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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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Listening to data

Darn it, Peter got to it first, but I too would like to call your attention to the interesting essay that Dennis Overbye wrote in The New York Times this week.  (I have to post more rapidly.)  It reflects upon President Obama’s call to “restore science to its rightful place,” and the interplay between science and democracy.  There is a shout-out to the LHC in there, as he remarks that people from a great variety of backgrounds have happily worked together (or at least happily enough) on these projects.

I agree with Overbye’s arguments, but the essay, which asserts that democracy is one of the values of science, got me thinking about what other values that science gives us.  I think that one of the most important values for me is one that Overbye touches on a little: the value of listening to what nature is telling us.  In science, that means listening to the data that our experiments provide. 

There are many ways to be creative in science — in my particular science, we create new acceleration technologies, devise new ways to detect particles, and find clever ways to analyze our data so that we can measure particle properties with the smallest possible uncertainty.  We have a healthy appreciation, and admiration, for ideas that we haven’t seen before that turn out to have a big payoff.  Practitioners of theoretical physics can build very creative theories that explain current measurements and make predictions for future results.  But there is one thing that we are never creative about, and that’s what the actual answers are.  Those we can only find by doing the experiments — we can’t make it up, we can’t guess, we can’t rely on the opinions of others, we can’t be superstitious.  All of the creativity we have must bump up against the realities that nature presents us with, and if our hypotheses disagree with the data we record, we must discard them.  It is a little humbling, in a way.

But on the other hand, it is also empowering.  So many answers may be out there, if we only open our eyes and look!  This is obviously true of something like particle physics, but I think it applies to a broader range of human problems.  What kind of programs are effective in reducing societal ills?  What economic policies might improve the lives of the largest number of people?  You can try them out and see what works, or analyze the results of previous attempts to implement them, and see if those worked.  We can do better than just following a philosophical ideal or notion — we can test our creativity against the real world.  Obviously these sorts of “experiments” have all sorts of complications that physics experiments don’t.  But we can still collect data and learn something from nature.  Perhaps that is one of the rightful places of science that Obama has in mind?

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