Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"Can't your budget be diverted?"

We've just gotten a nice write-up in an online publication called "Worldchanging," which operates under the idea that many of the solutions to building a better future are all around us, but just need to be connected. "Informed by that premise," the magazine states, "we do our best to bring you the most important and innovative new tools, models, and ideas for building a bright green future." The writer, Julia Levitt, attended the screening at Vancouver.

The article focuses on one of the issues in the film that appears regularly in our Q & A sessions, and that we expound on in the film at some length: is this worth doing? What's the point of it? Should we care if we find the Higgs boson?

If you haven't seen the film yet, there is a section near the end from a 1979 Donahue show (remember Donahue?) that features Leon Lederman as the guest. Dr. Lederman is featured throughout our film, and is currently nearly as vibrant as he was 30 years ago when he appeared on Donahue. This segment is only a few seconds long, and shows a woman in the crowd standing up to ask a question.

"Hi," she says, "I guess my question is relatively simple. All this money, a hundred million dollars, is that what you said?"

She's referring to an earlier part of the show when Dr. Lederman had mentioned that figure as his lab's budget. There was a visible reaction in the crowd when he stated that figure (remember, this is 1979). Sensing the crowd's unease, he said "does that seem like a lot? Do you know what the military budget is? $100 million buys, I think, one jet airplane." At which point Donahue said "the problem is, you can put the jet airplane in a movie." There's some nervous laughter in the crowd, much of it confused, but Donahue follows up by sharpening the point: "You know what I mean? Then we can all cheer and say 'go, America, and win.'" Then, looking right at Dr. Lederman, he says very directly: "Your work is hard to sell, you know that?"

This point is now being illustrated in no uncertain terms. Donahue quickly answers her question:

"A hundred million. That's just his budget. There are others ---"
"That's just his budget," she says, looking back at Lederman. "Why can't that money be diverted? I feel that cancer research, and other kinds of research are really more important than finding out, you know, just how many quarks make up this world!"

Lederman is watching her with an unreadable expression as she speaks. Behind him is a chalkboard on which he has drawn a rushed diagram of a proton, and finished a (not particularly good) explanation of how a proton is held together. I suspect he is listening to something he has heard a thousand times and has answered hundreds of different ways. Maybe he's thinking he'll never find a way to convince this woman, the audience, or the other people who have expressed similar sentiments, that what he and his colleagues do is worthwhile. Maybe he's thinking that it's not fair to put cancer research and particle physics next to each other on some kind of scale to find out which is more valuable. Or maybe he's thinking it is fair, and doesn't know how to respond. Or maybe he's just tired of talking about it.

in some of the Q&A sessions we've had after the film, the question has come up. So far not in the way that Lederman experienced, but rather from pro-science people wondering how scientists answer this question. We've been asked more than once why we didn't include more information about the ancillary benefits that this type of science generates (after all, CERN invented the world wide web).

The way I respond is to say that our film, while obviously pro-science, is not a science advocacy film. We're not out to prove to you, the viewer, why this kind of science is worth doing. We could trot out a list of all the ways consumer technology or communications technology or even health sciences have benefited from the work people like Dr. Lederman or the other physicists in our film have done. What's far more important, in our minds, is to raise the question. We don't set about answering the question; that's something we feel only the individual viewer can do.

The research that the physicists do in our film as they search for the Higgs boson is called "curiosity-driven" science, or, more simply, pure research. It's knowledge for the sake of understanding. As John Conway says, this is something humans have been doing for 3500 years. That, and that alone, is the way to measure it's worth. And this is exactly where it snags in the fabric of everyday human activity, especially when things seem to be in turmoil. "What good does it do me? Can it cure cancer? Will it make my cell phone better?" To argue that point is, I think, to miss the point. Sure, it might do those things. But more importantly, it has to stand on its own. And many people might find themselves nodding in agreement with the woman from 1979 in the audience of the Donahue show, clearly uninterested in how many quarks make up this world.

In an example of the pleasures I get out of the process of editing, the very next thing you see in the film after the woman from Donahue makes her immanently reasonable statement is Natalie Angier, a science writer from The New York Times. You hear my voice in the background asking "Should we care if the Higgs boson is found?" What follows is one of my favorite moments in the film. Natalie laughs a little, then pauses for a full ten seconds as she tries to figure out how to answer the question. Ten seconds of silence is a long time these days.

Julia's article in Worldchanging addresses this notion. Her first line reads "Is there value in knowledge for the sake of knowledge?" In one of the comments posted at the end of the article, a reader called "sabik" writes

Of course, the problem is how to judge something that won't have a practical application for decades or even centuries. It's a question of what sort of intellectual landscape we are leaving for our children and grand-children - whether it's rich and varied, pregnant with discoveries to be made, or impoverished and bare.

I think this is nicely said. I'll mention something else along these lines that I may have referenced before somewhere in this blog, that addresses head-on the question of the intrinsic worth of "curiosity-driven" science, or pure research. When Robert Wilson (founder of Fermilab) was in congress arguing for the funds that would allow Fermilab to be built, a senator repeatedly asked how Fermilab would contribute to the defense of the country. Finally, exasperated, Wilson said "It will not contribute to the defense of the country. But it will make the country worth defending."

That's Robert Wilson's answer to the question. I wonder if that would have been enough for the woman in the audience?


Anonymous said...

Consider the great Cathedrals of the world, which were erected at enormous cost of human labor and capital, and were considered monuments to the divinely revealed wisdom of the Scriptures. Were they worth the effort? Did they get their monies worth? How did they justify the expense? Wouldn't the average 15th century peasant standing inside such structures be as dumbfounded as the Donahue lady?

Andy said...

I don't think I can put it better than Wilson, but it speaks to the larger issue of people expecting quick fixes/results in life. To me this leads to rash decisions and a lack of depth when dealing with our fellow man and the complexities and challenges we each face. Only those who can see the bigger picture or at least have faith that it exists will understand why this type of research is valuable even if we never discover the Higgs. I'm reminded of what was said at the MSI screening, that some of this research is now, in fact being used for cancer treatments.

Joe said...

Just to follow up to the woman on Donahue and what Andy writes... a recent, nice press release from Brookhaven National Lab.