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We Would Hope – Apparently Vainly – That Scientists Could Actually Think

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Another begging bowl being held out here. This time it’s the turn of the theoretical scientists to tell us that they deserve more of our money. This argument could even be true but we’ll not gain that proof from the nonsense being put before us.

Essentially, the argument is that because theory is cheap compared to experiment therefore theory should have more money because experiment gets more. The proof of this is that one scientist did very well without having more money directed to him.

Erm, yes.

From electromagnetism to quantum mechanics, the greatest scientific discoveries often require little more than a blackboard, a stick of chalk and a congenial place in which to think. The breakthroughs of Roger Penrose, who was recently awarded a Nobel prize for his work on black holes, are a case in point. The British theoretical physicist has made discoveries in areas ranging from include the fabric of spacetime to human consciousness. His “Penrose tiles” – two shapes that cover a surface in a never-repeating pattern – aren’t just lovely to look at; they have deep links to the structure of quasicrystals and the theory of computation.

Penrose joins a long line of British theoretical scientists stretching back four centuries, from Peter Higgs, GH Hardy and Paul Dirac, to William Rowan Hamilton, John Dalton and Isaac Newton. But despite the country’s strength at producing theorists, the field of theoretical science receives little support from the UK government.

That Penrose was able to do his work rather means that the system provided that blackboard, chalk and place to think. That is, the very use of Penrose as the example shows that the current system – whatever it is – works.

We are then told:

But if Britain is to be a world leader in science, the government will also need to redress the funding imbalance between experiment and theory. Boosting the fraction that goes to theory will be the best way to salute the artistry of Penrose and his forebears, and support the theorists of the future.

Why? We’ve just proven that theory currently works with the current budget.

From the government’s perspective, one of the most attractive things about theory should be how cheap it is. Experiment requires equipment, which is expensive to buy, house and maintain, and the costs continue to soar.

OK, we’ll take that as being true.

The trouble with British science is that we measure once and cut seven times – or rather, as it turns out, 14 times. An analysis of the 4,270 active grants awarded by the UK Research Councils shows that a mere 7.3% of £2.8bn research funding went to projects in the theoretical sciences. The lion’s share was lavished on experiment.

But what is the problem with this? We’ve just agreed that theory currently works – our proof is that a theorist was able to gain his chalk. We’ve then also agreed that experiment is very much more expensive than theory. Thus experiment needs more money than theory.

Having agreed that theory has enough and that experiment needs more then what is left of the insistence that theory should get more because it’s cheap?

Dr Thomas Fink is the director of the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences

The argument “give me more money for science” would work rather better if the person making the appeal could prove the ability to think logically.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. I think what they mean is that theory is better value than experiment, so you can have lots of theorists for the same money as a few experimenters. I’m not sure that means we should shift to more theory, however, as surely that risks us being really good at theory but then being unable to implement it.

  2. The crux of this is to think that funding theorists, however mediocre and plodding, will produce good theories. But it will not produce one more Einstein, Maxwell, Dirac or even Penrose. And of course the nature of abstruse theory is such that wherever it comes from once published it is available to everybody, we don’t get a national return on the investment.

  3. A theory is worthless until it is confirmed by experiment. So theorists and experimenters need to be in proportion to one another.
    Unless we want to flood the world with untested ideas, most of which will be wrong.

  4. What’s the difference between a physicist, a mathematician and a philosopher?
    A physicist needs a pencil, some paper, a wastepaper basket and a £10 million research grant.
    A mathematician needs a pencil, some paper and a wastepaper basket.
    And a philosopher doesn’t need the wastepaper basket.

  5. There’s a guy in Ely getting paid to think. When he gets into the real world of practice though he buys a dog, spreads infectious disease, and pays partners less than the NLW.

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expunct

in British English
expunct (ɪkˈspʌŋkt)
VERB (transitive)
1. to delete or erase; blot out; obliterate
2. to wipe out or destroy

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