Cost and Benefit of Big Science

I will write a lot about science. I will write about the Higgs boson, and what will be next, about the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor of the brilliant Hubble Space Telescope. I will write about manned space flight. All these topics have in common that they seem to require exponentially growing budgets: Lots of money. And things that cost money automatically get questioned, a lot! Funding for research has been, is and will be a major determinant of the speed with which we will drive progress on our mother planet.

CMS instrument at CERN Large Hadron Collider

So let’s first look briefly how the costs for these science machines have developed. The first particle accelerator was the cyclotron that was invented in 1932 by Ernest Lawrence at Berkeley and built and operated by M. Stanley Livingston in as ordinary laboratory room of the university, for a budget well below USD 50 000. First particle physics was done with this instrument, at very modest energies. The Large Hadron Collider of CERN has cost a total of USD 9 billion, and is the most expensive science instrument in the history of mankind, thus far! That is a factor 30 000 increase! A good overview of what it took to find the Higgs can be found in Sean Carroll’s  The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World

James Webb Space Telescope

Well, and I guess space flight has always been expensive. And more so when humans are to take the ride. I will write a separate blog on that issue, though.

International Space Station

The 200 inch Hale telescope at Mount Palomar, which was the largest feasible optical instrument for most of the second half of the 20th century, was built with a USD 6 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Feasible, because larger mirrors would be so heavy that they would deform under their own weight. Since the 1990s digital processors have made it possible to develop active optics which solves this problem, among others. The newly approved E-ELT, (which stands for European Extremely Large Telescope, no kidding!) has a primary mirror diameter of 39 meter and a current budget of around USD 1300 million. The JWST, which is now planned to be launched in orbit in 2018, has a capped budget of 8 billion USD. John Weiler provides a nice overview of the science performed with Hubble in Hubble: A Journey Through Space and Time

My point is: practical science is pretty expensive, and the costs are pretty visible, and always generate heated debates about the necessity of those investments. Research funding for these type of Big Science programs is a big issue.

It will not be a surprise that I am a strong proponent of these investments, and would actually want to increase them quite a lot. The number of arguments in favor of big science investments are plenty. I will elaborate on the arguments I find most compelling. In no particular order, these arguments are of an economic nature, of philosophical and ethical nature, and finally of a survival nature.


Cost – Benefit Analysis

Much research has been published on cost-benefit analyses of e.g. space flight. These analyses were often required in order to secure public funding. Much published technology spin-off from space flight are things like Tefal and micro-electronics. More examples can be found here. The value of satellites for communication, surveys and weather observation are obvious. Still, critics have pointed out that these cost-benefit arguments make a forced and defensive impression, needed for the political debate only. Well, one can’t blame our political representatives to guard public expenses, right?

After the cold-war nuclear physics interest, research instruments have been built with science as the driving force. Or was it national pride? Who had the bigger accelerator, the US or Europe? The particle physicists as well as the astronomers have always been fairly honest with respect to the economic fall-out of their activities: They create high-caliber employment, and maybe, one day, there will be spin-offs from what we do. But that was not the driving force.

In hindsight we know that many science results – over time – will find practical applications. After all we are a pretty inventive bunch. Faraday did research on electricity out of curiosity, and stated that he could not imagine any practical use. The geniuses who developed quantum physics during the first 3 thirty years of the previous century were not aware of the possibilities of the scanning tunneling microscope, of CCD imaging and of micro-electronics.

Science leads to understanding of the world around us, and – often other – people use that understanding to create new valuable solutions, products, services. If our building of that understanding decelerates, then we are limited in the value we can create, the problems we can solve.

Who we are

Science as we know it today is considered to have started with Galileo, around 1600. One can also argue that Copernicus was a turning point, at least from a philosophical perspective. Before Copernicus, man put himself (at that time this was a masculine activity!) in the center of the Universe. And God had put us there. We were important to God, was the conviction. In other blogs I will write about religion, for now suffice it to say that Copernicus kicked humanity out of the center of the Universe: The Earth and all planets circle the Sun! Copernicus made us much more humble.

