Monday, May 03, 2004

Thinking is Fundamental

So we're at the second-run movie theater this weekend. One of the previews is for "The Life of Brian". I am the only one laughing. Now I know it isn't only me and my sense of humor, many reliable humor aficionados have deemed the movie very funny. Then (fleetingly) I think it is the subject matter and I am in a theater with a lot of Stepford Fundamentalists who would stone me for laughing at the blasphemous movie. But as I said, it was a fleeting thought, more of a recognition that these people are at large.

The movie we were watching was "Master and Commander: The Longest Title to the Far Side of the World". As we were the last people on Earth to see the movie (as always), I won't worry about revealing some plot points. A lot of the action takes place on the Galapagos Islands. The ship's doctor is a naturalist and had heard a lot about the "Enchanted Isles" and wanted to study the plants and animals. Now most educated people know that the Galapagos were where Darwin (30 years later than the time period in the movie) gathered the notes that led him to his discoveries. The conceit in the movie is that the ship's doctor might have done the same if circumstances were slightly different.

And then I thought about fundamentalists again and how they would react to this subtle prefiguring of the theory of evolution, and if there was thought in Hollywood of dropping this story line because of idiots in Kansas and Alabama. I mean if there is anything that Hollywood respects it is the dollar bills that can come out of any idiot's wallet - hence the preponderance of teen movies lately.

And now I reach what resulted in the tipping point for today's post: that the US is rapidly becoming an also ran in leading edge science. An article in today's NY Times shows that rest of the world is catching up very rapidly in publishing basic research articles and developing patents. Well, that this has happened is no surprise to me. I got my Ph.D. in physics and astronomy in 1992 and worked for a couple of years as a post doc researcher in England. Generally, I could see that Europe was far better prepared for growth in the next ten years of science than America.

Europe was spending far more per capita on basic research and the opportunities for younger scientists were more plentiful. In fact so plentiful, that American scientists (like myself and other Americans I met over there) were leaving the U.S. for jobs. Everyone agreed that the situation in the U.S. was horrible. Universities and government labs were not hiring at all and in fact were letting people go. Research institutions such as Bell Labs where Nobel Prizes were routine were shutting down due to corporate bottom-line pressure. And this was ten years ago. From what I've heard and read the culture is even worse.

So why has the American miracle of science gone away? One reason could be just reversion to the mean: we were so far ahead for so long, that the rest of the world just caught up. I don't think that is necessarily true or explains very much. I think another reason is just that America's infatuation with anti-intellectualism has finally caught up with itself. Religious fundamentalism together with the culture of narcissism isn't going to produce a lot of scholars writing research articles, though it will produce a lot of home-schooled wackos, dittoheads and video game mumbloids.

Today's anti-intellectuals (who run the federal and most state governments), will resist any increased effort to remedy the situation. The only reason for the recent dominance of American science (who took over from Europe's dominance in the 19th and early 20th centuries) was that the technological prowess was needed to stay ahead of the Soviet Union. It certainly was never done for its own sake. Today's anti-communism - the war on terrorism - can't be dealt with in the same way as before. There is no Manhattan Project or Race to the Moon in our present cold war.

Remember, it is the 21st century now and there are a sizable fraction of Americans who deny evolution, deny that global warming is even possible and deny that the basics of civilization (roads, health care, fire and police protection, safe water and air etc.) need to be paid for. These people are running this country now and they don't think that any money that could go to their Hummers and McMansions should be going to scientists studying string theory.

Of course, Europe and China are going to eat our lunch in a few decades because of this thinking.

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