitting a few weeks in a boat from south america to antarctis and hiking/climbing a week from the base camp to get your sample. After getting all the way back home, if you realize it is the wrong sample, it is not like going back to the library after the missing book...
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2005
  9. Feb 16, 2005 #8


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    This is a bit off-topic, but as far as I know, you don't take a boat to Antarctica. :biggrin:

    I know one person who went there to do research on seals. The flight there is from New Zealand, via military aircraft (not the most pleasant way to fly). Anyway, for more info, here's a site about McMurdo Base, a US Naval station that's the largest station there. The site also mentions nearby Scott Base, which is a New Zealand base (much smaller, can only handle about 10-15 over-winterers). It definitely requires a lot of planning, and even more if you're going to overwinter there (then you're packing 6 months of supplies with little expectation of any flights in or out...cabin fever is a very real problem when living in near total darkness with only about 250 people crammed into just a few buildings for months; apparently alcoholism is also a big problem among those overwintering there).

  10. Feb 16, 2005 #9

    So they're like college students then?
  11. Feb 17, 2005 #10
    Well, actually you get there with both, altough I bet the boat is way more comfortable. :biggrin:

    But to get this a bit closer to topic, think about Antarctica as a huge natural laboratory. Then consider that according to the International Antarctic Treaty a country must conduct scientific research on the rock to have a say in its political matters. Finally, consider there are plenty of speculations of Antarctica being a rich source of diamonds. So, Finland first made a political choice of wanting to be part of the Treaty and then looked for crazy scientists, actually willing to go there. My point is, many expensive pure science (including physics) projects get their founding because they also serve other than scientific goals (like the moon race).

    So far so good, but pure science should IMHO not only be dependant on its possible further applications and show off merits. I hardly have to tell you folks, but knowledge has a value in it self, just like liberty, and that is what science & technology policy makers should keep in mind. Not that I know, but could it hurt to mention this in grant application as well?

    Well, back to antarctica: http://www.fimr.fi/en/etelamanner/finnarp/logistiikka.html [Broken] The Finnish logistics team is proud of their boat and Aboa station, located on Queen Maude's Land (in the upper region of the little map on your page, MB (BTW, funny how you can not say "north" and mean "up" :tongue2: )). It is a small station for about 10 people, so talk about cabin fever. Not that you stay there over the winter, but a good 3 months is still a lot.

    Ps. Nice site. Thanks!
    Last edited by a moderator: May 1, 2017
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