Putting a price on physics as a discipline

Update: the following blog post has been reposted over on the FQXi website.

It was announced today that the University of Southern Maine’s physics department will be shuttered and its major eliminated. This hits particularly close to home for me since I live outside of Portland and know some of the faculty members there. Closing the USM physics department would leave the University of Maine at Orono as the only public university physics department in the state. In particular it leaves the largest city in the state without a public physics program. Along with the department, the wildly popular (though apparently money-losing) planetarium may be closed since it is currently operated by the department. Low enrollment (as compared to other departments in the university) and money (what else?) were cited as reasons by the university’s president.

I’m sure there are plenty of non-physicists out there who will welcome this move as pragmatic and inevitable in these tough economic times. “Shape up or ship out” seems to be the motto in a world in which we increasingly need to justify anything and everything in terms of short-term money and jobs. Physics, of course, is used to being treated as the bastard science in higher education, at least at the non-elite schools. Hundreds — indeed likely thousands — of colleges and small universities in the US have comparatively large biology and chemistry departments but no physics department. As a result, most high school physics teachers have a degree in something other than physics and frequently are teaching physics simply because someone has to (for now). Even at schools that have physics departments, they are often underfunded and under-appreciated. At my own institution, our department consists of three faculty members and one lab instructor while chemistry, which has roughly the same number of majors, has six faculty members and at least as many lab instructors.

So why is physics treated like this? I’m sure the answer to that is complicated and involves a lot of variables and a lot of history. I’m also sure that physicists are, themselves, partly to blame. But I’m also sure that a major component of this decline is the growing sense that everything must be practical and profit-driven, particularly in the short-term. This paradigm has also infected those physics departments that manage to survive by driving research away from fundamental discoveries and more toward discoveries that will have a short-term impact on the field, i.e. low-risk (which also happens to be low-reward). Perhaps you are someone who believes that this is a good thing. History should teach us, however, that it is not.

Stop and think for a moment about the things in your life that you take for granted. You car? Your house? These days, perhaps your smart phone or GPS? Your television? Your electric razor? How about electricity in general? X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs? Your immediate response might be that all of those things were brought to you by engineers, not physicists. Sure, with the exception, I suppose, of the X-ray, my guess is that those devices were all developed by engineers, for the most part. But who made the discoveries that were then turned into technology by the engineers? In every single case mentioned here, they were made by physicists. Newton, Galileo, Hooke, and others “discovered” classical mechanics which is what engineers use to build ever-more-complex buildings. Carnot, Clausius, Maxwell, Boltzmann and others “discovered” the laws of thermodynamics that literally fueled the Industrial Revolution. Faraday, Gauss, Ampère, Maxwell and others “discovered” the laws of electricity and magnetism that power nearly everything now (including our cars!). Marie Curie literally died from her research, not knowing the deleterious effects of radiation until it was too late. Robert Goddard, long-time chair of the Clark University physics department, whose webpage at one point notes that physics “is the most fundamental of the sciences,” pioneered the field of rocketry that allows us to put satellites in orbit that bring us such things as DirecTV and GPS. Do you get NFL Sunday Ticket (like me) or some other such thing? Thank a physicist. Don’t think relativity is of any practical importance? Think again. GPS satellites rely on it (without using it, GPS coordinates would be off by as much as 300 feet or more). Without Einstein, there’d be no GPS.

Well, OK, you say, but what has physics done for me lately? After all, didn’t Sean Carroll recently declare that the physics of everyday life was completely understood? Plenty of physicists will likely bristle at the following suggestion, but the fact remains that we are moving toward a reality that includes quantum computers in some way, shape, or form. While the D-Wave One may not be a universal quantum computer — and its very quantumness may even still be up for debate — the fact of the matter is that it exists and people have plunked down a lot of money to buy one. Without quantum physicists, the very debate over the efficacy of the D-Wave One couldn’t happen. Without a vibrant foundational physics community, we risk turning over words like “quantum” to hucksters selling pseudo-science.

