*Particle Fever*

by on April 1, 2014 at 8:25 am in Film, Science | Permalink

That is the new science documentary about the Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs particle, reviewed here.  I enjoyed it very much, and it makes being a scientist seem glamorous, in the good sense of that concept.  The visuals of what goes on at CERN are striking, all the more so for being juxtaposed against mooing Swiss cows.  And reheating a super-cooled magnet, and removing some helium contamination, is not easy to do.

The scientists in this movie seem to think their success will be measured in binary up/down fashion, and yet so far the results are mixed and inconclusive, as if they had been doing macroeconomics.

During one early part of the movie, at a public meeting, a self-proclaimed economist stands up from the audience and asks what is the economic rationale for the project, in front of a group of people drawn mostly from the scientific community.  The man presenting the project responds proudly that such a question does not really need to be answered, and his audience of scientists cheers.  The film audience in Greenwich Village was emboldened by this retort and there was audible positive murmuring, and some apparent scorn for the economist.

I wonder how the same scene would play out if the question concerned high-frequency trading?

John Mansfield April 1, 2014 at 8:43 am

Does high-frequency trading light up that “expanding the boundaries of human knowledge” or “because it’s there” feeling in anyone?

mofo. April 1, 2014 at 9:07 am

If i said yes, would it change your opinion?

Boonton April 1, 2014 at 11:09 am

Do you mean his opinion on high frequency trading or of you?

Rahul April 1, 2014 at 9:07 am

Also, can we list the people making millions every year only because CERN built the LHC?

dan1111 April 1, 2014 at 9:35 am

On the other hand, HFT is not paid for with billions of dollars of public funding.

Rahul April 1, 2014 at 10:33 am

True. They only bleed you fractions of cents at a time. Death by a million cuts.

In any case, I think questioning economic rationale for LHC is perfectly valid, just that choosing HFT to make the counterpoint is a bit funny.

prior_approval April 1, 2014 at 10:43 am

Especialloy considering the CERN is the birthplace of HTML.

dan1111 April 1, 2014 at 10:54 am

@Rahul, Has it been demonstrated that HFT are causing harm to society in general? There are winners and losers in the trading itself, but participation in that is purely voluntary.
.

Scout April 1, 2014 at 3:11 pm
Someone from the other side April 1, 2014 at 11:01 am

This being a government project, I am sure that some contractors made more than just a few million out of the total LHC budget…

T. Shaw April 1, 2014 at 10:52 am

It does if the guy who profits from HFT pays for it.

What is the price tag on, and who is paying for, “expanding the boundaries of human knowledge” or “because it’s there”?

And, how will it affect the price of cheese in Switzerland?

Will they hate God more if they prove that He doesn’t exist?

Justin April 1, 2014 at 11:44 am

Do either of those mean that physics should be excluded from budgetary planning even though providing food for the poor and health care for the elderly are?

And, (of course, but this is the internet), I’m not saying that the government shouldn’t do scientific research. I am saying that we do need to prioritize it based on things like a benefit-cost analysis.

Clearly this is pure mood affiliation. The economist was raising the status of economists and lowering the status of physicists, and the crowd showed that they affiliated with the physicist. But status aside, the economist was right.

John Mansfield April 1, 2014 at 1:51 pm

When physicists are asked to justify the billions spent, they can try to answer or sidetrack the question with appeals to the beauty and nobility of their quest. I am not aware of similar justifications being felt, or felt necessary, by financial traders.

Rahul April 1, 2014 at 2:40 pm

Replace beauty & nobility by liquidity & price-accuracy.

Tim April 1, 2014 at 2:44 pm

CERN played a fairly important role in the invention of the internet — even assuming that other companies would have eventually created the internet on their own, without CERNs help. The value the world obtained from having the internet 1-2 years earlier (due to CERN) is worth trillions in productivity — and provides a return on basically all the of the public money that has ever been spent on science by itself.

Adrian Ratnapala April 1, 2014 at 11:07 pm

You mean the world wide web. The internet was already a world conquering monster by that time.

albert magnus April 1, 2014 at 9:00 am

The search for the Grand Unified Theory is a cult. But it’s a fun cult! And you learn a lot and you work with the smartest people you’ll ever meet. But don’t believe that crap about “expanding human knowledge”, it’s about fame and glory and ego and insular status competitions like everything else. Whatever the connection between gravity and the rest of the standard model is, it is like to be alien, tedious and useless at terrestial scales.

carlospln April 1, 2014 at 5:04 pm

Just like quantum mechanics, right? And who could believe THAT?

