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Science Tribune - Article -September 1997


What has become of research in physics ?

Marian Apostol

Department of Theoretical Physics, Institute of Atomic Physics, Magurele-Bucharest MG-6, POBox MG-35, Romania
Website : http://theor1.ifa.ro/~apoma
E-mail : apoma@theor1.ifa.ro.

Over the last few decades, physics research has been subsidized on two grounds : the cold war and the promise of civilian technological applications. The cold war is over and physics research has successfully produced many applications that are much valued in daily life. Moreover, recent spending into big projects - thermonuclear fusion, superconducting supercolliders and space - has been partly successful. Those who control all this spending have lost their fear of a nuclear war and enjoy the utilities that are by-products of this research, by-products that will continue to be developed for some time yet. So, is there really a need to keep financing scientific research in physics ? Other issues such as disease, famine, over-population, crime and the weaknesses of democracies have now entered the limelight and, alas, in these fields, physics has little to offer. The poor, who have received little benefit from science, no longer believe in it. The middle classes are not aware of the real problems, political issues being in the hands of ever smaller groups.

What will become of physicists when there is no more research ?

With no signs of any more funding coming, most physicists will move no doubt into teaching posts in newly established small schools, colleges and universities of dubious standards. Others will remain in small experimental laboratories focussing on techniques rather than science and act as external or in house consultants and auditors for business enterprises. Yet others will apply their skills and experience to rather more descriptive disciplines (e.g. engineering, chemistry, biology, medicine, climatology, geophysics, economics, social sciences, communications, food, transport and entertainment industries). In general, physics will become a more cultural and educational pursuit. The public at large is already attracted by its outward trappings, by the fashionable diplomas and degrees, and by the thrilling accounts of the lives of great physicists, of discoveries, and of attempts to unravel the mysteries of nature in a search for truth. It is seduced by the ease with which electronic devices that make life so sweet can be switched on and off without any knowledge. Some physicists will thus market these outward aspects which are all they have left for sale. None of this has anything to do with scientific research.

In any case, well-known theorists of physics are already claiming very persuasively that we shall soon have a final/ultimate/total Theory of Everything that will unify all that ever existed and that will ever exist. Is this not the End of all scientific research?

Keeping an illusion alive

Most of us, physicists, however, believe that everything will go on as before and do our damned best to keep the dead alive. We rush about in a confused frenzy, publish irrelevant publications (our professional journals reject the few good ones !), make almost daily announcements of breathtaking new discoveries that are immediately refuted, organize mega-conferences and all-four-season schools where we delude ourselves and others that something in the air is upcoming, and take out memberships to small, exclusive societies that claim to do "the politically correct" science. The taste of money was sweet, vanity is a powerful driving force and, like everyone else, physicists display their fair share of lack of judgement and common sense.

Let's face it, we are too many, too bad, and too cheap !

The scientific community of today is one order of magnitude larger than it has been over the last three centuries. Yet, since quantum mechanics was elaborated in the 1920s, there has been no true advance in our basic scientific knowledge. Physics is a science and we do not know how to do science, we have no science of science. We only know that a few of us have scientific visions that happen to work; but do not know why they work. To borrow Wigner's view of mathematics, science is a gift we neither understand nor deserve, that has a 'divine' quality that surpasses human beings. It should therefore be taken cum grano salis.

Although we physicists have become arrogant and addicted to public money, it is also clear that all of the technological achievements of present-day society do originate in our work (a) and that the social cost of this work has been low. We are not only too many and too bad, but we are also too cheap and too useful. Turning ourselves into comedians in the science-and-fun entertainment industry is not a pallatable strategy even if there is less and less money around. Are we paying the consequences of having played a foolish game ?

When physicists and society struck a cheap deal and their motives for doing so

When, after World War II, the physicists - who had proved their worth in the eyes of the world by discovering the atom bomb - struck a deal with society for the direct funding of physics research, when the great "science factories", i.e. research institutes, were established, neither side knew what the one was selling and the other buying. The object of the deal was a kind of dream fostered by a desire for power, by humanitarian ideals, enthusiasm, fear, promises of comfort and welfare, etc. Why should the deal have gone off when nobody knew exactly what it was about ? Only the most imaginative and creative science fiction writers could have predicted the output : nuclear reactors, silicon microelectronics, the laser, magnetic resonance, magnetic memories, the electron microscope, molecular epitaxy, high-temperature superconductivity...

What were the motives of the physicists and of society for striking such a deal ? For scientists research is a continuous back-and-fro motion between belief and disbelief at the confines of knowledge and ignorance. Scientists know that something should be but not the form it will take. When society offered physicists the possibility to check whether their ideas corresponded to a reality, they jumped at the opportunity and struck the deal. On the other hand for society, this was an opportunity to obtain something for virtually nothing at little risk. Society invested an insignificant amount of money into research. Compared to other types of social spending, scientific research is very cheap; there is a general lack of interest and no large market. Who cared if most of this money might be lost; the largest fraction of something tiny is still tiny !

