In a fascinating interview with The Guardian’s Andrew Anthony, media-friendly physicist Michio Kaku reveals more than he may have intended about both science and politics when he explains how political funding of the science of fundamental research takes place today. The champion of string theory complains about the difficulty scientists have as they set out to solve the biggest theoretical questions about the origin and structure of the universe due to the incomprehension of prominent politicians. He describes the fate of a plan 30 years ago to build an installation even “bigger than the Large Hadron Collider,” currently the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, which the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) launched in 2008.
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Kaku recounts what he refers to as “a big shock in the 1990s when we physicists proposed the super collider.” The scientists saw it as a chance for the United States to take a commanding lead in the realm of experimental particle physics. With the Cold War over, astute politicians might have viewed it as an important element of what Joseph Nye calls “soft power,” an essential element of diplomacy and influence for any nation intending to exercise global leadership. The richest country in the history of the world, with no ideological or economic rival to challenge its hegemony, could certainly have afforded to support the advance of theoretical physics.
The collider project was planned to be built in Dallas, Texas. All it required was funding by the federal government. Kaku explained how the scientists’ hopes were dashed: “What went wrong? On one of the last day[s] of hearings, a congressman asked: ‘Will we find God with your machine? If so I will vote for it.’ The poor physicist who had to answer that question didn’t know what to say.” Congress rejected the project, opening the opportunity for Europe to assume leadership in the exploration of particle physics.
Kaku regrets that glorious period called the Cold War, when scientists had a simple solution to obtain funding for any project requiring extravagant spending. “During the 60s, all we had to do was go to Congress and say one word: Russia. Then Congress would say two words: How much? Those days are gone.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
A common question relating to the evaluation of quantity that our modern capitalist society tends to apply exclusively to amounts of money
The usual answer to the question, “How much?” is now expressed as an amount of money. Money has also become the unique measure of quality. We live in a “how much” world. Everything has a price, which we need to know because price is the sole indicator of worth.
Finding God is one of the rare activities that the congressman in question apparently deemed worthy of being thought of as “priceless.” After finding the Americas, Europeans eventually put the resources of an entire continent in their hands to exploit in any way they deemed profitable, from extracting gold and silver to founding the Federal Reserve and launching McDonald’s.
If today’s Americans financed a collider capable of finding God, that would eventually put the divinity in their hands. At the very least, it would help to validate the claim — repeated by American schoolchildren every day as they recite the pledge of allegiance — that the US is “one nation under God.” In the event that the projected super collider did find the Godhead, Congress might once again revise the wording of the pledge, this time to one nation alongside God.
Kaku sums up the lamentable plight of the entire scientific community. “We have to sing for our supper,” he says. And as the well-known proverb explains, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” Kaku had a symphony in mind when his colleagues sought funding for the super collider in Dallas. Politicians will always prefer something with a lilt, like “Home on the Range.” Science is justified when it creates economic activity resulting in the production of both merchandise and jobs. It has no (monetary) value when it simply seeks to reveal the mysteries of the universe.
Kaku imagines how scientists schooled in rhetoric could have responded to the congressman who was ready to fund a glimpse into the face of God: “We should have said, this is a Genesis machine that will create the conditions of the greatest invention of all time — the universe. Unfortunately, we said Higgs boson. And people said, $10bn for another subatomic particle?” No shopping mall in the 1990s — not even Amazon today — can foresee making a profit from selling Higgs bosons. However, if a boson could be presented as a non-fungible token (NFT), that might be worth considering.
What does this tell us about the status of science in the post-industrial society? If scientists spend their time singing for their supper, much of the science that emerges may reflect the taste of those who call the tune. Even theoretical scientists may allow themselves to be distracted by the interests of those who pay for their research and their meals.
Kaku cites the important role played by politicians, who — as everyone knows — spend 50% of their time, if not more, fundraising, soliciting cash from people with serious economic interests that may be threatened by certain scientific truths. Add the two sources of pressure together and there may be cause for concern about the fate of scientific truth in our popular culture.
But it doesn’t stop there. There is a third factor of distortion: the media. Scientific stories concerning everything from dietary advice to solving the climate crisis or understanding what preceded the Big Bang make for popular reading and viewing. Commercial media pursue anything that draws people’s attention, including crackpot scientific theories or sensationalistic interpretations of authentic scientific discoveries.
A breaking story originating with the highly suspect Daily Mail but dutifully relayed by the supposedly “respectable” web portal and news aggregator MSN is a case in point. It informs its readers about former CIA Director James Woolsey’s “‘openness’ to the possibility of alien life.” The story is related to the promotion of Woolsey’s new book in which the head of an agency dedicated — as everyone should know by now — to lying makes the oh-so-credible claim that “Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK on the orders of the Kremlin.”
The Daily Mail, MSN and Woolsey himself have collaborated to offer this wonderful insight into the connection between politics and cosmology. It’s the kind of “science” the public loves to access. They have also collaborated to make sure that Russia is part of the story.
In the interview with The Guardian, Kaku evokes both the problem related to popularizing science, with the risk of being misunderstood, and his own “openness” to the existence of alien life, which is based on his understanding of the scope and complexity of the universe and his knowledge of the laws of physics rather than the anecdotal reports of strange phenomena cited by Woolsey. Kaku knows that, as a public figure present in the media, his discourse consists of playing a delicate game in an economic and political system whose rules he understands, but which he must not violate.
All this highlights the fact that US political culture has created a curious relationship in its dominant ideology between science, God and a nation deemed “exceptional.” It is a relationship that, as Michio Kaku reminds us, somehow depended on the perception of a threat called Russia to bring things comfortably together. He evokes the magical period where the universally imposed paranoia of communist Russia (the Soviet Union) made it possible for all Americans to agree on sharing a common religion defined in opposition to Marxist atheism. All that was required was to feel that we were all “under God.” This idea suggested to school children reciting the pledge that the American God would look after all of them.
The problem with this new theology is that the idea of God in his heaven hovering over the territory of the United States depended for its coherence on the existence in people’s minds of a hell represented by Russia. With the end of the Cold War in 1991, Russia was no longer the enemy. Liberated from communism, it had become a laboratory for American free market ideology. That was until Satan reappeared in the person of Vladimir Putin and Russiagate emerged to restore order.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
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