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Peter Steinberg | USLHC | USA

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Tackling Easterbrook

I know I’m pretty late to the party on this, Chad Orzel having already tackled Gregg Easterbrook’s bizarre outburst just before the thanksgiving holiday. But there are connections here both to the LHC (my future), RHIC (my present), and US funding of both of these that justify some further discussion. Now, for those who don’t read ESPN’s website (hand raised!) people might wonder why RHIC and the LHC turned up there.I had seen Easterbrook’s writing over the years in the New Republic, New York Times, etc. so I was thrown (ha…) by his ESPN gig at first, until I checked out his Wikipedia entry.  I’m not sure he ever recovered from the Kill Bill incident (worth reading about).  So it seems he writes 4000 words about football every week for ESPN, but then gets another 10000 words to rant about whatever he feels like — strange. Anyway, the November 20 column (the one referenced above), buried a long rambling outburst about government funding of large science projects, the LHC and ILC pointed out in particular.

Scientists Discover That If You Slam Members of Congress Together Under Pressure, Money Is Released: High-energy particle accelerators cost taxpayers large sums but stand little chance of discovering anything of practical value. Promoted as quests for understanding of the universe, particle accelerators serve mostly as job programs for physicists, postdocs, and politically connected laboratories and contractors. Yes, abstract experiments of bygone days produced great discoveries, and yes, the quest for abstract knowledge is inherent to human nature. But most experiments from the bygone golden age of physics were done at private expense, not using tax subsidies. Albert Michelson and Edward Morley did not demand that Ohio taxpayers provide them with a decade of luxury while they refined their ideas.

and so on. If this guy had any idea how science worked, e.g. where the money comes from, or didn’t do this at the end of a football column, I might try and take him more seriously:

The National Science Foundation budget for the fiscal year that just ended contained about $135 million in tax dollars to operate the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a facility to which federal taxpayers forcibly have contributed about $1.1 billion total.

That’s the Department of Energy who funds these things, and this guy is nominally a reporter. Of facts. And I’m not sure why he indicts money for big science in particular, considering he’s not terribly interested in the outcome unless it would play well on ESPN. Maybe it’s his interest, nay, obsession, with a man-made Doomsday? About RHIC:

Privately funded atom-smashers would be perfectly fine — unless one inadvertently transforms the Earth into “an inert hyperdense sphere about 100 meters across,” as this book by British astronomer Martin Rees claims is possible.

And about LHC doing for European science what he thinks the ILC will do for the US:

The superconducting magnets of Europe’s 17-mile-long Large Hadron Collider, near Lake Geneva, are scheduled to turn on in 2008, and we can hope that a sizable chunk of the France-Switzerland border does not dematerialize at that instant…Set aside whether $15 billion should forcibly be removed from taxpayers’ pockets in order to cause proton beams to move a bit faster. Are we really sure it is history’s greatest idea to be re-creating the conditions that existed when the universe exploded?

I don’t mind people questioning the purpose and outcome of the upcoming generation of megascience projects. I do mind the scaremongering which now seems to accompany every big machine (and always has, it seems — more on this later). For quite a while now, I’ve been suspecting that doomsday is less of a scientific concern for various observers, than an efficient way for nominally-concerned morally-driven people (Rees and Posner among them) to get wide public attention for their books, and for reporters like Easterbrook, farther down the food-chain, to fill a few gripping paragraphs in Wired Magazine. I mention Rees and Posner in particular since they are both highly credible public intellectuals, but ones who made these particular arguments based on what other people were thinking and saying — and ignoring any and all relevant scientific information which may have been gained in the meantime. Has either Rees or Posner considered updating their thinking after 7 years of perfectly safe RHIC operations? I’ve made this argument on TV — ok, Voice of America TV — but I’m sure now that I and others will have to make it again.Whether or not one agrees with the aims, or even the methods or cost, of scientific endeavors, mere appeals to common sense, and citing rapidly-outdating literature, just don’t cut it anymore. And even if you are sure that they should, I’m sure can find far, far more deadly and expensive things to worry about well before the LHC turns on.

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