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studiot

The relative worth of scientifc hypotheses and discoveries

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Posted (edited)

Are we spending too much (relatively) on glory projects that may/will not bring benefits for centuries, if ever ?

Some examples

1) Gravitational lensing was mooted in the 1920s and confirmed in 1979 and has yet to find a use.

2) Quantum tunnelling was mooted in the 1930s and first realised in the 1960s and is important to most people today.

3) The existence of other forms of life than our own developing on Earth was has been mooted several times and confirmed in the 1990 at the subsea hydrovents.

4) Fullerenes were first mooted in the 1980s and realised in that decade and  are of developing importance and use.

 

How much did each discovery cost and what is the cost /benefit ratio?

Edited by studiot

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11 minutes ago, studiot said:

How much did each discovery cost and what is the cost /benefit ratio?

How are you defining “benefit”?

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48 minutes ago, Strange said:

How are you defining “benefit”?

Well I'm speaking for Mankind so I suppose one could say benefit arises when the knowledge gained becomes useful.

But I realise benefit is a subjective word.

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1 hour ago, studiot said:

Well I'm speaking for Mankind so I suppose one could say benefit arises when the knowledge gained becomes useful.

But I realise benefit is a subjective word.

Does that mean that pure research (such as detecting gravitational waves to confirm GR and find out more about black holes) has little or no benefit, in your terms?

1 hour ago, studiot said:

But I realise benefit is a subjective word.

So you can't really do a cost-benefit analysis.

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Perhaps a just a minor aspect but how the heck are life forms in hydrovents separate from all other lifeforms on Earth?

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13 hours ago, studiot said:

1) Gravitational lensing was mooted in the 1920s and confirmed in 1979 and has yet to find a use.

It is used, only by a small subset of all humans:

- to determine mass of galaxies and galaxy clusters

- as 'magnifying glass' for objects far behind a gravitational lens

- to discover exoplanets

- to show astonishing pictures to the general public, so they can stand in awe for the universe we live in

Of course, the last point is a little bit different than the others, but for me at least such pictures have similar effects as 'the pale blue dot' or the Apollo 8 picture of the earth rising over the moon surface.

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13 hours ago, studiot said:

Are we spending too much (relatively) on glory projects that may/will not bring benefits for centuries, if ever ?

I suppose the real problem is not knowing in advance if the research is utilitarian. e.g. what practical use could anyone around 1900 expect from investigating black body radiation?

My favourite example is Faraday's apocryphal responses to Gladstone's question "What use is electricity?"

"What use is a new born baby?"

or

"I don't know, but some day you will tax it."

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Why does scientific inquiry have to have a quantifiable benefit to society, beyond the new knowledge itself? A benefit that you can't know until you've made the discovery?

 

To quote from The West Wing 

Senator Enlow: If we could only say what benefit this thing has. No one's been able to do that...

Professor Milgate:That's because great achievement has no road map. Well, the X-ray's pretty good. So is penicillin. Neither were discovered with a practical objective in mind. I mean, when the electron was discovered in 1897, it was useless. Now we have an entire world run by electronics. Haydn and Mozart never studied the classics. They couldn't - they invented them.

 

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I think that the real reason that it tends to take so long to see a benefit from new research is because the people that have the minds and resources to use that new research have to justify it with those that have the funding.  Those that have the funding tend to only be willing to use it for proven topics (understandably).  In that way, new research needs time for people to find a way to prove it to the funding people before many of us see the benefit.

Here is a personal example.  I was reading about gravitational lensing years ago and had an idea.  I wrote to researchers to ask if the idea could be used to make microscopes better.  Could we make a ring of heavy atoms (such as gold) that create the same effect and help to magnify the extremely small; use mass to create a molecular scale lens?  I understand that I am a nobody.  There is no reason for anyone to take my ideas seriously.  I am not floating this idea for personal benefit - it is just for example.  Whether or not it could be useful, no on will know until a professional comes up with the idea him/herself and finds a way to test it.  

This is a common story that was illustrated in many well written books.  My favorite was "Einstein's Dice and Schrodinger's Cat."  It very adequately highlighted Eerwin Schrodinger's fight to find funding for the research he really wanted to do and how that cause the extended timeframe from when he had ideas to when he could prove/disprove them.

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4 minutes ago, GaryV said:

Here is a personal example.  I was reading about gravitational lensing years ago and had an idea.  I wrote to researchers to ask if the idea could be used to make microscopes better.  Could we make a ring of heavy atoms (such as gold) that create the same effect and help to magnify the extremely small; use mass to create a molecular scale lens?  I understand that I am a nobody.  There is no reason for anyone to take my ideas seriously.  I am not floating this idea for personal benefit - it is just for example.  Whether or not it could be useful, no on will know until a professional comes up with the idea him/herself and finds a way to test it.

