Nationalism and Science: A Solution?

It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honour in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.
- Dr Robert Wilson, director of Fermilab, testifying to the US congress in 1969

Physicists often lack the charisma and speech-making aptitude that those of the political class require – is it no surprise then that our political impact falters far behind our societal input? Dr Wilson’s remarks to me have been one of the best attempts at physicists playing that game. I want to briefly explore the connection of science and nationalism, and propose an alternative that would meet those ends with potential bonuses in efficiency.

Pride of a nation is something that grips nearly everyone. I’m not a psychologist, so I won’t attempt to explain why. However, as an experimentally inclined physicist I care about the how and what next. Nationalism has, both past and present, had its dark turns. It’s not without its success stories either. We all need reasons to work hard, and reasons to continue working hard. Some of our greatest achievements and innovations came when citizens proudly answered the call of their country – the Space Race, for instance. Perhaps though in the lofty academic circles of science, they would consider themselves above the arbitrary lines of country. Nevertheless, Dr Wilson’s comments don’t ring any less true: replace ‘country’ with ‘academic field’ and their primal sense of pride is exposed. Regardless, the real world is bound to real practicalities, and nationalism could be something that can benefit science. Britain has a long and illustrious history of producing great scientific innovation. Our Universities are the envy almost the world over. This is something that should be shouted about! It is time to better embrace our scientific history and use it to power a brighter future.

Scientists are at the mercy and whim of the politicians they serve, and perhaps aligning more of their interests with their masters is in the best interests of everyone. With each and every scientific discovery, paid for the people of that nation, the pride in that nation is a little more justifiable. These discoveries though are paramount to the development of society, civilisation, as a whole. Without them, we can never hope to implement idealistic political solutions, whatever your preference; never hope to eradicate suffering; never hope to extend meaning of the human race beyond its flash-in-the-pan existence. The rousing sentiment of nationalism can be put to good use: both to help justify our expenditure in science, but also to encourage newcomers into the arms race. Moreover progress feeds back into the loop! Nonetheless, whenever the dirty tentacles of politics reach into anything caution is needed.

I am an avid lover of art. I can only wonder at the genius behind how music or paintings were conceived. These works are arguably pillars of our culture, immune to changing world around them; its beauty almost intrinsic, transcending politics and time. However, some of the most abstract ideas of intellectual disciplines of mathematics, physics, philosophy were born out of the same quest for beauty. Not a beauty to the eyes or ears, but instead appealing to our minds capacity to think itself. Take, for example, Fermat’s last theorem: it states that for some integer c, there are no distinct integers a, b in the expression:

The British mathematician Andrew Wiles spent many years trying to prove this centuries old question. British people, regardless of background, should be able to feel proud that their country has outputted a piece of supremely intelligent work. However, beyond its applications in number theory it has no real utility to those same people of Britain. Frankly, just like art – because these intellectual discoveries are just another form of art. The irony is that research like this might be cheaper. Physics is becoming very expensive, as the costs of the hardware and experiments grows exponentially. Instead of spending millions of pounds on a telescope, what if we spent a fraction of that per year on hoping to crack the great unsolved problems in theoretical physics? That requires just the hiring of extremely talented people – much cheaper! If funding for cold science had to compete with the arts and other fantastical intellectual endeavours, then no doubt the immortality that these works entail would prove a great temptation to the egotistical politicians who pulled the strings. Science has always been under threat, and even in my nationalistic 'paradise' is it not safe from these conflicting interests.

Beyond a long overdue call to arms, with all the nationalistic overtones we can afford, science output requires more funding. Sadly, I know how difficult that is to make happen. Instead, I want to talk about a more efficient allocation of resources. The current government already has plans to help encourage links between academia and industry, which would help bring to market some of the brilliant ideas our academics research. This is a win-win-win. However, not everything academics study can be sold. As a physicist, I am lured in by the beauty of string theory. It aims to describe incredibly complicated fundamental properties of nature using nothing but elegant mathematics. However, almost nothing it predicts beyond our experimentally verified reality would be testable. It would be a glorified guess, and believing in its existence would be comparable to believing in a divine creator. This lack of utility means this theory should join the club of (globally) culturally significant works, like Fermat’s Last Theorem and Beethoven’s Symphonies. However, should we really be funding that through scientific grants? The value of scientific research is often in the unexpected discoveries (look no further than the race to the moon, or CERN, to see all the ways science has improved your life); failure to continue this would stop developments materialising into our existence. However, while funding string theory would generate new mathematics, it doesn’t do anything to help advance realisable science. Funding, which is already a scarce resource, that could otherwise be spent on more tangible physics, even more ‘realistic’ theoretical physics. Similarly, string theory is a vacuum of talent. Some of our smartest minds continue to work away at potentially fruitless endeavours; would it not be better to assign them to something more productive? Given the perilous nature of science’s existence, it is time to be smarter; more strategic; more political.

What of string theory, and other abstract scientific inquiry? We are no in rush for its answers, but there is a place for it in society. Instead, string theorists, and people like them, should defend and fight for the right of their work to be funded, just like all the painters, musicians, philosophers (etc.) that came before them. The question remains, who should they argue to? No system would be perfect, I accept. It is, like many things in politics, a question of finding better ground. My solution, would revolve around streamlining, using the best fastidious technocrats to facilitate a merger between the funding bodies of the less utilisable pursuits. I am proposing we strive towards a true Department of Culture. Their task, from running public museums and art galleries, to commissioning projects: to best precipitate the artistic and cultural talent of our country. Not just art and culture in the traditional sense, but of all achievement that makes our country, and humanity itself, worth defending.

By Seb Wilkes

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