Physics Nobel Prize Winner in the Cabinet

I just learned this* – Steve Chu (Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997 – see here) has been nominated as Energy Secretary in the new Obama administration. I find that sort of interesting and exciting. An actual Physicist in charge of energy. And at this crucial time. Story here (for example).


*Thanks Jeff!

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12 Responses to Physics Nobel Prize Winner in the Cabinet

  1. Elliot says:

    From people I know inside both academia and business he is highly regarded.

    Let’s hope that the outcome is half as positive as the potential.

    I think everyone who cares about science policy and the future of energy production, consumption should feel heartened by this selection.


  2. Philip H. says:

    It certainly bodes well to have a Ph.D. in any science in the Cabinet. I would add, though, that Energy policy is more about economics then science, and so we need to hope that the incoming Secretaries of Labor, Treasury and Commerce, the new Counsel of Economic Advisers, all need to be on board. Otherwise the best science won’t do anyone any good.

  3. Belizean says:

    Given Dr. Chu’s successful background as a sort of “table top” experimentalist at Bell Labs, I wonder if this makes him likely to reduced DOE funding of high energy physics in favor of physics that yields a bigger intellectual bang for the buck.

  4. Clifford says:

    I think we’re all waiting for you to enlighten us as to what “physics that yields a bigger intellectual bang for the buck” might be, with perhaps a helpful indicator of the metrics you use for this.

    Pray tell…


  5. Belizean says:

    Nothing deep — just the number of fundamental principles discovered per dollar spent. This would currently seem to favor quantum information, condensed matter physics, and particle astrophysics over high energy physics, the lower-hanging fruit of the latter having long ago been picked.

  6. Clifford says:

    “just the number of fundamental principles discovered per dollar spent”

    Hi. No disrespect meant, but I spent quite a bit of time laughing at this until my sides really hurt.

    This *is* a joke, right?


  7. Belizean says:

    No. Just imagine a textbook for undergrads on branch X of physics.

    Count the number of “principles” (facts you’d teach an undergrad because there’s experimental support for them) in the text that have been discovered in, say, the last 20 years. Divide this by the sum of NSF, DOE and other expenditures on that branch of physics.

    You’d find that this ratio is much higher for, say, X=”quantum information theory” than for X=”high energy theory”.

    Kinda silly to suppose that the cost per bit of knowledge acquired is exactly the same for every branch of physics, don’t ya think?

  8. Clifford says:

    I think that my laughter constitutes the most careful, polite, and reasoned reply to this.

    Do you propose to do this for poetry and literature as well? Paintings? Songs? Come up with some metric for measuring how many “worthy” ones are produced per dollar invested in the arts? then set the different arts against each other to compete on the basis of this?


  9. Belizean says:

    “Do you propose to do this for poetry and literature as well? Paintings? Songs?”

    Of course I do.

    Step 1. Decide the desired output of the art.

    Step 2. Fund the art projects most likely to achieve this output at the lowest cost.


    Suppose you want the art that you fund to maximally induce a sense of exaltation in the experiencers.

    Cristo proposes to surround the Hawaiian islands with giant floating pink plastic bunting that can be seen from space. Cost: $28,000,000.

    Ted Kooser proposes to write a stirring poem about the Hawaiian islands. He also agrees to photoshop a Google Earth picture of the Hawaiian islands, so that they appear to be surrounded by giant floating pink bunting.
    Cost: $2,000.

    You judge Kooser’s proposal to be more exaltation-inducing per unit cost than Cristo’s. So you fund Kooser.


    This is, after all, how individuals implicitly buy art (or anything else). Why not expect similar rationality from funding agencies?

  10. Clifford says:

    Your somewhat extreme example is missing your own point entirely, and with all due respect, suggests that you don’t really understand at all the enormity (and ridiculousness) of what you’re proposing. You’re comparing two specific pieces of art (or proposals) instead of two fields or movements within the art world, populated by numerous artists collaborating, influencing one another and so forth. It is utterly trivial* to find two examples to give extreme cases to make your attempt at a metric seem reasonable, whereas since you propose to use it to measure the worth of entire fields or movements, it is in fact it is quite the opposite. And the silliness of focusing on “new fundamental principles” (whatever that means) as some sort of absolute measure of the worth of a piece of science is, well, silly. Are you next going to start *Ranking* the scientific principles? And how many actually *new* fundamental principles have there been in entire fields of physics, biology, chemistry, etc in any period of time. The field of quantum information that you champion so much, or example… how are you defining “new fundamental principles” exactly? A narrow (and stupid enough) definition would say that since they are using nothing more than the laws of quantum mechanics, there’s actually hardly anything new going on there at all since the EPR paper, either. We can go on and declare most of chemistry pointless in this way too… and how about all the wonderful things going on in Biology? If you strip away everything down to “new fundamental principles”, what have you got left?

    And then you ignore one of the most important and wonderful things – the fact that the collective, largely undirected effort is of huge value since you don’t know who is influenced by what work that someone else did, and how one subfield is influenced by another.

    *Your artworld example picking on specific extreme cases is like comparing two gases that are at the same temperature by picking one molecule of each gas at and comparing their speeds, finding that one is going super-fast and another super slow and therefore concluding that one gas has more energy than the other. You ignore the interactions between each of the gas’ constituents that continually ensure a distribution of speeds, you ignore the fact that you can find representatives of all sorts of speeds in either gas, and so on and so forth. I think the analogy is clear…

    I could go on more but this exercise is just really really obviously silly to me. Of course there should be assessment of the scientific direction and outcomes of various endeavours, and decisions made about how best to invest your limited resources in scientific research, but boiling it down to which field has discovered more “new fundamental principles” than another is spectacularly naive.



  11. Elliot says:

    I think with science it is pretty easy to quantify the fact that the net value of things that could not have been developed without the underlying scientific discovery is hundred or thousand (or more) fold more than the cost of the research.

    With art it is less clear and probably not the right way to evaluate this arena.


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