Beyond that, note that if you are reading this, you’re reading it on the Internet. The internet has become a ubiquitous part of our lives. It has literally helped spawn revolutions. It has become a daily fixture in nearly all of our lives. And it was invented by a physicist working at a physics laboratory dedicated to fundamental discoveries, not practical ones. Does that mean it wouldn’t have been discovered in another setting? Certainly ARPANet existed before the web-based internet that we know today. But the point is that it wasn’t simply a fortuitous accident. It was a critical component of what was going on at CERN at the time.

So what does this — any of this — have to do with the closure of one, small physics department in a sparsely-populated state in the far eastern corner of the country? Physics is the foundational science. Removing the foundation of a house risks causing it to collapse. Removing a species lowest on the food chain endangers every species further up that chain. We have no way of knowing where the next Einstein or Newton or Maxwell or Curie will come from. He or she could very well come from Maine. Why not? Who’s to say? On top of that, a true appreciation of the importance of physics can’t be properly imparted by a teacher with no real background in the subject. Eliminating a department capable of producing physics teachers threatens to further erode an appreciation of the importance of physics.

Of course, the other argument I often hear about physics is that no one majors in it because it is hard. Since when did this country back away from things that were hard? We went to the Moon for God’s sake. Sure it’s hard. So? Maybe if employers stopped placing a premium on grades and class ranks more people would go into physics and at least appreciate it for what it is (because a physicist is well-trained for nearly any career which is why so many of us have contributed to so many fields over the years).

In addition to my work in physics, I am an entrepreneur and veteran of six start-up companies and I have learned that you can’t build an economy by just selling ideas. Once in awhile a huckster comes along and makes some money selling nothing but an idea. But you can’t build an economy on that. There have to be tangible products — goods — for an economy to be sustainable. So if you are a business or marketing person, just remember that the products you sell and the businesses you build always have something tangible behind them that was developed by an engineer or inventor, and that engineer or inventor is exploiting the laws of physics (because every single system in the world, even biological ones, must obey the laws of physics) to create that product. Even corporations used to understand this. IBM and the former Bell Labs have each won numerous Nobel Prizes in physics. But many companies have gutted their R&D departments in the name of maximizing short-term capital. By systematically devaluing physics, we are slowly eroding the foundation on which our entire economy — indeed the progress of the human race itself —  is based.

As a final note, while I appreciate the arguments of some physicists that we should be trying to encourage people to support us simply because we (as a country, as a species) should be asking these deep questions for their own sake, the reality is that, if people don’t value that it will be very difficult to change their mind. The fact is our entire culture devalues that, and so getting people to buy that argument requires changing the entire culture. With physics departments — and fundamental research itself — so pressured and marginalized, respectfully I say that now is not the time to appeal to these instincts, however laudable they may be. If we care about the long-term viability of our field (and our country and our species), we need to change the discourse by reminding people that fundamental science is important to the economy. So while USM may think it is doing a service to the taxpayers of the State of Maine, of which I am one, by eliminating its physics department, it is, in fact, contributing to the further erosion of the foundation of modern society as we know it. How can we put a price on that?

7 Responses to “Putting a price on physics as a discipline”

  1. I completely agree with your sentiments–very eloquently put!

  2. The MOOC revolution will bring about tremendous changes in university teaching. Worrying about this is like worrying about the fact that one of the passengers of the Titanic wantonly trashed a chair of the grand ballroom, 10 minutes before the ship sank

  3. Mariusz Stoisky Says:

    Sean Caroll is a major douchebag. He is pretentious and arrogant- not nice at all. Nobody has all the answers. Science itself rests on several assumptions.

    Science is not “be all, end .” It is a human creation and endeavor and very fallible. Often times, not self correcting. You have to wait for the previous stubborn generation to die out.

    Science is a useful tool, but Caroll gets carried away with it.

    • quantummoxie Says:

      I don’t know if I would go quite that far. I have spent time with Sean and his wife (and will actually be seeing them again in about a week). He’s not a bad guy. But he certainly takes this a bit far.

      You are correct that science rests on numerous assumptions, but at some point you have to take certain things as axiomatic in order to make sense of the world and I do believe that there are immutable, base assumptions that are necessary in order for us to move forward.

  4. Mariusz Stoisky Says:

    I meant to say that science is not the “be all, end all.”

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