The Ecology of Big Science

The interface and interlinkages between science and society has long been of especial interest to me, and much on the topic has been written since the 1960s. For example, work on the different attitudes of physicists and computer scientists toward ballistic missile defence, on the development of the navigation systems for the MX missile, rationality, deterrence and such matters.

My view is that such research programmes were made possible by the fall of logical positivism in the philosophy of science and by the campus and social radicalism of the post 1950s that challenged the military-industrial complex, and the role of the university therein.

For those interested in a niche study programme, perhaps a nifty little examination of number theory, cryptography and permissive action links and other aspects of command and control of nuclear weapons might be a little gem full of insight waiting to be uncovered. It was often said, up until the financilisatiion of the economy and the proliferation of algorithms, that number theory could have little practical application.

Number theory was the purest of the pure for intrinsic intellectual reasons and for its non-applicability. A study of number theory as outlined above would make for an interesting read, serving to demonstrate that number theory knew sin long before commonly supposed. Many have argued that public key cryptography, the basis of e-commerce, first emerged in the military/state sector prior to its discovery by civilian researchers.

Incidentally, Martin Hellman, one of the “inventors” of public key cryptography has very useful things to say about risk and nuclear deterrence; alas, another day.

The May edition of Physics Today features an article by Richard Crease and Catherine Westfall on what they observe to be a shift in the nature of big science. They argue that, focusing on physics as one would expect given the place of publication, that big science now is dominated by materials science, from the atomic scale up, rather than nuclear and elementary particle physics, from the subatomic scale down. So they write of

A phase transition in the kind of large-scale science that was being carried out not only at Brookhaven but also elsewhere throughout the US national laboratory system. Large-scale materials-science accelerators, not high-energy-physics accelerators, have become marquee projects at most major basic research laboratories in the post–Cold War era.

Furthermore, they discern the evolution of a complex ecosystem of multidisciplinary (as opposed to interdisciplinary) research, that is less centralised and more diverse than that of its predecessor,

The primary dynamic of the Old Big Science was a progressive increase in the scale of the premier high-energy-physics projects—the size of the instruments and collaborations and the duration of the experiments. As is typical for the dominant materials-science projects in the era of the New Big Science, instruments and collaborations at the NSLS did not get bigger and bigger. Instead, the research ecosystem grew more complicated; it involved more and more fields (especially biomedical fields), a wider variety of instruments, more connections between seemingly disparate research programs, and a faster turnover of research groups.

The interesting thing about these observations, for me, is how they contrast with what others have been saying about the evolution of big science.

So, for example, Steven Weinberg in a noted article in the May 2012 edition of The New York Review of Books spoke of “the crisis of big science,” symbolised by the scuttling of the Super Conducting Supercollider and the shift from the Tevatron at Fermilab to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

David Kaiser, of MIT, is to publish a book on these themes. It has been due for a while, hopefully there isn’t long to wait.

Even more stark is the contrast that Crease and Westfall’s observations make with the work of Jeff Hughes, who wrote one of the more interesting books on big science. Hughes made three big arguments in his book. The first, surely correct, is that the common thesis that big science came with the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb is wrong. The shift began earlier and the Manhattan Project accelerated trends already underway. The second is that big science is pathological science, which given science’s Faustian bargain with the state perhaps also is a point that should be well taken.

The third, that big science is in terminal decline to be replaced with the simpler science of a previous era. Science, the Hughes thesis should not be confused with the end of science thesis, has reached a point of maximum complexity and will revert to simplicity, and given the pathological nature of big science this would be a good thing, one surmises.

The Crease and Westfall thesis is different. They argue that big science has evolved into a complex decentralised multidisciplinary ecosystem. The simplest science is citizen science, but even here you can get something akin to big science through the development of a research ecology.

For example, one can hook up many citizen PCs to provide large computing power of the type needed to shed light on certain mathematical theorems.

Imagine a society built upon cooperation and production for need. Imagine that science in this society was big in the sense that it exhibits an ecology of multidisciplinary research organised upon horizontality and decentralisation, with no Faustian bargain to be made with the state or the corporation.

Imagine what riches we could discover and what joy those discoveries could provide.