A crisis due to over-production

However, this tiny fraction of the investment proved highly profitable. And a tiny fraction of society became increasingly rich and powerful. It was now time to stop investing and to enjoy the dividends. Those involved in economic competition reaped the gains from scientific and technological achievements first; military strategists have obtained enough sophisticated weapons to play computer wars to their heart's content; bankers are keeping track of the developments, transferring money to-and-fro at electronic speed; politicians endlessly debate the issues. In the meantime, the public watches countless TV and cable broadcasts, is psychologically absorbed into cyberspaces, and enjoys the limitless resources of nuclear energy. Scientific research has succombed to a crisis of over-production !

The elementary psychology of the scientist

Scientists behave amazingly in society, often setting aside the critical judgement that characterises their professional activity. To test their knowledge, they share it indiscriminately with everyone else - openness is a fruitful way of doing science - and trade the knowledge of past generations with their own as, for instance, in requests for funding. What have scientists done with their moral responsability to guarantee the profitability of research? Did they safeguard future developments when they witnessed the high returns from the output of their endeavours ? In contrast, they too frequently forget to mention that science is still far from solving the great problems of mankind. How often do they actually say "know not, therefore cannot" ? Such silence explains loss of credit and confidence.

Beginners are lured into scientific research but not told what it is all about. With society's discovery of this new vocation, there are scientists galore. Who knows, one day, the right to perform scientific research might even be inscribed among Human Rights ! People will come to science to see for themselves what science is about but when they discover that it is the knowledge of our limits, how pleased will they be ?

So, where is physics heading ?

We have accumulated a vast amount of facts in many domains and identified new physical objects, but encountered no new problem, just a load of extra questions. In the meantime, we have lost a set of good problems that make up the breadth of our science. We have tested almost all known ideas and concepts and they work fine. We are left with (the same) old puzzles (this is not an incitement to each of us to sit down and try to solve them!): why F=ma, why entropy increases, why space is related to time, and why particles and waves are the same thing. We do not know the answers but, anyway, who's asking ? However, nobody asked Descartes, Galilei or Newton to explain motion; they were just curious (though they also requested money!). There was no need to figure out the chaotical motion of atoms; Boltzmann did it; was it this enthusiasm that proved fatal to him ? (b) Who except Maxwell was aware of the missing displacement current when applying electromagnetism equations ? Without Bohr's stubborn focus on the electrons in atoms, would quantum mechanics exist ?

Silently and humbly, after the hubris (c) that marked its interlude with society, physics will regain its destiny: that of a Philosophiae Naturalis.


This article is an edited version of a paper that has been published in different forms in Antiphysical Review (Oct 1995), Metaphysical Review (May 1996), Europhys News 27 (3) May/June 1996 and Postepy Fyziki 48 (2) 1997 (Polish translation).

(a) For instance, quantum physics has provided many benefits. Quantum physics taught us that the atomic nucleus may undergo fission releasing a huge amount of energy; science and technology followed up on this and we now have nuclear reactors. Quantum physics taught us that electrons move in a peculiar fashion in solids; we believed this and now have television, telecommunications, music recordings, computers and the silicon industry. Quantum physics taught us that macroscopic bodies of atoms, electrons and light may behave unexpectely under certain conditions; this led to today's freezing techniques, to superconducting materials and the laser. Quantum physics taught us that a minuscule magnet located in certain atomic nuclei may get excited and 'respond' to external radiowaves; we now have a tool for visualising the human body in medical imagery. Quantum physics holds that our world may depend much more profoundly than we think upon chance and virtuality, that space, time and matter might exist on a much less conventional scale than we are used to; those who believe this are in search of themselves and of ourselves in this fascinating New World.

(b) Boltzmann believed firmly, and singularly for his time, that the chaotic motion of atoms obeys laws and is subject to probabilistic rules, and that this might help explain the orderly behaviour of macroscopic bodies. His contemporaries considered this belief a nonsensical utterance from the mouth of an eccentric scientist, if not a charlatan. How can something ordered come from chaos and by chance ! The only social recognition Boltzmann received was an invitation to give a set of lectures on his theory at the newly founded Berkeley University in the Far West ! But even this was an incitement to his hometown (Vienna) newspapers to run headings like 'Boltzmann never come back !' Gradually, Boltzmann started loosing faith in his own beliefs not so much because of his fellow scientists' lack of understanding as of the very meaning of his theory. Hadn't his enthusiastic belief in a logical explanation, in the human mind's power of scientific inquiry, led him to a very strange and uncomfortable proposition : the ordered natural world arises by chance ! He committed suicide, probably struggling with answers to questions such as what were God's plans for this world, how is such a world as ours possible, what was the meaning of his theory, of theoretical physics, and of science in general. Schrödinger probably experienced a similar struggle with regard to quantum physics; he experienced a similar fate.
With these examples in mind, we could query whether science is indeed for everybody and what it really teaches us.

(c) Overweening pride towards the gods leading to nemesis (downfall)