It is trivial to show that the amount of gravitational lensing would be insignificant (undetectable). That is why no one takes it seriously, not because you are a "nobody".

If a "professional" came up with this idea, they would take a few seconds to calculate the size of the effect and immediately forget it.

(And before you say "prove it", it is up to you to show that your idea has value. There are an infinite number of ideas that don't work; why should others have to disprove them.) 

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4 minutes ago, GaryV said:

I think that the real reason that it tends to take so long to see a benefit from new research is because the people that have the minds and resources to use that new research have to justify it with those that have the funding.  Those that have the funding tend to only be willing to use it for proven topics (understandably).  In that way, new research needs time for people to find a way to prove it to the funding people before many of us see the benefit.

If that were true we would never have seen the earth rising over the moon.

You may as well ask, what is the value of understanding.

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18 hours ago, studiot said:

 

1) Gravitational lensing was mooted in the 1920s and confirmed in 1979 and has yet to find a use.

 

We take advantage of gravitational lensing today in many of the extreme deep field surveys. A gravitational lenses can be incredibly useful to extend the range of a telescope such as Hubble. I even recall some surveys using multiple lenses.

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2 hours ago, Strange said:

It is trivial to show that the amount of gravitational lensing would be insignificant (undetectable). That is why no one takes it seriously, not because you are a "nobody".

If a "professional" came up with this idea, they would take a few seconds to calculate the size of the effect and immediately forget it.

(And before you say "prove it", it is up to you to show that your idea has value. There are an infinite number of ideas that don't work; why should others have to disprove them.) 

Strange is absolutely right.

This points to the difference between people who are doing science and people who are reading about science: the ability to quantify some effect and apply the analysis, vs just saying "do X" without any idea if it could work. If you haven't studied science, there's a decent chance you don't know that this step is missing.

 

2 hours ago, GaryV said:

I think that the real reason that it tends to take so long to see a benefit from new research is because the people that have the minds and resources to use that new research have to justify it with those that have the funding.  Those that have the funding tend to only be willing to use it for proven topics (understandably).  In that way, new research needs time for people to find a way to prove it to the funding people before many of us see the benefit.

That depends on the people who fund the research.

Basic research is funded without a need for that kind of justification. Applied research is more targeted in what is expected.

(Unfortunately, when funding dries up, agencies have a tendency to spend less on research that is more aggressive in its desire to push the envelope, or on researchers who haven't yet developed a track record.)

 

You pitch something to the NSF that has no benefit identified and you might get funded. You pitch it to DARPA and they will probably say "no," because DARPA is generally looking to advance technology, not do basic research.

In my corner of the world, funding is broken down into segments, depending on how applied and mature the research is

"The Department of Defense divides development further, giving each category a code: 6.1 is Basic Research, 6.2 is Applied Research, 6.3 is Advanced Technology Development, 6.4 is Advanced Component Development and Prototypes, 6.5 is System Development and Demonstration, 6.6 is RDT&E Management and Support, and 6.7 is Operational Systems Development."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_policy_of_the_United_States

When I was in grad school, I was funded by 6.1 money. When I started doing R&D, we got 6.2, 6.3 and 6.4, depending on where we were in the arc of development. (roughly: 6.2 /6.3 to develop the parts for the prototype, 6.4 to build the prototype) Then we got non-research money to build working devices.

 

 

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2 hours ago, dimreepr said:

If that were true we would never have seen the earth rising over the moon.

And we haven't 'seen' that for 50 years.

17 minutes ago, swansont said:

That depends on the people who fund the research.

Why was going to the Moon so important 50 years ago ?
But today, the 'bean counters' who are in charge ( of everything ), always justify cutting funding with cost/benefit analysis.

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3 minutes ago, MigL said:

And we haven't 'seen' that for 50 years.

Why was going to the Moon so important 50 years ago ?
But today, the 'bean counters' who are in charge ( of everything ), always justify cutting funding with cost/benefit analysis.

We haven't seen the benefit of fusion, yet we see it everyday...

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10 minutes ago, MigL said:

But today, the 'bean counters' who are in charge ( of everything ), always justify cutting funding with cost/benefit analysis.

The bean counters don't understand the value of beans.

Progress is a double edged sword...

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53 minutes ago, MigL said:

 Why was going to the Moon so important 50 years ago ?
But today, the 'bean counters' who are in charge ( of everything ), always justify cutting funding with cost/benefit analysis.

Bill Phillips, who won the Nobel in 1997 for laser cooling and trapping, has not been shy about how the Office of Naval Research funded his work, without knowing if there was going to be any benefit.

In the words of Nobel Laureate William Phillips, speaking about the ONR investments leading to ultra-precise atomic clocks, “It was the long- term support of ONR, support that began when the ideas were vague and unproved, that made all of this possible."

https://www.onr.navy.mil/en/About-ONR/History/tales-of-discovery/atomic-physics

(Bonus: picture of two of the clocks I helped build)

Not everyone gets shut down by the bean counters. But that's why it's important not to put the bean counters in charge.

