STS and big science

A previous post noted the rapid transition in the twentieth century from small physics (Niels Bohr) to large physics (Ernest Lawrence). How should we understand the development of scientific knowledge in physics during this period of rapid growth and discovery?

One approach is through the familiar methods and narratives of the history of science. Researchers in the history of science generally approach the discipline from the point of view of discovery, intellectual debate, and the progress of scientific knowledge. David Cassidy’s book  Beyond Uncertainty: Heisenberg, Quantum Physics, and The Bomb is sharply focused on the scientific and intellectual debates in which Heisenberg was immersed during the development of quantum theory. His book is fundamentally a narrative of intellectual discovery. Cassidy also takes on the moral-political issue of serving a genocidal state as a scientist; but this discussion has little to do with the history of science that he offers. Peter Galison is a talented and imaginative historian of science, and he asks penetrating questions about how to explain the advent of important new scientific ideas. His treatment of Einstein’s theory of relativity in Einstein’s Clocks and Poincare’s Maps: Empires of Time, for example, draws out the importance of the material technology of clocks and the intellectual influences that flowed through the social networks in which Einstein was engaged for Einstein’s basic intuitions about space and time. But Galison too is primarily interested in telling a story about the origins of intellectual innovation.

It is of course valuable to have careful research studies of the development of science from the point of view of the intellectual context and concepts that influenced discovery. But fundamentally this approach leaves largely unexamined the difficult challenge: how do social, economic, and political institutions shape the direction of science?

The interdisciplinary field of science, technology, and society studies (STS) emerged in the 1970s as a sociological discipline that looked at laboratories, journals, and universities as social institutions, with their own interests, conflicts, and priorities. Hackett, Amsterdamska, Lynch, and Wajcman’s Handbook of Science and Technology Studies provides a good exposure to the field. The editors explain that they consulted widely across researchers in the field, and instead of a unified and orderly “discipline” they found many cross-cutting connections and concerns.

What emerged instead is a multifaceted interest in the changing practices of knowledge production, concern with connections among science, technology, and various social institutions (the state, medicine, law, industry, and economics more generally), and urgent attention to issues of public participation, power, democracy, governance, and the evaluation of scientific knowledge, technology, and expertise. (kl 98)

The guiding idea of STS is that science is a socially situated human activity, embedded within sets of social and political relations and driven by a variety of actors with diverse interests and purposes. Rather than imagining that scientific knowledge is the pristine product of an impersonal and objective “scientific method” pursued by selfless individuals motivated solely by the search for truth, the STS field works on the premise that the institutions and actors within the modern scientific and technological system are unavoidably influenced by non-scientific interests. These include commercial interests (corporate-funded research in the pharmaceutical industry), political interests (funding agencies that embody the political agendas of the governing party), military interests (research on fields of knowledge and technological development that may have military applications), and even ideological interests (Lysenko’s genetics and Soviet ideology). All of these different kinds of influence are evident in Hiltzik’s account in Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex of the evolution of the Berkeley Rad Lab, described in the earlier post.

In particular, individual scientists must find ways of fitting their talents, imagination, and insight into the institutions through which scientific research proceeds: universities, research laboratories, publication outlets, and sources of funding. And Hiltzik’s book makes it very clear that a laboratory like the Radiation Lab that Lawrence created at the University of California-Berkeley must be crafted and designed in a way that allows it to secure the funds, equipment, and staff that it needs to carry forward the process of fundamental research, discovery, and experimentation that the researchers and the field of high-energy physics wished to conduct.

STS scholars sometimes sum up these complex social processes of institutions, organizations, interests, and powers leading to scientific and technological discovery as the “social construction of technology” (SCOT). And, indeed, both the course of physics and the development of the technologies associated with advanced physics research were socially constructed — or guided, or influenced — throughout this extended period of rapid advancement of knowledge. The investments that went into the Rad Lab did not go into other areas of potential research in physics or chemistry or biology; and of course this means that there were discoveries and advances that were delayed or denied as a result. (Here is a recent post on the topic of social influences on the development of technology; link.)