‘Alien, tedious and useless at terrestrial scales': you have just described the economic ‘profession’

albert magnus April 1, 2014 at 8:28 pm

I think people will believe it, they won’t be able to use it or understand it. Quantum mechanics is useful for some things.

GM April 1, 2014 at 9:32 am

Wouldn’t it would have been better for the economist to address that question to the people who provide the funding, rather than the to the people who benefit from it?

Joe Teicher April 1, 2014 at 9:43 am

>I wonder how the same scene would play out if the question concerned high-frequency trading?

I assume that the audience wouldn’t like it. It could even be a “gotcha” moment where the evil traders admit that what they do has no value except to them. But, in fact it is true in both cases. The LHC does not need an economic justification because it is already built. The money has been spent.

HFT requires no justification because it is legal and profitable. People can score political points by trashing it in the press or “investigating” it or whatever but it would be very difficult to make it go away. In the worst case, it would just change jurisdictions. Co-locating servers in Singapore is nearly as easy as co-locating them in New Jersey.

Mark Thorson April 1, 2014 at 10:30 am

Next week, 60 Minutes will be reporting the LHC is “rigged”.

Ray April 1, 2014 at 9:45 am

Hah. Basic science, like art, is something done for the glory of it. The major difference is, science usually has so many spillover, unanticipated benefits that people are happy to shove money at it. There are others, I suppose.

Benny Lava April 1, 2014 at 9:51 am

Once again Tyler gazes longingly at the physical sciences and reveals a deep rooted inferiority complex.

prior_approval April 1, 2014 at 9:59 am

It’s palpable, really.

Especially since there is no other type of economist but a ‘self-proclaimed’ one.

Cliff April 1, 2014 at 10:42 am

What does that mean?

prior_approval April 1, 2014 at 11:08 am

Anyone can be an economist, which relates to the ‘self-proclaimed’ part. People as disparate as Karl Marx, Thorstein Theblen, Lord Jevon, and Reverend Malthus were all economists. They were also much more, of course, since none of them were so limited as to view economics as an end unto itself.

This is the key difference between science, and whatever it is that today’s self-proclaimed economists study. Science expands, continuing to explore, overturn, and unify understanding, based on empirical data (though knowledge is trickier, as justified true belief is not exactly the same as empoirical data). One can argue that Goethe’s theory of colors is a worthy achievement of human understanding, without at any point believing it is actually a work of science – because, of course, it isn’t. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_Colours )

This is where our current self-proclaimed economists have gotten lost – they wish to wrap their musings on the human condition in equations which offer an appearance of science. In part, to distance themselves from any criticism that their work actually involves human values, not physical laws. The name of this web site is a clear indication of that conscious attempt to present the study of economics into something it can never be.

Willitts April 1, 2014 at 11:26 am

A Doctorate of Philosophy degree is HARDLY self-proclaimed.

Cliff April 1, 2014 at 12:24 pm

What is the difference between economists and any other profession in that respect? Are only “officially licensed” professions real professions? If I open a bakery and proclaim myself a baker, then I am one- right?

prior_approval April 1, 2014 at 12:51 pm

‘If I open a bakery and proclaim myself a baker, then I am one- right?’

Well, to make the distinction – if you actually bake bread, which satifies certain basic minimum standards (such as people eating or buying it more than once), then sure, you are a baker. A fact, based on actual results, which people can agree on, independent of the opinion of the baker.

On the other hand, submitting plans for a bakery, evaluating various recipes, lining up financing, installing an oven, and dealing with all of the other tedious details that a baker deals with does not make one a baker – the trappings might be the same, but the fact of not actually providing baked bread for people to eat means that one is not a baker. (To be fair, you might be a bakery owner – which is not the same as being a baker in this case, as the owner employs the baker to do the actual baking.)

The distinction being one that is based on observable data independent of what one proclaims about oneself. Which is the difference between actual science and economics.

Philosophy April 2, 2014 at 5:53 am

Your third-rate scientism is showing.

Chip April 1, 2014 at 9:56 am

It was a sensible question but scientists, though often brilliant in one field, are often shockingly naive – even childish – in other respects.

Whether from a lifetime in academia or too much focus on narrow study, it’s probably more acute today as increased knowledge requires ever more restricted specialization.

Probably accounts somewhat for otherwise sensible scientists in genetics (Paul Nurse), astronomy (Hansen) and physics (Kaku) getting apocalyptic when it comes to climate, an area in which even climatologists can barely scrape at the complexity of the data.

TMC April 1, 2014 at 10:29 am

Not that Hansen isn’t a true believer, but he’s made a boatload of cash off of AGW.

prior_approval April 1, 2014 at 11:10 am

Not to mention S. Fred Singer, who pioneered cashing out this way.

