Saturday, December 30, 2006

US Should Absolutely Try to Get the International Linear Collider

I've been meaning to write about this for a while, and a post by Zenpundit finally got me going. I could not agree more with an article in Seed that argues the U.S. needs to make a strong bid in order to have the International Linear Collider (ILC) built in the states. A likely spot for construction could be at the current Stanford Linear Collider (SLAC) site.

The U.S. presently has the world's most energetic particle physics facility at Fermilab, but its days of world dominance are numbered. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will presumably be commissioned next year or early 2008 at the European facility CERN, in Geneva, and it will nearly double the energy of Fermilab. Of course, the most frequent question any particle physicist gets from students, family and friends, the general public (who would likely pay for a good portion of the ILC if the U.S. gets it), and politicians is, "Why on earth would we spend multiple billions of dollars on particle research?" That is a fundamental question to ask that must be answered in this age of record budget deficits.

Particle accelerators are the necessary tools to study the basic constituents of matter and the fundamental forces of Nature. This is what particle physics is all about. But what many people do not understand about science and technology is that there are generally two types of science, pure and applied. I've posted on these before, including the panel that was formed to determine the best course for particle physics as well as pure versus applied science. While I am the first to admit that determining the mass of a top quark means nothing to the average person, and top quarks are not going to have any direct applications to improve one's life, gaining knowledge has some worth. Human curiosity has no bounds, and we are a species that is driven to find answers to the questions we develop. How did the universe begin? What are we made of? What makes the universe tick the way it does? These are fundamental questions we all ask at some point, and partcle accelerators have been the tools used to start finding the answers to those questions. This is pure science, and we never know what some new discovery will lead to in the long-term. Scientists do not have crystal balls, and cannot know what applications will exist if the fundamental knowledge is not there.

But many still have a difficult time justifying the costs a machine like the ILC will have. So we can think of it this way: Fermilab has more than paid for itself over its lifetime. In fact, it has paid for itself many times over. Why would I say this, after saying a major discovery like the top quark has no direct applications? Because there are indirect benefits and applications that develop from the types of technology that are created to do this type of work. Building accelerators that are many miles long, and make antimatter and subatomic particles move at essentially the speed of light does not include going to Radio Shack and buying the hardware one needs. The technology did not exist when the blueprints were drawn up. Scientists and technicians had to work over a period of many years to build the machinery, write the software, and develop the electronics and computing power that eventually led to the accelerator and various experimental detectors at these major labs.

In the marketplace, these types of technologies were, at the time, nonexistent and meant nothing to society. As the technology developed, however, think of the following spin-offs: personal computers, the Internet, particle detection systems that now form the basis of detectors being developed by homeland security (to detect nuclear materials, for example), laser applications, fiber optic technology, superconductors and superconducting magnets that now allow MRIs to be available in hospitals, new levels of technological complexity (my old experiment, CDF at Fermilab, has to coordinate a couple hundred thousand individual lines of data to recreate an event, see if it is worth keeping, record it, and reset the detectors in about a is amazing it works), and even new experience in tunneling technology to dig the vast tunnels several stories below ground. Engineering breakthroughs were required to get one of the most complicated machines in history working. New cancer treatments have been discovered, such as the neutron therapy center at Fermilab that treats several thousand cancer patients each year. And yes, the military has been dabbling with particle beam weapons for years. A large lab employs several thousand people. And, something one cannot really put a pricetag on, these massive laboratories are training grounds for generations of American scientists, engineers, and technicians.

We live in a technology driven world. New technologies develop at places where new questions are asked and new solutions required. Creative solutions and problem-solving flourish. And new applications we do not dream of now will undoubtedly arise over time. The U.S. can either make the investment for the long-term health of its scientific and technological base that has led to its status as the world's only current superpower, or it won't, and some portion of the next generation of scientists will leave and go where the experimental facilities are located. We blew it with the SSC back in the early 1990's when Congress pulled the plug. Let us not repeat history and allow a major science facility go elsewhere.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Physics is a Good Domain for Horizontal Thinking

Well, Zenpundit had a thought provoking post, about what field of expertise might be best as a vertical thinking domain that would lead to productive horizontal thinking. Among his possible choices was physics, which is, of course, near and dear to my heart. Simply because of personal bias, I would have to say physics is the best domain to start from in terms of horizontal productivity (besides, physicists are known as being quite arrogant about the range of problems, like everything, they feel trained to tackle). But when I think about this seriously, it seems to make the most sense, at least to me.