The question of how decisions are made about major investments in scientific research programs (including laboratories, training, and cultivation of new generations of science) is a critically important one. In an idealized way one would hope for a process in which major multi-billion dollar and multi-decade investments in specific research programs would be made in a rational way, incorporating the best judgments and advice of experts in the relevant fields of science. One of the institutional mechanisms through which national science policy is evaluated and set is the activity of the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) and similar expert bodies (link). In physics the committees of the American Physical Society are actively engaged in assessing the present and future needs of the fundamental science of the discipline (link). And the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health have well-defined protocols for peer assessment of research proposals. So we might say that science investment and policy in the US have a reasonable level of expert governance. (Here is an interesting status report on declining support for young scientists in the life sciences in the 1990s from an expert committee commissioned by NASEM (link). This study illustrates the efforts made by learned societies to assess the progress of research and to recommend policies that will be needed for future scientific progress.)

But what if the institutions through which these decisions are made are decidedly non-expert and bureaucratized — Congress or the Department of Energy, for example, in the case of high-energy physics? What if the considerations that influence decisions about future investments are importantly directed by political or economic interests (say, the economic impact of future expansion of the Fermilab on the Chicago region)? What if companies that provide the technologies underlying super-conductor electromagnets needed for one strategy but not another are able to influence the decision in their favor? What are the implications for the future development of physics and other areas of science of these forms of non-scientific influence? (The decades-long case of the development of the V-22 Osprey aircraft is a case in point, where pressures on members of Congress from corporations in their districts led to the continuation of the costly project long after the service branches concluded it no longer served the needs of the services; link.)

Research within the STS field often addresses these kinds of issues. But so do researchers in organizational studies who would perhaps not identify themselves as part of the STS field. There is a robust tradition within sociology itself on the sociology of science. Robert Merton was a primary contributor with his book The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations (link). In organizational sociology Jason Owen-Smith’s recent book Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Future provides an insightful analysis of how research universities function as environments for scientific and technological research (link). And many other areas of research within contemporary organizational studies are relevant as well to the study of science as a socially constituted process. A good example of recent approaches in this field is Richard Scott and Gerald Davis, Organizations and Organizing: Rational, Natural and Open Systems Perspectives.

The big news for big science this week is the decision by CERN’s governing body to take the first steps towards establishment of the successor to the Large Hadron Collider, at an anticipated cost of 21 billion euros (link). The new device would be an electron-positron collider, with a plan to replace it later in the century with a proton-proton collider. Perhaps naively, I am predisposed to think that CERN’s decision-making and priority-setting processes are more fully guided by scientific consensus than is the Department of Energy’s decision-making process. However, it would be very helpful to have in-depth analysis of the workings of CERN, given the key role that it plays in the development of high-energy physics today. Here is an article in Nature reporting efforts by social-science observers like Arpita Roy, Knorr Cetina, and John Krige to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the decision-making processes at work within CERN (link).

Big physics and small physics

When Niels Bohr traveled to Britain in 1911 to study at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, the director was J.J. Thompson and the annual budget was minimal. In 1892 the entire budget for supplies, equipment, and laboratory assistants was a little over about £1400 (Dong-Won Kim, Leadership and Creativity: A History of the Cavendish Laboratory, 1871-1919 (Archimedes), p. 81). Funding derived almost entirely from a small allocation from the University (about £250) and student fees deriving from lectures and laboratory use at the Cavendish (about £1179). Kim describes the finances of the laboratory in these terms:

Lack of funds had been a chronic problem of the Cavendish Laboratory ever since its foundation. Although Rayleigh had established a fund for the purchase of necessary apparatus, the Cavendish desperately lacked resources. In the first years of J.J.’s directorship, the University’s annual grant to the laboratory of about £250 did not increase, and it was used mainly to pay the wages of the Laboratory assistants (£214 of this amount, for example, went to salaries in 1892). To pay for the apparatus needed for demonstration classes and research, J.J. relied on student fees. 

