A “Beppe Grillo” for the survival of fundamental research: scientists, don’t complain about sequestration cuts, you had been warned

Sequestration cuts came into effect. Finally. It is with disbelief that I’ve read the news reporting the myopic decision. It is with surprise that I browsed through comments which resemble each other too much: they content themselves with just analyzing the figures and do not spend a single word about how this doomsday scenario could be fought now … and should have been fought earlier. “How?” you ask: well, for starters I’d have tried to make a lot of noise about it; better yet, when talking to the largest public possible, I’d have accompanied documenting the possible cuts by describing the vital role science and research have in our well-being. Examples of this role are numerous, so I will pick just a few from where you would expect them the least: theoretical physics.

I’ve started writing this piece with a smartphone, one of those modern devices with which making a phone call is almost a commodity: typically, in fact, such a device sports a nice video camera, a large storage memory and a navigator. Although these parts all apply some physics my favorite one is definitely the latter: it is a gift from Einstein’s legacy, which supersedes Newton’s by taking into account that time is not absolute but rather dependent on one’s state of motion. This entails that at the height and speed of the Global Positioning System satellites time does not flow at the same rate as it does on the surface of the Earth. If this is not enough to blow your mind away, let me then add that the reason behind this quirkiness is that space and time form a single, dynamical entity, that is to say: spacetime can do stuff (see my past blog entry “Gravity: the dance of space and time”). Although Einstein did not set out explicitly to invent the GPS, we couldn’t have made without the theory of gravity he published 1915, almost a century ago! I think it’s very important to quote this date because it helps remember how indirect the path can be from inception to application when radical new ideas are involved. However long and tortuous the route is, a definite paradigm stands the test of time: there’s no progress without exploring new territories for the sake of knowing more.

In case you had not been impressed by the Einstein-GPS connection I have another one for you: the LHC-cancer one, with LHC being the Large Hadron Collider, the toy scientists have built to hunt out the God particle, a.k.a. the Higgs Boson. The particles that get smashed inside the humongous underground accelerator are called hadrons because they are sensitive to what is called the “strong force”, a fundamental interaction of Nature which just operates inside atomic nuclei. While studying what physical reality looks like at an ever deeper level scientists realized that hadrons could be used as projectiles to be shot at some tumors, especially the ones lying deep down into our bodies. How ’bout this as a connection between the knowledge conquered through pure research and common people’s needs?

Until recently I have been busy working to produce more of such knowledge, at some of the Ivory Towers scattered around the world. Along the way I could develop a sensitivity to the lack of awareness, and the consequent lack of appreciation, that people outside Ivory Towers have towards what happens inside them.
For this reason I have taken every opportunity to advocate in favor of science and research, notably during my two-year experience in the US. Despite the presence of many laudable efforts, their individual character and the absence of more prevent reaching a critical mass and a consequent large scale efficacy. Critical to that is, I believe, the necessity of having a strong unitary voice to be heard by the public: “united we stand, divided we fall”, as the saying goes.

I feel like I have tried to be for fundamental physics what Beppe Grillo has represented for Italy’s politics (*): if we unite our individual complaints about an unsatisfactory status quo we can change it. In science there is a notorious instance that exemplifies what I was advocating for and why: the history of the Hubble Space Telescope. In 2003 it had been declared doomed by US President George W. Bush and NASA President Sean O’Keefe, in charge at the time: no more maintenance for the telescope, the money that the necessary Shuttle mission would have cost had to be destined to bring astronauts on Mars. Excited by scientists working on the Hubble project, an unprecedented movement of popular opinion grew to such a large extent that the official decision had to be changed and money reallocated. My last year in the US, 2012, seemed like a good time to propose to the community of scientists to stand up and organize something similar, although quite belatedly because of sequestration cuts behind the corner.

My idea to tackle the problem of public awareness and appreciation of science was to adopt a marketing strategy in favor of research, especially for fundamental physics. What better opportunity than the discovery of a Higgs-like particle announced in July? In this context I proposed that a large University, better yet a national coalition such as the American Physical Society or the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, worked with public figures to host a panel discussion, which elucidates the ties of the discovery itself with respect to science, technology, society and politics. Besides scientists involved in the relative disciplines, I suggested, for example, that the panel was to be composed of a public figure to whom the young and laymen audience can relate. For the latter I couldn’t think of a more iconic candidate than Jim Parsons, the actor who plays the role of theoretical physicist Doctor Sheldon Cooper in the popular tv series “The Big Bang Theory”.
Though very concrete, and not challenged by any competing alternative, my proposal fell on deaf ears: now that entire research programs are going to be shut down, it looks a lot like a missed opportunity.

Last week we learned that NASA announced they would wipe out their future outreach efforts. I couldn’t disagree more: if you have been condemned to death, won’t you rather try everything to fight it instead of accepting to go through a slow torture? If you do science and you cannot communicate it, does your science really exist?