TMC April 1, 2014 at 11:47 am

Not sure what you think ‘pioneer’ means.

prior_approval April 1, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Sorry – S. Fred Singer, pioneered this approach at GMU in the later 1980s. With the willing help of parts of GMU’s PR department, and not so willing help from the rest. He was not precisely a faculty member, but then, a lot of what went on at GMU in that time frame was all about getting around such pesky restrictions.

Personally, I regard MRU as a crowning achievement of that long sought after goal – having a completely non-transparently funded entity that takes full advantages of various public affiliations with GMU, without GMU having any influence in the least. Shame that the PR story about a $4 app and Youtube being the basis of a new era in education was just another amusingly typical GMU style narrative.

prior_approval April 1, 2014 at 1:23 pm

Oops – my mistake – I read Hanson and thought GMU Prof. Robin Hanson. Who is not a denialist – he is a contrarian. Or a futurist confident that climate change will be easily overcome – in the future, which is why there is little need to do anything now.

mulp April 1, 2014 at 12:05 pm

“boatload of cash”??

What about the cash made from pillage and plunder which has left vast swaths of wasteland? Or do you consider the land and water polluted by the fossil fuel industry to be more valuable than before the profit making which could not afford to pay for cleanup? Did Exxon lose money year after year and thus suffered even greater losses from the long term destruction of fishing from the Valdez that SCOTUS ruled they didn’t need to compensate those harmed for?

When will you move to China where Hanson and the other environmentalists have no say in the economy and where the air and water are greatly increased in value by all the pillage and plunder of natural capital?

TMC April 1, 2014 at 12:45 pm

Everyone over to Mulp’s cabin in the woods. Party tonight. Bring your own flashlight.

commentariette April 1, 2014 at 10:10 am

It’s a lousy answer.

Understanding the fundamental structure of matter is a pretty good long term bet. X-rays and radiation therapy, transistors, lasers, modern silicon, and quantum computing were all ‘physics with no clear practical value’ decades before they became ‘technology’.

I’d argue that its also one of the cases where government does well to be involved in scientific research: The costs is very high and the payoff — though also potentially very high — can be well beyond the time horizon of any individual or company.

gwern April 1, 2014 at 10:55 am

> X-rays and radiation therapy, transistors, lasers, modern silicon, and quantum computing were all ‘physics with no clear practical value’ decades before they became ‘technology’.

That’s seems false to me. Most of those went into practical application very quickly. (The transistor? Really?) To pick just one example (since I was reading the Wikipedia article on it last week and it immediately springs to mind), there were at least two attempts to patent the laser before a working laser was ever built, and the applications listed a variety of potential uses. Everyone was well-aware of the ‘clear practical value’.

albert magnus April 1, 2014 at 11:00 am

Radiation for both diagnostic and therapy went into immediate use even before they were fully understood in terms of physics let alone biology.

If you look carefully at the equipment at the LHC you will notice that most of it is based on older designs that have been around for a long time just not as large a scale. Superconducting magnets, particle detection electronics and linacs are mature technologies, not somewhere you expect a lot of new applications.

prior_approval April 1, 2014 at 11:11 am

And a lot of people died using radium ‘cures.’

But we all know that greed is a stronger motivation for many than something as abstract as understanding consequences.

TMC April 1, 2014 at 11:49 am

You think someone clinging to life as greedy?

prior_approval April 1, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Well, let’s see – did anyone need to be exposed to radium to cure tonsilitis? But sure, some people are greedy – but in such cases, it was all about the money.

Not everything is a dramatic story involving life and death. Just like how torture is not about a ticking time bomb.

Radium was cheap, and easy to sell at a mark up to gullible people. So it was.

Here is an example – ‘Radithor was manufactured from 1918 to 1928 by the Bailey Radium Laboratories, Inc., of East Orange, New Jersey. The owner of the company and head of the laboratories was listed as Dr. William J. A. Bailey, a dropout from Harvard College,[1] who was not a medical doctor.[2] It was advertised as “A Cure for the Living Dead”[3] as well as “Perpetual Sunshine”.

Eben Byers, a wealthy American socialite, athlete, industrialist and Yale College graduate, died from Radithor radiation poisoning in 1932.[4]

The Wall Street Journal article describing the Byers incident was called “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off”.[5] Byers’s death led to the strengthening of the Food and Drug Administration’s powers and the demise of most radiation-based patent medicines.’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radithor

mulp April 1, 2014 at 11:55 am

If superconducting magnets are mature technologies, why did the LHC project have such difficulty getting its superconducting magnets to work, with lots of R&D involved over a span of two decades.

