Tacit Prediction

So, the grownup TP (theoretical physics) community – a community to which, I confess, I do not belong – is all a dither about impending cuts to federal spending on “speculative” TP. (Incidentally, while some might argue I should not be counted a member of any TP community, I myself simply meant that I am not sufficiently grownup to be counted a member of that slightly more exclusive group.) Peter’s take on the situation can be found here. Peter quotes a study:

The situation is becoming increasingly unstable.

University-based theory is suffering its most serious crisis in decades.

Its future is in jeopardy.

Sabine comments (as usual, pleasantly caustic):

As I have tried to tell particle physicists for 5 years or so, even the dumbest politician will eventually see that they don’t live up to the promises they’ve been making …

I offered my own comment, inspired by Sabine’s:

Sabine’s statement concerning “even the dumbest politician” has me confused. I was unaware that a lower bound had ever been established. 

As to me personally, I was fearing all this might mean cuts to my research funding of 50 to 90%, but then I did the math and determined in either case it would result in no change. :-))

Alas, not being a grownup, I find it hard constructing comments that make the cut, and this little nugget was deemed to be pyrite, and so dismissed.

Anyway, speculative TP has a history of funding woes as long as the field itself. Decades ago I remember attending a colloquium at Harvard given by a prominent younger member of their particle physics group. At the time the relevance of TP was under question, and spending cuts were feared in the offing. The subject of the talk was on the potential to use neutrinos to find oil deposits. Gosh. That certainly has the verisimilitude of relevance. Of course, nothing ever came of this, and no one in the audience – and probably the speaker himself – took the suggestion seriously.

Some time after this, during my years as a perennial slave … oh, I mean, adjunct … the Texas based SSC was cancelled. At the time this had a direct effect on my life. One of the professors at one of the many universities at which I was adjuncting was relying on SSC funding. When it evaporated I lost one of my courses to said prof.

And that’s a point made in Peter’s blog. Not about me personally, mind, but that it’s the little people who suffer the most immediate effects of money evaporation. In this present case, “little people” refers to speculative TP-ers at all but elite universities.

Do I care? Not so much. Fearing adjuncting would lead to a life in retirement sleeping in a cardboard box under a bridge, I eventually quit and ended my professional life as a web developer. So I’ve already been there, and done that.

Hell, in one of the last physics conferences I attended I was introduced prior to my talk as “the maverick”. This shocked me a trifle, but not being a grownup I was largely clueless as to how I was perceived by the larger TP community. (Still, “maverick” is better than “contrarian”, a more dismissive term I recently encountered online in reference to, well, people with thoughts on TP that are contrary to the mainstream.) So, anyway, my life on the fringes of TP has instilled in me a deep seated desire to see pruning shears applied liberally to mainstream TP. Indeed, one of Peter’s commenters suggested that funding cuts are long overdue:

Theoretical HEP is in failure mode and deserves its funding cut. Period. Full stop.

You know, as a TP maverick, one of many whose ideas are at variance with the mainstream, it occurs to me that the present funding fears are a tacit prediction of my work, and the work of anyone whose TP models bring into question the value of highly funded speculative TP. Sadly, verification of this tacit prediction is insufficiently focused to do contrarians much good, as they are likely being viewed by the powers that be no less leerily – probably much more leerily – than your average elite university string theorist.

Which reminds me: the Boston Area Physics Calendar, to which I subscribe, has in recent times had a dearth of string related talks listed. Unsurprisingly, quantum computing, which “even the dumbest politician” has come to view as in the national interest, now dominates listed TP talks. Or such is my impression. You should check with grownups for verification.