Saturday, May 10, 2014

Who Comes Before the Companies

Soudan Underground Laboratory, Minnesota (Jun 7, 2004)

Mayli's uncle is a successful businessman. He had always been interested into what Mayli does, but never had the chance to understand the details of her research. A few years ago, however, he happened to be in Minnesota, where one of Mayli's experiments is located, and she invited him for a tour of the lab. The MINOS experiment consists of a huge detector capturing neutrinos coming from Fermilab, 450 miles away. The detector is at the bottom of an iron mine seven hundred meters below the surface, where the detector is shielded by dense layers of rocks from cosmic rays and other natural radiation. As they were driving to the lab, Mayli's uncle had a pressing question: always seeking new investment opportunities he wanted to know which companies had built the experiment. He was puzzled by Mayli's answer, that there were, in fact, no companies: the whole thing was designed and custom-built by a large collaboration of physicists and engineers. When they finally entered the huge cavern where the 5,400 ton detector stands, like a giant ship in a bottle, he widened his eyes and said: "I understand now how it works, you guys come before the companies"!

The Soudan Mine shaft
I get asked similar questions all the time. Not because the people I met in the street want to know where to invest their money, but rather because of the diffuse perception that taxpayer money spent on science is a luxury that we cannot afford in a difficult budgetary environment. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is precisely in perilous and uncertain times that we need science to challenge our thinking, and push the boundaries of the possible. 

Take NASA, the much maligned "government-bloated, pork-driven agency", a billions-dollar sink of hard earned taxpayer money. Well, the annual NASA budget is just 0.5% of the total US federal budget, far less than other government expenditures such as military expenses. Contrary to the public perception, this money is not burned in rocket fuel, but invested in technological development, supporting a high-tech industry ecosystem that would have never existed without the challenges of space travel. The CCD detector in your digital camera was not invented at NASA, but the cameraphone you would be carrying around if it wasn't for a miniaturization program sponsored by NASA would not fit in our pocket, or in your car, for that matter. The need for producing ever lighter and smaller devices that could be fit into a rocket spurred the whole industry of integrated miniaturized electronics, an industry that is now worth $150 billions/year. The whole cost of sending human to the Moon was less than $100 billion over the entire Apollo program. And this is just an example. The real yield of NASA, and scientific research in general, is the training and inspiration of the technological backbone of our society, without which the postwar economic boom would have not existed.

Physics experiments, and the same can be said of other fields of scientific enquiry, are designed to constantly extend our horizon. You want to measure the next digit, trying to find the subtle flaw in your current pet theory, find the crack in our view of the Universe so that new worlds and new ideas can progress our understanding of Nature. It ain't easy and requires technological innovations that are well beyond the standards of industry. When you design your next experiment, you don't refer to the available technology: you bet on the future technology that will develop ten years from now. Science is the pathfinder of progress, experimenting new techniques, seeking new solutions beyond what is currently possible. Most of these experiments will inevitably fail, but the hallmark of research is being capable of learning from these failures, so that the one-in-a-million success will have the chance of revolutionizing the world.

Pure science may appear to be concerned with phenomena far removed with everyday life. Still it pushes the envelope of today's technology, setting the stage for the companies of tomorrow and the development of our future.

Soudan Mine, Minnesota (June 6, 2013)

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