Also:

https://www.onr.navy.mil/en/Media-Center/Press-Releases/2009/nobel-laureate-basic-research

Phillips asserted, "ONR is different among the federal S&T organizations because it gives science a chance. A program officer with vision can say ´I think this is a great idea and I´m going to fund it.´ The recognition of the importance of basic research in support of mission goals can lead to mission success where a more tightly focused vision might not." He summed it up by saying, "ONR´s style has intrinsic and high value."

 

Also, in regard to my earlier statement about funding

"ONR is unique among S&T organizations in that program officers have access to all three phases of developmental funding: Basic Research (6.1), Applied Research (6.2) and Advanced Technology Development (6.3). This enables the full spectrum of an idea to be pursued from discovery to deployment."

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15 minutes ago, swansont said:

(Bonus: picture of two of the clocks I helped build)

You failed miserably, Swans; can't wear either of those on your wrist :D .

Are you fishing for a raise, by buttering up your employer :D:D ?

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Posted (edited)

(Bonus: picture of two of the clocks I helped build)

Impressive, off topic but does that mean your more of an engineer rather than a physicist, or do you consider yourself both? (Swansont)

 

Edited by Curious layman

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19 hours ago, Curious layman said:

(Bonus: picture of two of the clocks I helped build)

Impressive, off topic but does that mean your more of an engineer rather than a physicist, or do you consider yourself both? (Swansont)

To paraphrase my former boss, I am a physicist who sometimes pretends to be an engineer.

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27 minutes ago, swansont said:

To paraphrase my former boss, I am a physicist who sometimes pretends to be an engineer.

Do you spec out the bits you want and get them made if they aren't off the shelf?

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On 5/8/2020 at 9:18 AM, Eise said:

It is used, only by a small subset of all humans:

- to determine mass of galaxies and galaxy clusters

- as 'magnifying glass' for objects far behind a gravitational lens

- to discover exoplanets

- to show astonishing pictures to the general public, so they can stand in awe for the universe we live in

Of course, the last point is a little bit different than the others, but for me at least such pictures have similar effects as 'the pale blue dot' or the Apollo 8 picture of the earth rising over the moon surface.

 

23 hours ago, Mordred said:

We take advantage of gravitational lensing today in many of the extreme deep field surveys. A gravitational lenses can be incredibly useful to extend the range of a telescope such as Hubble. I even recall some surveys using multiple lenses.

But I understand the OP in the following way:  'all this is only for intellectual amusement - can you tell me how it feeds people and makes their lives longer'. While I personally wouldn't like to live very long without intellectual amusement, I guess some people could legitimately ask such questions.

I sometimes take the ELT (Extremely Large Telescope) as an example. I certainly support investing money into it, even if I know investing that money into sewage systems in Africa might be a better investment.... But I forgive myself easily.

20 hours ago, swansont said:

(Bonus: picture of two of the clocks I helped build)

This is even aesthetically pleasing :)

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1 hour ago, Danijel Gorupec said:

But I understand the OP in the following way:  'all this is only for intellectual amusement - can you tell me how it feeds people and makes their lives longer'. While I personally wouldn't like to live very long without intellectual amusement, I guess some people could legitimately ask such questions.

It's not the greed of intellectuals that starve people.

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2 hours ago, Danijel Gorupec said:

 

But I understand the OP in the following way:  'all this is only for intellectual amusement - can you tell me how it feeds people and makes their lives longer'. While I personally wouldn't like to live very long without intellectual amusement, I guess some people could legitimately ask such questions.

I sometimes take the ELT (Extremely Large Telescope) as an example. I certainly support investing money into it, even if I know investing that money into sewage systems in Africa might be a better investment.... But I forgive myself easily.

We are long past the point where everyone has to engage in the production of food and other basics to survive. This is not an either/or situation. 

One thing we know is that scientific inquiry expands the economy. A really good rate of return. If you have that, you can invest in other improvements 

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Posted (edited)
2 hours ago, Danijel Gorupec said:

 

But I understand the OP in the following way:  'all this is only for intellectual amusement - can you tell me how it feeds people and makes their lives longer'. While I personally wouldn't like to live very long without intellectual amusement, I guess some people could legitimately ask such questions.

I sometimes take the ELT (Extremely Large Telescope) as an example. I certainly support investing money into it, even if I know investing that money into sewage systems in Africa might be a better investment.... But I forgive myself easily.

This is even aesthetically pleasing :)

How can you possibly use a gravitational lens for anything other than a lens ? Currently there is research on how to maximize their usage in different studies of cosmology and astrophysics. 

 

Edited by Mordred

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