Since that time, over the years we have come to realize that the Sun is but a mediocre star, somewhere on the outskirts of a mediocre galaxy, located somewhere in a very small cluster, somewhere in a non-privileged location in a smooth and vast Universe. We call this realization the Copernican principle, with due honor to the man who started the thought process.

This humbling realization was exceptionally well captured in the famous Voyager I picture of Earth, called “Pale Blue Dot“. Taken in 1990, on initiative of Carl Sagan, at a distance of 6 billion km, this picture also pushes us with our nose on the fact that humanity lives on a tiny, fragile planet, in a large and dangerous environment! All living things we know of lived on this dot (See Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space). All of evolution, the dinosaurs, all human history. Everything happened just there! Isn’t that a humbling thought?

Pale Blue Dot (NASA)

So science has been instrumental of waking us up from the primitive slumber of superstition and religion. It has shown us how the world around us works. It has given us medicine, transportation, communication. But it also has given us a perspective of where humanity lives, and where we come from: The result of 2.5 billion years of evolution. It has shown us that there are many many stars, also with planets around them. And we are in the process of systematically searching for Earth-like planets. With a strong belief (yes, this is still only belief) that we are not alone! It is actually one of the objectives of the James Webb Space Telescope to investigate in detail exoplanets and their ability to support life.

This humbling realization provided to us by science is a strong motivator to also be humble in our behavior towards our environment: towards people from other cultures, towards other creatures, towards the world around us. In that sense science is a driving force against violence, oppression and destruction of our natural environment. Now that is what I call return on investment!

Beyond Earth

A third argument for strong investments in science rests on the realization that we live in a dangerous and fragile world. Homo sapiens exists for roughly 100 000 – 200 000 years. Life started some 2.5 billion years ago, with only single cellular organisms around until some 500 million years ago. Many species have come and gone. At least five mass extinctions have occurred in the past, at least one of which was caused by a comet or asteroid crashing into the Earth, some 60 million years ago. This has happened before: The Moon was formed some 4 billion years ago by a collision of a major body with the Earth. That collision melted the complete Earth. On a cosmic scale minor incidents, but for humanity pretty terminal!

As we are getting better and better at detecting all kinds of space rocks, we become aware that they are everywhere. Earlier this year one small rock exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere above Siberia, causing an explosion that was much stronger than a nuclear bomb. Good it happened at 70 km altitude, and above more or less empty Siberia! If you haven’t seen the videos, check it out here.

Larger rocks, with diameters of several hundred meters to several km zip by us all the time. One day one of those will hit Earth, and cause a next major extinction. It is not a question of if, but of when.  It can be tomorrow, it can be in several tens of thousands of years. But it is bound to happen. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not an alarmist. This thought doesn’t keep me awake at night. Also I have not been watching too many Hollywood disaster movies. But we must get used to the thought that human memory, which we call history, is very short indeed. Think long term, and you will understand that these things happen, every now and then.

Science must progress at full speed to protect us from this dangerous environment. By identifying the potential dangers, and then by developing ways of taking care of them. There are currently so called Spaceguard programs active search for Near Earth Objects and determines the probability that these objects will collide in the future with Earth. Also NASA is actually working out a plan now to be able to tow asteroids to a modified orbit. Small steps, but this is where you start.

But that is just the beginning. Living on Earth alone, in the long run, is putting all our eggs in one basket. Don’t think short term, but long term. If we want to increase the survival of the human species, spreading to other places in the (nearby) Universe is a must.

In order to be able to do that we need to develop many technologies for which we do not yet have the fundamental knowledge: propulsion for speed at high speeds, protection from cosmic rays, terraforming, to mention just a few.

To sum these three arguments up: Science gives us quality of life, it gives us humility and therefore peace, and it gives us a future for mankind. That’s a pretty good pay-off, I would say! Therefore I cannot think of any better way to spend our money!

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