In my proposal I also suggested that a politician figured in the panel because of the huge social implications the cuts will produce: if that is not a matter during election time I don’t know what else can be! In fact US society is changing its ethnic composition: as the 2010 Census data indicate, in some twenty years from now US youth will be mainly composed by Hispanic population. Far from being a racial problem this change demands rethinking the education system. As a matter of fact around 86% of Hispanic origin youth do not go to college: already today the US fall short of highly skilled workforce among their citizens, how drastically worse will the situation get in the next twenty years? Will it still be possible for the US to import scientists and engineers from Asia when their countries’ economies and universities perform better than the US one? Won’t there be social tension when most US citizens cannot find a well-payed job or just any job?

To conclude, maybe my “outreach revolution” would’ve changed very little in regard to the political myopia that brought to sequestration cuts but a skeptic “nothing will change” was exactly the sentiment accompanying the chances of success of Beppe Grillo in Italy’s elections. As a disclaimer I should conclude to mention that I took Beppe Grillo just to represent a contrarian/naysayer figure: by referring to his name I do not mean to endorse any political view of his or his characteristic style of wording his ideas.

Who, what, why, when, where

Hi there!
I hope you have appreciated my posts so far, for example my Ode to the Higgs and “Gravity: the dance of space and time“; I’ll return to them in the future but now it is time for me to tell you something about me: Who am I? What brought me to start a blog? Why do I like being a blogger? When did I start doing what I do? Where have I made my experiences so far? Before you give up reading let me assure you: I’m not going to write a novel of my life but, as I feel some background is important, I’ll just sketch a few chapters of my biography anyway 😉
Who. I like to define myself as a “sociable physicist”, that’s to say someone who is equally appreciative of the conquests of the human mind, as well as of them being shared with those who did not take part in the endeavor … other than paying for that through their taxes. And that is What brought me to this point of my life, where I’ve realized that my deepest passion for the physical sciences has to be expressed through what it is generally called “public outreach“. I’ve recently read a blog post debating about what meaning to assign to “public outreach”: is it something resembling preaching to the converted or does it really reach out to people who do not know why science concerns all of them? As much as I value initiatives falling in the first category, such as public lectures or popular science books, I believe they have to be accompanied by a larger set of efforts. This attitude is best defined, I think, as a marketing strategy for fundamental science, which is how I called it in a paper you can find at this address: http://arxiv.org/abs/1210.0082. There I explore why it is important that the scientific community reaches out to the largest public, through a variety of means and approaches that are tailored on the target audience. Another salient aspect of my proposal is its somewhat invasive character: you have to use your target audience’s interests in order to have it pay attention to a scientific content whatsoever. That’s where marketing kicks in. Of course among the means I propose to be more efficiently used and exploited by the scientific community are internet and the world of social media: you can’t hope to reach out to the public if you do not have a presence where the public is and spends time. Therefore I felt I had to start my own blog. Truth be told this is not my very first try: even before I opened an account on Blogger I started looking at a few other, such as those at Scientopia, where later on I have been offered a time slot as a guest blogger. Why: check.
When and Where. About a year ago I took the decision to put aside research and follow my real inclination and passion of popularizing science. I was starting my second year as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland, just outside Washington DC, which I had joined after four years of doctoral training in theoretical physics at the University of Geneva, in Switzerland. All along those years I’ve promptly taken any occasion to share tales of my personal journey in the world of the physical sciences: be them related to the exploration of advanced concepts or concerning visiting scientific cathedrals, such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN or the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. However most of the people with whom I could talk did not show the interest I was hoping for: in general they did not feel much drawn to the theoretical aspects, however fancy their names were, or proud citizens of a country that sponsors the pursuit of knowledge. They did not know that those cathedrals I revered so much serve two purposes: the first is the scientific goal they are after, the second is to empower mankind with new means for growth and prosperity. The most eloquent examples of how this is true are both related to CERN (I’m Italian and I’m proud of my country being among the pioneer countries which founded CERN just after World War 2). First, the Large Hadron Collider, the experiment that has discovered a new particle of Nature, be it the Higgs Boson or not, has the word “hadrons” in its name: this is a category of subatomic particles subject to the strong nuclear force; had scientists not been curious about what lies at ever more microscopic scales and how it behaves, we would have not known that hadrons exist and that they can be used as very precise projectiles to be shot at tumors lying deep down inside the human body. Second, the World Wide Web, the network we now massively use to communicate, work, exchange and look for info, travel, buy, etc: its inventor, Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee, used to work at CERN.
Both connections between fundamental physics and everyone’s life are so profound you’d wonder how we (read: our governments) do not try and find more ways to keep this healthy process alive. That is the mission I’ve chosen for myself: to make people aware, first, and appreciative, afterwards, of why science is both beautiful and useful. I’m confident this blogging experience will serve this purpose of mine, as well as teach me how to do it better along the way.

[ disclaimer: I have very slightly re-edited this post from a guest contribution I wrote for Scientopia ]