Sunday, September 09, 2012

Big Science

A member of the ENCODE genomics project (440 scientists working in 32 groups, who recently explicated much of the non-coding region of human DNA) talks to an LHC physicist (CMS: 2000+ scientists from 155 institutions) in this Nature podcast.

Despite the shock and awe of big science, I share Wigner's sadness at the modern necessity of specialization.
But it is sad to lose touch with whole branches of physics, to see scientists cut off from each other. Dispersion theorists do not know axiomatic field theory; cosmologists do not know nuclear physics. Quantum mechanics is hard to explain to a chemist ... and yet the best theoretical chemists really ought to know quantum mechanics. 
Specialization of science also robbed us of much of our passion. We wanted to grasp science whole, but by then the whole was something far too vast and complex to master. Only rarely could we ask the deep questions that had first drawn us to science.
Luis Alvarez (one of the greatest experimentalists of all time) on large collaborations:
My observations of the young physicists who seem to be most like me and the friends I describe in this book tell me that they feel as we would if we had been chained to those same oars. Our young counterparts aren't going into nuclear or particle physics (they tell me it's too unattractive); they are going into condensed-matter physics, low-temperature physics, or astrophysics, where important work can still be done in teams smaller than ten and where everyone can feel that he has made an important contribution to the success of the experiment that every other member of the collaboration is aware of. Most of us do physics because it's fun and because we gain a certain respect in the eyes of those who know what we've done. Both of those rewards seem to me to be missing in the huge collaborations that now infest the world of particle physics.

No comments:

Blog Archive