Physics deals with fundamentals. It is the branch of science that looks to understand the quantities and phenomena that literally make up everything in the universe. In order to do high-level physics, mathematics, another field of study on Zen's list, is essential. So is mathematics a more important domain as far as making progress horizontally? I guess I swing back to physics only because, in the end, to solve real problems, one must have at least one eye that can see reality. One can also look at history when Isaac Newton, not a bad horizontal thinker/visionary, had to create calculus in order to solve a physics problem: gravity. I think one of the great examples of horizontal thinking in all of history was Newton's great leap that the force making an apple fall is the same as the force keeping the moon in orbit. That is not at all obvious to mere mortals!

Because physics is a science, it tackles problems through logic, common sense, observation, and experimentation. It studies the basic ingredients of the universe, energy, matter, and forces. And, it is built around the idea of finding the relationships, or interconnectedness, between all physical quantities for any physical system, no matter how simple or complex. It is the combination of these three features, mathematical preciseness and logic, fundamentals, and interconnectedness, that would allow a trained mind to expand on and attempt to tackle the most complex problems. It is the nature of a physicists mind to think we may be capable of a true 'theory of everything.' Now that is arrogance, but may turn out to not be that far-fetched an idea!

It appears that using physics as a 'training grounds' to horizontal breakthroughs is already playing out. The most intriguing areas in human thought right now tend to deal with complex systems. How is globalization going to affect both local and global societies and economies? What are the political, environmental, military, and socioeconomic consequences of global climate change? How do geopolitical hotspots, such as the Mideast, affect the global economy? What is the nature of terror organizations? Where does religion fit into the mix as far as East-West relationships? Now, in each of these examples, complexity reigns supreme because each big question being considered consists of multiple interacting agents that make up a given system. In complexity, the interrelationships between the quantities or principles are key to understanding how the system is going to evolve. This is the essence of what physicists do, and how they are trained to think and analyze problems. And, physicists have an advantage over mathematicians...not only are physicists trained in advanced mathematics and abstract thinking, but they are also trained as scientists, and are driven to always think in terms of basing conclusions on some type of real evidence - some kind of connection to the real world.

Already, domains of study such as economics have begun using mathematical analysis techniques developed by physicists to revolutionize economic theory. Econophysics is being born. Chemistry and biology are working at the molecular and atomic level, which is the realm of the physicist. Technology is driven by nanotechnology and electronics, the realms of physicists (both classical electromagnetic theory and quantum mechanics). Engineering in general is essentially applied physics. The exploding realm of computational science was given birth by theoretical physicists. And, going back to Newton, even the notion of using mathematical analysis of real systems began by addressing physics questions. Such mathematical analysis is now dominating areas such as network theory and complex systems, which includes social systems. Even modern areas of psychology, from a research perspective, are at the level of looking at information dispersal and signal processing in neural networks in terms of electrical pulses at the molecular level, which is a biophysical process.

In the end, physics, or at least a physicist's mentality and approach to problem solving, will likely lead to many horizontal breakthroughs in the future. However, I happen to believe certain issues cannot be thoroughly analyzed without some amount of historical analysis. Zen and I have had some amazing discussions over many years by taking historical features and precedents combined with technological and scientific advancements (which tend to throw off historical analogies, since the hyperspeed with which technology expands on a global scale is in fact creating situations with no historical analogs), so trying to attack some modern problems will require a mix of domains (i.e. consilient analyses), to be sure. New visions can also occur in unexpected ways, where accidental discoveries might trigger some new thought, or a creative mind that was trained in some field that is not directly related to a given problem. In the information age, some groups get it that it is imperative to build working teams of people triained in multiple disciplines, but much more of this will be needed in order to tackle the truly complex problems that affect the world presently.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Unintended EMP strike

A quick story I just found. A military (Air Force) radio signal was being tested in Colorado that would be used to communicate with first responders during some future disaster...the problem is it is in the same electromagnetic band as the signals used in 50 million garage door openers. Hundreds of calls were received by residents who could no longer operate their garage doors. While this is a bit amusing, it also should keep in the front of our minds how easy it is to cause widespread disruptions of everyday life with common, cheap technology. We need to have plans in place for a future EMP attack, where redundant and resilient features are built into our electronic, computerized society.