Students ordinarily paid a fee of £1.1 to attend a lecture course and a fee of £3.3 to attend a demonstration course or to use space in the Laboratory. As the number of students taking Cavendish courses increased, so did the collected fees. In 1892, these fees totaled £1179; in 1893 the total rose a bit to £1240; and in 1894 rose again to £1409. Table 3.5 indicates that the Cavendish’s expenditures for “Apparatus, Stores, Printing, &c.” (£230 3s 6d in 1892) nearly equaled the University’s entire grant to the Cavendish (£254 7s 6d in 1892). (80)

The Cavendish Laboratory exerted great influence on the progress of physics in the early twentieth century; but it was distinctly organized around a “small science” model of research. (Here is an internal history of the Cavendish Lab; link.) The primary funding for research at the Cavendish came from the university itself, student fees, and occasional private gifts to support expansion of laboratory space, and these funds were very limited. And yet during those decades, there were plenty of brilliant physicists at work at the Cavendish Lab. Much of the future of twentieth century physics was still to be written, and Bohr and many other young physicists who made the same journey completely transformed the face of physics. And they did so in the context of “small science”.

Abraham Pais’s intellectual and scientific biography of Bohr, Niels Bohr’s Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity, provides a detailed account of Bohr’s intellectual and personal development. Here is Pais’s description of Bohr’s arrival at the Cavendish Lab:

At the time of Bohr’s arrival at the Cavendish, it was, along with the Physico-Technical Institute in Berlin, one of the world’s two leading centers in experimental physics research. Thomson, its third illustrious director, successor to Maxwell and Rayleigh, had added to its distinction by his discovery of the electron, work for which he had received the Nobel Prize in 1906. (To date the Cavendish has produced 22 Nobel laureates.) In those days, ‘students from all over the world looked to work with him… Though the master’s suggestions were, of course, most anxiously sought and respected, it is no exaggeration to add that we were all rather afraid he might touch some of our apparatus.’ Thomson himself was well aware that his interaction with experimental equipment was not always felicitous: ‘I believe all the glass in the place is bewitched.’ … Bohr knew of Thomson’s ideas on atomic structure, since these are mentioned in one of the latter’s books which Bohr had quoted several times in his thesis. This problem was not yet uppermost in his mind, however, when he arrived in Cambridge. When asked later why he had gone there for postdoctoral research he replied: ‘First of all I had made this great study of the electron theory. I considered… Cambridge as the center of physics and Thomson as a most wonderful man.’ (117, 119)

On the origins of his theory of the atom:

Bohr’s 1913 paper on α-particles, which he had begun in Manchester, and which had led him to the question of atomic structure, marks the transition to his great work, also of 1913, on that same problem. While still in Manchester, he had already begun an early sketch of these entirely new ideas. The first intimation of this comes from a letter, from Manchester, to Harald: ‘Perhaps I have found out a little about the structure of atoms. Don’t talk about it to anybody… It has grown out of a little information I got from the absorption of α-rays.’ (128)

And his key theoretical innovation:

Bohr knew very well that his two quoted examples had called for the introduction of a new and as yet mysterious kind of physics, quantum physics. (It would become clear later that some oddities found in magnetic phenomena are also due to quantum effects.) Not for nothing had he written in the Rutherford memorandum that his new hypothesis ‘is chosen as the only one which seems to offer a possibility of an explanation of the whole group of experimental results, which gather about and seems to confirm conceptions of the mechanismus [sic] of the radiation as the ones proposed by Planck and Einstein’. His reference in his thesis to the radiation law concerns of course Planck’s law (5d). I have not yet mentioned the ‘calculations of heat capacity’ made by Einstein in 1906, the first occasion on which the quantum was brought to bear on matter rather than radiation. (138)

But here is the critical point: Bohr’s pivotal contributions to physics derived from exposure to the literature in theoretical physics at the time, his own mathematical analysis of theoretical assumptions about the constituents of matter, and exposure to laboratories whose investment involved only a few thousand pounds.