At least that work was done outside the US and not in Texas…. The SSC was planning to use what was clearly “more mature” magnet designs which drove up its costs significantly, leading to its cancellation.

albert magnus April 1, 2014 at 2:55 pm

Because superconducting magnets were not mature in 1993, but were mature in 2013. They are routinely used in other physics labs (like the American one I did my PhD in) even though they are a crummy technology. Room-temperature or liquid nitrogen superconducting magnets would have been an innovation.

mofo. April 1, 2014 at 11:08 am

While i agree in general, its worth noting that some of the best scientific research in the world came from the likes of IBM.

Dan Weber April 1, 2014 at 11:36 am

If you mean the scientists’ answer in the movie was lousy, you’re right.

LHC is exactly what governments should fund: big things that have uncertain payoffs in the far future. Things that are small and/or have a measurable likelihood of payoff within a decade are the domain of private investors.

Which is what the scientists should have said. But, from Tyler’s description, the economist was the bumbling n00b and his question was just beneath contempt. I guess every movie needs its villain. Act II needs to show him selling pieces of the LHC on eBay under the table which causes an explosion but a scientist rescues him.

jim April 1, 2014 at 1:56 pm

The question is contemptible. Of all the ridiculous things these states blow tax revenue on, the effort to establish the workings of physical reality is where this pain in the ass decides to make a stand?

mofo. April 1, 2014 at 4:16 pm

According to Wikipedia, at least, the LHC is listed as costing around $9 Billion, which they helpfully note, makes it one of the most expensive scientific instruments ever. If you cant raise an eyebrow at that, what can you question?

I mean, dont get me wrong, i agree that this is way better than most of the shit governments spend on, but this notion that the value of hard science is beyond question is bullshit. The confirmation of the Higgs boson or whatever is really more valuable than a cure for malaria, or a new, different antibiotic or an inexpensive way to deal with sewage even?

John Schilling April 2, 2014 at 11:06 am

X-rays, transistors, lasers, and quantum mechanics were all developed on laboratory workbenches by small groups of very clever people working with basic instruments.

If a postulated physical effect is so weak or manifest only at such exotic conditions that it takes ten billion dollars’ worth of specialized apparatus to produce the faintest signal capable of poking clearly above the noise floor, it would seem unlikely that this same effect can be manifest to produce an economically useful result at any plausibly affordable cost.

As for long-term payoffs, individuals and privately-held corporations routinely undertake projects that will not bear fruit until ten or twenty years in the future. Like, for example, planting fruit trees. Churches and universities will sometimes plan for a century or more. Governments, democratic ones at least, have no more than a four-year planning horizon.

Willitts April 1, 2014 at 10:15 am

“and yet so far the results are mixed and inconclusive, as if they had been doing macroeconomics.”

One should wonder why we let people tinker with our economy when their results are, at best, mixed and inconclusive.

Good thing that macroeconomists didn’t experiment with the world’s first artificial nuclear chain reaction in Chicago.

whatsthat April 1, 2014 at 10:22 am

Please do some macroeconomics and teach us, master.

Willitts April 1, 2014 at 11:27 am

“Doing” macroeconomics is the problem, Grasshopper.

Mark Thorson April 1, 2014 at 10:37 am

Milton Friedman was one of the earliest users of the Harvard Mark I, arguably the first computer.

Adrian Ratnapala April 1, 2014 at 10:50 am

I haven’t watched the video, but I found that sentence a bit odd. As far as I remember the LHC was only expected to give clear answer to one particular question (whether a Higgs particles exist in a particular range of masses), while possibly shedding more light on the area in general. So far it has answered that first question with a clear yes, while also … wait for it … shedding other dim lights and glitters in the general area of particle physics.

Finch April 1, 2014 at 1:31 pm

A lot of people expected evidence of supersymmetry (very arguably evidence of string theory), which conspicuously hasn’t shown up.

In many respects, the most interesting thing to come out of LHC is serious doubt about the way forward.

Anonymous April 1, 2014 at 10:23 am

As a young physicist, I think that asking about the economic rationale of LHC is a valid question. If the money spent to LHC would have otherwise been spent on other science projects, then I don’t think that it was a very good investment. Surely spending the money on multiple less-glorious-sounding and cheaper projects would have resulted in more progress in understanding of the nature and more technologically relevant discoveries. On the other hand, if the opportunity cost of LHC was just more random governmental waste, then I feel that the money was well spent.

mulp April 1, 2014 at 11:32 am

What of the wasted space in cities for graves?

