Doing Big Science

We do science to expand knowledge of our reality. It does not take a deep thinker to realize that increasing our knowledge of the world in which we live will keep humans safer and more productive in our expected long future on Earth.

Philosophically, a small segment of the population will reject science and technology entirely, imagining us with a better future by living sustainably off the land with no other tools than our distant ancestors used. But these small internal societies always depend on the external society in which they are embedded, to provide markets for their goods, places for their children to go when they choose a different life style or when affordable land is no longer available to them, and to provide a buffer for their physical protection from those who would take their existing lands from them. Thus it is valid for us to argue the necessity of science and technology for the mainstream societies.

We do big science because some knowledge we desire requires huge machinery or huge analysis to acquire. Examples are astronomy and space exploration for scientific purpose; particle physics exploration for understanding the nature of matter, enabling limitless future energy production, much faster computers, and unlocking secrets of the dark matter that is spread among the stars; SETI investigations, seeking contact with possible extra-terrestrial intelligence; investigation into the workings of mind and consciousness, perhaps making safer a future world filled with artificial intelligence agents; search for genetic information that will enable the future of preventive medicine; producing an autonomous machine that can reproduce the human life form for population of distant habitable worlds.

Pacing of such big projects is essential to future big science successes. Multi-billion dollar projects increasingly will end up in the too-tough-to-sell pile. But a big project may be designed as a sequence of smaller projects, distributing costs across time. The pace of new projects must be rapid enough that work for new science PhDs is always available. The pace should not be so rapid that there has been as insufficient time to analyze all prior data in the subject area.

Pacing should involve interspersing big projects with smaller related projects, to further guarantee that we wring out all possible existing knowledge before launching another big project, eliminating costly false starts and misdirection.

An important decision in starting a new big science project is the availability of appropriate support technology. If a new technology will be available in a few years that would save a significant percentage of total costs, why not wait those extra years and switch support to projects to develop the technology? Technology projects and science projects go hand-in-hand and need to be coordinated. If planned far enough in advance, their time horizons are not fixed and should be the product of considerable strategic planning at the international level. International cooperation is a requirement for doing big science because of the its many benefits. Costs to each national economy are mitigated, the expertise pool expanded, and a common stake in great projects fosters international cooperation and transparency.

Selling big science is necessary in a democratic society. Yet some science is too advanced and its products too ephemeral to be saleable to the populace as a whole. Just as the public funds the military to keep us safe while not being privy to the details, we should learn to think of fundamental science in the same light and then fund similar budgets for each. Both are necessary to keep us well over the long term.

Space exploration projects are a current international hot topic. To make them more saleable here, a titillation sweetener is added, humans along for the ride. But providing a human ‘pilot’ will make any resulting science exponentially more costly. Such projects are saleable only if one never sees the price tag. Perhaps it would be best to have the motion picture industry fund these proposed joy-ridering trips to the stars

An eminent mathematician and physicist provides a scare motivator for human space exploration by arguing that Earth will soon become uninhabitable and we all need to find a distant home. But doing science for the wrong reason is a type of fraud.  Some of our big science projects should be designed to ensure future habitability of Earth for the next billion or so years.

Humans are not a necessary element of scientific space exploration. As a big technology project, we could experiment with human colonization of our moon for the next century. But we would do well to leave all more distant exploration and science to our autonomous machines. Big science should be done to ensure such machines are possible and that we can safely coexist with them.


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