It’s the Future, Stupid*

Today there is a letter in the Mail on Sunday from a bunch of astronomers and particle physicists backing up Suzanne Moore‘s piece last week. Her article was great (even if the juxtaposition of Carla Bruni’s rear and the now infamous Telegraph typo in my twitter stream was slightly disturbing) and the comments on it seem to show that Mail readers get the point of science better than many politicians. It’s all part of what is now a very public discussion about the importance of science, innovation and technology for future of the UK (in the context of our coming election) and indeed the world.

The MoS piece and letter bracketed a busy week which for me included the launch of the new UK Space Agency on Tuesday, a meeting of STFC’s “Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear” (PPAN) Science Committee” on Wednesday and Thursday, a school governor’s meeting, then a rapid zoom to CERN and back to give a talk at an ATLAS meeting.

I’m a big fan of space. A good friend once said that a major problem with our society is that people don’t read enough science fiction, and he’s right. We need a vision of our place in the universe, of what we could be, both good and bad.

If you haven’t read much science fiction you probably have huge misconceptions about it, but the stuff I enjoy most really does explore the relationship between life (usually but not always human) and the universe. We as a species and a nation need external frontiers, otherwise we are liable to either atrophy or to find challenges in destructive internal conflict. It must be said that the grand vision for the Space Agency (to increase the UK share of the space tech market from 6% to 10%) is hardly JFK, but Lord Drayson gave the game away when he said he personally wants to see people walking on Mars. Yes, me too.

That might shock some friends and colleagues. Space has a lot of attention right now and science budgets are being squeezed, so naturally there are fears that science down here, especially telescopes and particle and nuclear physics, will pay the price for any increased investment in space. The fear is understandable. In the PPAN meeting we saw the dire present and bleak future of particle, nuclear and astro physics under current plans. However, these plans include assumptions that should now have been changed by the recent ministerial review. So there is at least a chink of light, maybe some of the damage will not in fact be done. A lot depends on details of how the ministerial “fix” is actually implemented on the ground (and in space). In any case, any increased investment in space should not be assumed to be bad news for science. If it does work out that way, it undermines the whole enterprise from the start.

The ATLAS talk was great. Ok, the talk wasn’t particularly, but the buzz at CERN now is just brilliant. There is intense nervousness and excitement around the plan to produce, this Tuesday, the first collisions at 7 TeV (more than three times the previous record).

Frontiers are what it is about, the frontiers of knowledge; exploring the solar system or looking for the fundamental forces that govern the universe, studying the most distant structures we can see, understanding how life began and what, really, it is. Add your own exciting science question here, and make up your own science fiction based on the result. We need these things, not just for the huge technological and economic benefits but because they are wonderful and we are human. And everyone can be part of it. See the quote at the top of my blog – it’s cumulative.

A science is any discipline in which the fool of this generation can go beyond the point reached by the genius of the last generation Max Gluckman

I know more than Einstein did about fundamental physics! Actually, even physics GCSE contains things he just couldn’t have known because no one had done the experiment back then.

And the the school governors meeting in the middle of all this? Well, Suzanne Moore’s article starts with her children too. It’s the future, stupid*.

*After Herbi Dreiner & James Carville/Bill Clinton

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About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics prof, works on LHC, writes (books, Guardian Science and elsewhere). Citizen of England, UK, Europe & Nowhere, apparently.
This entry was posted in Particle Physics, Politics, Science, Science Policy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to It’s the Future, Stupid*

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  2. Jane (Groovy Pumpkin) says:

    It’s really interesting to read the quotes “A science is any discipline in which the fool of this generation can go beyond the point reached by the genius of the last generation” Max Gluckman; and

    “I know more than Einstein did about fundamental physics! Actually, even physics GCSE contains things he just couldn’t have known because no one had done the experiment back then.”

    I think science Rocks!! Especially with Prof. Brian Cox sharing it with the masses – I am now 40 and have become increasingly more interested in science, though always have been, and have admiration and awe at the way I have been shown how we as a world fit within the small corner of the known universe and our own solar system. Keep giving our children knowledge, through schools – it’s soooo worth the effort!

    Thanks to Brian and his team for sharing this wonder and excitement about science!!

  3. Alice Bell says:

    Have you ever come across the argument that the bulk of kids sci fi (at least stuff written post 1970s, esp. UK) is oddly anti-science? It’s a generally accepted idea in childrens literature studies, but other people have noticed it too.

    The argument tends to go that adults write kids books and adults are scared of the future. This is especially the case when it comes to computers, because adult writers are scared of kids spending all their time on the internet instead of reading books. Plus, there’s a whole Romantic tradition in kids literature, which often places the innocent child attached to untouched nature at odds with evil grown-up corrupted industry.

    Personally I think much of this argument is overstated, flawed by over-attention to books rather than other sci fi media (and “literature” end of kids books at that). Plus, a fair bit of their analysis is too ready to shout “antiscience!” at stuff that is actually a bit more complicated, and often very excited by science and technology whilst at the same time being a bit scared of it/ worried it might be badly applied (a tension, arguably, the bulk of sci fi plays with).

    Still, I have heard some pretty convincing examples/ arguments from the “kids sci fi is anti-science” camp over the years, and it’s interesting to note the differences between sci fi aimed at kids and that written for a general adult audience (which a lot of kids read instead anyway).

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