May 25, 2010

A New Dark Age

We are always discussing in the university the present problems with the general politics on funding for science. I cannot say that the discussion changed a lot in the last years, as since I started to be worried about that, funding was always directed to more "practical" areas than to fundamental research, "practical" meaning with a higher probability of generating money faster. Of course this is expected. The monetary return given by more applied research is less risk and comes quicker than for fundamental research and we all know that funding is not really about knowledge, but about money. People will invest in you if they can get some profit from it and they do not live forever, so they will not be willing to wait decades for the results, no matter how fantastic they may be.

I will not try to preach about how important is fundamental research, how only fundamental research bring revolutions and so on, although I will not resist to write a bit about it in a moment. But I won't try to convince anyone that the LHC generates as much jobs (actually probably much more) as the construction of a bridge over a river, with the added advantages that many of the jobs will be long term ones, many technological advances and solutions for problems will come from it and a huge amount of knowledge will be generated. Actually, I will take advantage of this post by Sabine Hossenfelder:
to express my deep concerns with the direction we are headed on to. Read the post and you will understand her position, although the title is clear enough. Our main point is that knowledge does not need to be useful in the mundane sense of the word, which obviously means that it does not need to generate money right away.

The most standard way to argue about this is that the advancement of pure knowledge now can bring surprising revolutions in the future. The consequences can be huge and unpredictable. Again, the usual example is quantum mechanics. It is not difficult to say that solving the problem of the black body spectrum was just an academic issue around 1900, but it turns out that that little detail, which would struggle to get funding today for sure, brought us the computers, the laser, the magnetic ressonance and pretty much virtually all of our present technology.
But I am not going to use this argument because it is still not exactly the message I want to leave, and after all any person with some vision can understand that. Obviously, if you are worried about being reelected in the next 4 years it does not matter to you what science will bring to the world in 10, right? Do you think I am exagerating? So read these two articles from the Times Higher Education:
And these are just some of the news. Physics, philophy and other fundamental courses are being closed all around the world! It is not a localised phenomenon. You can step up and say Oh, come on! As if philosophy was useful in some way. First of all, I have a deep respect for philosophy. Physics came from it. And philosophers do what many scientists don't dare, they think beyond the limits of what we know and of what we may know. It is an exploration more than anything else and it is exactly here that I want to make my point.

What is being relegated to second plane everywhere is the act of thinking. The most powerful product of knowledge is not the money, the technology, the health improvements. These may be wonderful subproducts, but I will dare to say that they are not the main ones. The really important aspect that is the most feared by the minority which is on the upper levels of the food chain, is that knowledge modifies a person. Each time an individual acquires more knowledge this person sees the world in a different way. The person starts to question what was unquestionable before, becomes aware of what is going on around her and learns to change prejudices, to identify injustices and to fight for what really matters. Knowledge changes people. That is the most important and powerful result of knowledge. Not generating money, not even generating jobs, but improving people!

Think about that and think hard. Everyone knows the story of the frog that jumps if you put it in a bowl of boiling water but stays there until it dies if you put it in cold water and increases the temperature steadily until it is cooked alive. The former Dark Ages also arose slowly. That time religion was the enemy to blame, but what is behind is always power. Today it may be money, petrol or whatever may be important to keep the world's control but we are slowly being boiled in a pan and people must realise it before we end up cooked like a frog. It is obviously more convenient just to continue to live our lives and do our part, what we are being told to do. Much simpler. But I believe there are still people who can see beyond that. Hope is not over yet. As we say in Brazil actually, Hope is the last one to die.

I will finish with a phrase I read in some blog, although I do not remember exactly where (so if you can identify it, I will happily put the link here): Think. It is not illegal yet.


Peter said...

Amen to that. There's nothing more dangerous to a totalitarian government than an educated populace. And successive governments, of whatever political colour, are getting more and more totalitarian. The right-wing ones just do it more quickly.

Roberto C. Alamino said...

I agree, Peter. I would say that there are those governments that do it openly and those that are more subtle. The ones in control always try to push the boundaries a bit more. To tighten a bit the rope. They know most free thinkers are among those who look for fundamental research in every area, those who praise knowledge more than anything. So, the way to control them, is to maintain them busy trying to survive. Then they will have less time to think in "useless" things. Am I sounding too paranoid?