Now move forward a few decades to 1929 when Ernest Lawrence conceived of the idea of the cyclical particle accelerator, the cyclotron, and soon after founded the Radiation Lab at Berkeley. Michael Hiltzik tells this story in Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex, and it is a very good case study documenting the transition from small science to big science in the United States. The story demonstrates the vertiginous rise of large equipment, large labs, large funding, and big science. And it demonstrates the deeply interwoven careers of fundamental physics and military and security priorities. Here is a short description of Ernest Lawrence:

Ernest Lawrence’s character was a perfect match for the new era he brought into being. He was a scientific impresario of a type that had seldom been seen in the staid world of academic research, a man adept at prying patronage from millionaires, philanthropic foundations, and government agencies. His amiable Midwestern personality was as much a key to his success as his scientific genius, which married an intuitive talent for engineering to an instinctive grasp of physics. He was exceptionally good-natured, rarely given to outbursts of temper and never to expressions of profanity. (“ Oh, sugar!” was his harshest expletive.) Raising large sums of money often depended on positive publicity, which journalists were always happy to deliver, provided that their stories could feature fascinating personalities and intriguing scientific quests. Ernest fulfilled both requirements. By his mid-thirties, he reigned as America’s most famous native-born scientist, his celebrity validated in November 1937 by his appearance on the cover of Time over the cover line, “He creates and destroys.” Not long after that, in 1939, would come the supreme encomium for a living scientist: the Nobel Prize. (kl 118)

And here is Hiltzik’s summary of the essential role that money played in the evolution of physics research in this period:

Money was abundant, but it came with strings. As the size of the grants grew, the strings tautened. During the war, the patronage of the US government naturally had been aimed toward military research and development. But even after the surrenders of Germany and Japan in 1945, the government maintained its rank as the largest single donor to American scientific institutions, and its military goals continued to dictate the efforts of academic scientists, especially in physics. World War II was followed by the Korean War, and then by the endless period of existential tension known as the Cold War. The armed services, moreover, had now become yoked to a powerful partner: industry. In the postwar period, Big Science and the “military-industrial complex” that would so unnerve President Dwight Eisenhower grew up together. The deepening incursion of industry into the academic laboratory brought pressure on scientists to be mindful of the commercial possibilities of their work. Instead of performing basic research, physicists began “spending their time searching for ways to pursue patentable ideas for economic rather than scientific reasons,” observed the historian of science Peter Galison. As a pioneer of Big Science, Ernest Lawrence would confront these pressures sooner than most of his peers, but battles over patents—not merely what was patentable but who on a Big Science team should share in the spoils—would soon become common in academia. So too would those passions that government and industry shared: for secrecy, for regimentation, for big investments to yield even bigger returnsParticle accelerators became the critical tool in experimental physics. A succession of ever-more-powerful accelerators became the laboratory apparatus through which questions and theories being developed in theoretical physics could be pursued by bombarding targets with ever-higher energy particles (protons, electrons, neutrons). Instead of looking for chance encounters with high-energy cosmic rays, it was possible to use controlled processes within particle accelerators to send ever-higher energy particles into collisions with a variety of elements. (kl 185)

What is intriguing about Hiltzik’s story is the fascinating interplay of separate factors the narrative invokes: major developments in theoretical physics (primarily in Europe), Lawrence’s accidental exposure to a relevant research article, the personal qualities and ambition of Lawrence himself, the imperatives and opportunities for big physics created by atomic bomb research in the 1940s, and the institutional constraints and interests of the University of California. This is a story of the advancement of physics that illustrates a huge amount of contingency and path dependency during the 1930s through 1950s. The engineering challenges of building and maintaining a particle accelerator were substantial as well, and if those challenges could not be surmounted the instrument would be impossible. (Maintaining a vacuum in a super-large canister itself proved to be a huge technical challenge.)

Physics changed dramatically between 1905 and 1945, and the balance between theoretical physics and experimental physics was one important indicator of this change. And the requirements of experimental physics went from the lab bench to the cyclotron — from a few hundred dollars (pounds, marks, krone, euros) of investment to hundreds of millions of dollars (and now billions) in investment. This implied, fundamentally, that scientific research evolved from an individual activity taking place in university settings to an activity involving the interests of the state, big business, and the military — in addition to the scientific expertise and imagination of the physicists.