As a physicist, wouldn’t you question the logic of even thinking anyone’s death matters, and consider any money spent on a dead body to be a total waste of money when it could be profitably be converted for use as fertilizer. After any useful parts were sold off, of course.

Physics as a discipline exists because of religion, just as death rituals do.

TMC April 1, 2014 at 11:52 am

“What of the wasted space in cities for graves?”

Greenspace! Also exists because of a religion.

Just Another MR Commodore April 1, 2014 at 10:28 am

The Hadron Collider IS in fact a waste as the resources could have been better spent on building a massive BitCoin mining operation.

Urso April 1, 2014 at 10:44 am

It’ll take a long time to mine any bitcoins on a Commodore

jseliger April 1, 2014 at 10:31 am
mulp April 1, 2014 at 11:26 am

Do economists argue that buying tens of thousands of shares 3 milliseconds before selling them for a few cents more per share to the buyer who triggered the decision to buy by placing an order over a slower comm link for the tens of thousands of shares is critical to ensuring the order to buy tens of thousands of shares will be fulfilled by increasing the knowledge of the true price of the shares?

But the scientists response missed the real public policy issue.

Science originated in religion, and the role of religion in government is so strong that funding religion is a priority in public policy and thus funding the science of cosmology and churches are the consensus of society.

Donations to science and churches get tax preferences.

Science and church properties are exempt from taxes.

In many nations, funding churches with taxes is still occurring or only recently curtailed.

And governments spend money for religious purposes, such as the Jewish, Wiccan, Islamic headstones marking military graves in addition to the various Christian markers.

Why don’t economists question the logic of dedicating land to the dead when it would make more sense to transport the dead to a composting center and dropping them in a wood chipper along with a mix of brush and garbage and animal waste which can be sold for profit?

The money spent on death rituals is as irrational, or as rational, as the money spent on cosmology.

mofo. April 1, 2014 at 12:38 pm

And that, my friends, is why the pope wears red shoes.

prior_approval April 1, 2014 at 1:30 pm

Except the new pope doesn’t.

He’s still Catholic, though.

mofo. April 1, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Hmmm, well then i suppose mulp will have to update his priors.

ummm April 1, 2014 at 11:26 am

High frequency trading is useful. the most immediate benefit is providing liquidity and keeping bid ask spreads narrow. this reduces friction costs for retail traders.

Willitts April 1, 2014 at 11:31 am

I’m agnostic on the net benefits of HFT, but the benefits of declining transaction costs to portfolio returns are substantial. The one downside of cheap trades is that it permits churning without the associated pinch.

Jeff April 1, 2014 at 11:33 am

I have not seen this film. But I would answer the questions posed thusly:

1) The scientist is correct that the economist’s question need not be answered. The funding has already been secured and any future funding will be discussed in a different meeting with different people.
2) The justification for HFT is that it is profitable. Traders aren’t looking for government funding, so unless government wants to restrict it no answer is needed – but that is political justification, not economic.

K April 1, 2014 at 12:30 pm

If they weren’t doing physics which for all intents and purposes will never have any practical applications, many of those same physicists would likely be making weapons, all the better to blow us all up. Stick that in your utility function.

Jan April 2, 2014 at 10:46 am

Your hatred of physicists is duly noted.

Donald Pretari April 1, 2014 at 4:56 pm

Would have been cool if the Bee Gees had done the Soundtrack

Zach April 1, 2014 at 7:41 pm

It’s one of those questions that’s easy to ask and impossible to answer. The public benefits from the forward march of science as a whole, not from individual projects.

You could argue that too large a fraction of the total science budget goes to particle physics (I think this argument will gain a lot of traction if and when people start trying to think up the successor to the LHC), but the status of the Higgs boson as the last undetected element of the standard model makes it a special case. Up to the discovery of the Higgs, there was at least the possibility that an experiment you could do right now, with available and economically feasible technology, could disprove the Standard Model and/or prove the existence of supersymmetry. With that big a potential payoff (filtered by however you translate scientific payoff into economic impact), you more or less have to do the experiment.

Like I say, the really interesting argument is whether the *next* accelerator is worth the money. There, you’re looking for much more speculative things, at higher cost. It’ll be interesting to see how that one plays out.

Alan April 2, 2014 at 6:34 am

Tyler is a very interesting thinker but his narcissism about economics and blindness to the things that make economics worth doing are grating. Science and engineering enable us to do the things that make life better, economics can inform us about the costs of different ways of doing them but Tyler (like many economists) seems to think that accountancy should come first. I sometimes wonder if he knows what separates humanity from the beasts of the field and from robots.

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