Of Governments and Physics

©Fernando Caracena 2014

In response to my blog entry, "THE PhD Glut in Physics", which I posted some time ago, I received the following response:

"I think this is one of the so much important info for me.
And I'm satisfied reading your article. However should remark on some basic issues, The website style is great, the articles is in point of fact nice :

D. Good activity, cheers"

Most of the feedback on posts that I get, I have felt not worth posting nor answering. Worse, some of the remarks are really ploys for getting free advertisement for commercial sites. I am not at present operating this site as a commercial venture. Having no wares to peddle, I just think that I have had enough age and experience to comment on one of my great loves, which is physics, in which I also earned a PhD degree. I am also interested in philosophy and spirituality. Further, I like the arts, literature, classical music, especially chamber music, and a host of other stuff that goes along the same lines.

I thought that this request was worth answering in some detail. I hope that I have interpreted it correctly.

I lived in Interesting times,

which is often taken as a curse by the Chinese. As I wrote in the above quoted blog about the PhD Glut, I managed to meet the challenge of the times without undo privation. In fact, I prospered, which as I always hoped was a true secondary effect promised by the wisdom of Scriptures. That is, prosperity was not my main focus in life, but I trusted the wisdom of the ages, which stated that I should "seek ... first the kingdom of heaven" and that prosperity would automatically be added. Indeed, in my life I have found that to be true indeed; but then, I do not speak for all ages and conditions of life.

As Brutus said, in Shakespeare's play, "Julius Caesar":

"There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries."

The truth of the above observation by William Shakespeare I can also verify from experience. But here are several tides and not just one. Miss one, and wait for the other. Identify it when it arrives and take it at its flood, and you will succeed at something.

These various thoughts expressed above, lead me to the following comments which constitutes advice that is the closest to career and life choices that I would dare give my own grandson; because, I feel that each generation must seek its own way. Every new generation instinctively knows better than its predecessors on how to meet the challenges of its own time. They do not want nor require the advice of their elders as mandates over their own life. As the wise old poet Robert Frost said,

"... I think we plan too much, too thoroughly for the young. Young people have insight. They have a flash here and a flash there. It is like the stars coming out early in the morning. They have flashes of light. They have the sort of thing which belongs to youth. It is later in the dark of life that we see forms, constellations."

In writing, I will also try to follow Frost's admonition,

"Some violence is always done to wisdom you build a philosophy out of. Give us pieces of wisdom like pieces of eight in a buckskin bag."

The tide of the atomic age

Physics developed rapidly in the United States a generation ahead of my own as a result of World War II. Adolf Hitler  the bogeyman of that war and dictator of Germany had a fierce public hatred of the Jews, which led to the Holocaust. Jews were among the leading physicists in Europe at the time and Germany was a country leading in scientific studies. Through the network of Jewish physicists, news leaked out of Germany that Strassman and Hahn had achieved fission of uranium nuclei and that therefore an atomic bomb of incredible destructive power was possible. News of these developments and their implications were brought to the attention of the president of the United States F. D. Roosevelt by Einstein and other scientists who responded with the creation of the Manhattan Project.

A crack team of world class scientist was set up at a then secret site at Los Alamos, New Mexico under a joint management consisting of military (Gen. Groves) and scientists (J. R. Oppenheimer, chief scientist). The high quality of this team and its ease of gathering was made possible because of the displacement of Jewish scientists by the Nazis in Europe, and the zeal that they had in fighting the menace to Jews represented by Hitler. The great success and speedy development of the atomic bomb led various groups of people in the United States to draw different conclusions. The military became impressed with its own organization skills. The public became impressed with the power of physics. Industry became convinced that American know-how and hard work could accomplish great things, in fact, almost anything. After the war's end, the world-class scientists at Los Alamos scattered internationally to various major universities.

The Manhattan Project was a great stimulus to American Science. The younger generation of native born Americans that participated in the project was inspired to achieve great things in physics, which resulted in Americans' receiving of Nobel Prizes. The US government contributed vast sums of money to physics research hoping thereby to reap future benefits from the miracle science. My own college professors had memories of participating in the Manhattan Project and experiences with world-class physicists.

While I was an undergraduate, another stimulus came down the pipe for physics. I remember looking up an Sputnik passing over the college campus. The cold war was going full swing, and the government increased its stimulus of science. It was this great tide in human affairs that carried me up and propelled me through graduate studies allowing me to achieve a PhD in physics without incurring any debt.

Politics gives and takes away

The big problem in physics is that of obtaining funding, which progressively depends on a large entity having deep pockets, such as government. The pay-off of physics, however, is enormous. It creates whole new dimensions of economy, which various business may benefit greatly from. Entities such a corporations may be able to fund some basic research, but their main concern is how much of the total return benefits their own coffers without benefiting their competitors. It is only the largest of governments or consortiums that can catch enough of the benefits from funding the most basic research efforts to justify the expense. In terms of career choices, the young scientists must trust that in preparing for basic research, employment possibilities do not disappear during their time of preparatory studies. In the case of the PhD glut, that is what happened.

Physicists by nature think way outside the box, and this habit often leads them to displease their sponsoring governments. Russia found this out during the cold war when physicists became "dissidents" that protested various government abuses. In the case of the PhD glut, physicists were prominent among protesters of the Vietnam war. The president at that time, surrounded by his staff members, identified war protesters that appeared on news clips and signaled them out for cancelling research grants. Most of the researchers targeted by these actions were not directly affected by such cancellations. They were senior people having tenure at major universities. However, the money derived from government grants supported the research of younger researchers who drew most of their support from these grants. The wrath directed by the president at senior researches fell upon innocent bystanders (the younger generation, and manifested itself as a sudden collapse of the job market for young physicists--the result was the PhD glut.

The PhD glut in physics probably marks the increasing disaffection of the US Federal government with physics. Unfortunately, the US economy since WW II has depended strongly on innovation. Without new technology coming down the pipe, it tends to dry up. The cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider particle accelerator in Texas in 1993 dramatically marked the beginning of the end of the United States'  lead in world science. Over the recent decades, the focus of scientific research has shifted overseas. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland and France is the focus of attention of particle physicists. The ease of global communications through the Internet and  of transportation through jet travel has made it possible for Americans present here in American universities to be stationed here but to participate in LHC research over there. Physics remains a very much international effort, but the technological fall out from the development of high-tech gadgets settles out mostly in Europe. America can become a vast wasteland for science, but still have high-level physics professors that are training mostly foreign students.

Were I a young person interested in studying physics today, I would not remain in the US, given the diminishing prospects of doing meaningful work in physics in this country. I think that I would probably decide to study abroad, probably in Europe. There is at this time a better existing climate for research in physics there than here, and the European lifestyle is more to my liking.

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