‘This is just insanity’: four Nobel laureates let fly over Australian science funding


‘This is just insanity’: four Nobel laureates let fly over Australian science funding

Four of the nation’s most-renowned scientists have spoken to The Australian Financial Review about their concerns for Australian science and our ability to compete as an innovation economy.

What Nobel prize winners Elizabeth Blackburn, Brian Schmidt, Peter Doherty and Barry Marshall had to say about innovation funding in a nation historically responsible for a range of world-beating scientific advancements was often scathing.

Each holds fears for Australia’s global competitiveness. As stated by the AFR’s Anne Hyland, “When it comes to investment in science, Australia is in reverse as other countries floor the accelerator.”

Here’s a selection of quotes from the Nobel laureates about Australia’s investment in science and our economic future. For the full story, read: How ignoring science damns our economy at the AFR.

ELIZABETH BLACKBURN (joint Nobel prize in physiology or medicine in 2009)

Photo: Ken James

“How could Australia not think of investing heavily in science? This is just insanity. The fact that the natural resources boom is fading away – it’s foolishness.”

“I come back and have these marvellous science conversations and I talk to really, really bright people, but they’re under-used. They don’t groan. They just do the best they can.”

“Australia needs to invest in science. It’s a bigger picture than politics. Prime ministers come and go. National policies can be developed in a much less politicised way and be much more forward looking, whoever the prime minister happens to be.”

“There needs to be a very serious investment because you have all this scientific talent. If you look at the track record of countries that have invested in science, it’s obvious, it works.”

BRIAN SCHMIDT (joint Nobel prize in physics in 2011)

Photo: Rohan Thomson

“I’m scratching my head and losing sleep at night about that in a way that I haven’t before.”

“It’s unclear to me whether or not we will continue to be a great astronomy nation.”

“If we lose [our] advantage, are we going to replace that with something else? We damn well better be or we’re going backwards.”

“If we’re damaged it will take 20 years to fix ourselves. It only takes one year to cause 20 years of damage.”

PETER DOHERTY (joint Nobel prize in physiology or medicine in 1996)

Photo: Arsineh Houspian

“The celebration of science in Australia is pretty thin.”

“Basic science is done through public funding. It can’t be left up to the magic of the market. It doesn’t work in innovation.”

“We still have high quality universities. If we keep cutting back on that sector we’re going to lose it. It’s sad.”

“Australia, because of its location and the fact it’s an open Western country, really has tremendous potential to be an innovation hub.”

BARRY MARSHALL (joint Nobel prize in physiology or medicine in 2005)

Photo: Philip Gostelow

“There’s a layer of administration and bureaucracy that sits on top of original scientific research that almost doubles the cost or more.”

“[There’s] not the priority given to academic and scientific pursuit in Australia by politicians and government”.

“We need to raise some political pressure and educate politicians.”

“[In Singapore] their resources are their people and they say: ‘What are they going to do? We want to give them something interesting to do and have them doing things that are going to be white-collar, high-value jobs with some product coming out of it.’ ”

Fairfax Media

A Guide to Understanding Nothing


A Guide to Understanding Nothing

Posted  by Daniel Honan

Nothing

How could the universe be created out of nothing? This question has so perplexed mankind that we have come up with a fantastic assortment of myths to explain the how and the why of existence.

The stories that tend to resonate with us employ metaphors that are based on human scale, or the observable world around us. Quantum mechanics doesn’t offer that. And yet, “the universe doesn’t care about our common sense,” says Lawrence Krauss, whose book A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing led to one of the fiercest intellectual battle royals of the past year, which Krauss attributes to his alleged encroachment into the field of philosophy.

What is nothing?

The simplest kind of nothing is “an infinite empty space,” Krauss tells Big Think. This type of nothing, the dark infinite void of the Bible, is not filled with any particles or radiation. It’s just nothing. However, due to the laws of quantum mechanics and relativity, Krauss says, “we now know that empty space is a boiling bubbling brew of virtual particles that are popping in and out of existence at every moment.”

Krauss says the idea of “empty space with stuff in it” and the idea of “empty space with nothing in it” are actually “different versions of the same thing.” We have come to understand a more complicated version of nothing because the laws of quantum mechanics guarantee that if you wait long enough, nothing will eventually produce something.

But if this is true, where did space come from? As Krauss points out, “once you apply the laws of quantum mechanics to gravity itself, then space itself becomes a quantum mechanical variable and fluctuates in and out of existence and you can literally, by the laws of quantum mechanics, create universes.”

What about the laws of physics? The laws of nature? These laws themselves are somehow something. “That is not at all obvious or clear or necessary, says Krauss. In fact, “we now have good reason to believe that even the laws of physics themselves are kind of arbitrary.”
For instance, there may be an infinite number of universes, and in each universe that has been created, the laws of physics are different. “The laws themselves come into existence when the universe comes into existence,” Krauss says. In other words, there is no pre-existing fundamental law. Anything that can happen, does happen.

So what are we left with? No laws, no space, no time, no particles, no radiation. That’s a pretty good definition of nothing.

Krauss acknowledges that when he talks about “virtual particles popping in and out of existence on a timescale so short you can’t see them,” he might sound like some kind of philosopher or priest “talking about angels on the head of a pin or something.”

However, while we can’t see virtual particles directly, Krauss points out that we can measure their effects indirectly. And this is the key to understanding modern physics. For every particle that exists in nature, there is a likelihood that out of empty space, particle-anti-particle pairs will be created spontaneously and they will exist for a very short time before they disappear. “The fact that we can actually calculate them is what’s responsible for at least one Nobel Prize,” Krauss says. Why? If we include the effects of virtual particles, “we can predict from first principles the results of an observation to nine decimal places and get it right, Krauss says. “There’s nowhere else in science where you can do that.”

What’s the Significance?

Now that we have a better understanding of nothing, we still need to answer the question of why we need to bother getting out of bed in the morning. After all, quantum mechanics can be quite dispiriting to some. As Richard Dawkins wrote in his afterward to A Universe From Nothing:

Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.

That is not to say that Krauss embraces a pessimistic worldview, or, as some have charged, a reckless indifference to the great moral questions that arise from the idea of creation from nothing. I, for one, don’t think that criticism is fair.

Sure, we’re insignificant, Krauss tells us, but we’re also quite precious. Krauss sees it as “spiritually uplifting” that we get to determine our own future, as opposed to having to simply fulfill the purpose of our creator, like some kind of mannequin. “That makes our future more precious,” he says.

Watch the video here:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

 

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