Delay Cosmology

We live in an age of unusually rapid fundamental discovery. This age cannot last long; it must soon slow down as we run out of basic things to discover. We may never run out of small things to discover, but there can be only so many big things.

Such discovery brings status. Many are proud to live in the schools, disciplines, cities, or nations from which discovery is seen to originate. We are also proud to live in this age of discovery. While this discovery divides us to some extent, making us jealous of top discoverers, it unites us more I think, in pride as part of this age of discovery.

This ability to unite via our discoveries is a scarce resource that we now greedily consume, at the cost of future generations to whom they will no longer be available. Some of these discoveries will give practical help, and aid our ability to grow our economy, and thereby help future generations. For those sorts of discoveries the future may on net benefit because we discover them now, rather than later.

But many other sorts of discoveries are pretty unlikely to give practical help. By choosing to discover these today, we on average hurt future eras, depriving them of the joy and pride of discovery, and its ability to unite them around their shared status. This seems inefficient, because many kinds of discovery should get cheaper over time, because there are probably diminishing returns to the joy of more discoveries in the same generation, and because the future may have stronger needs for ways to unite them.

This all suggests that we consider delaying some sorts of discovery. The best candidates are those that produce great pride, are pretty unlikely to lead to any practical help, and for which the costs of discovery seem to be falling. The best candidate to satisfy these criteria is, as far as I can tell, cosmology.

While once upon a time advances in cosmology aided advances in basic physics, which lead to practical help, over time such connections have gotten much weaker. Today, the kinds of basic physics that cosmology is likely to help is very far from the sort that has much hope to give practical aid anytime soon. Such basic physics is thus also a sort of discovery we should consider delaying.

I’m not saying we create strong international law to prohibit such discovery. Much could go wrong with that to turn net gains into net losses. But we might at least locally offer more social disapproval and less status to such discoveries, in recognition of their greedy grab from future generations. Why praise the discoverers of today, who help little else and take glory and unity away from the future?

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,
Trackback URL:
  • Ari Timonen

    How about CERN and nuclear physics? I’m not a physicist, so I wouldn’t know.

    • Mitchell Porter

      You actually can’t delay cosmology without also delaying fundamental physics in general. These days a theory of everything has to explain the cosmic data as well as the collider data.

      • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

        Hmm. How does that translate into economically useful results? We’re talking about high energy rays produced in conditions not found on earth. So it has little relevance to manufacture or curing disease. Maybe for power generation? We aren’t yet a space faring race, so we can’t just mash things together for power. Nor do we need to, given our proximity to our star. Maybe for sterilization / germ control? Well, we’ve had plenty of time to experiment with radioactive isotopes under normothermic conditions already.

      • Mitchell Porter

        I didn’t say anything about economic payoffs. I am pointing out that to
        “delay cosmology” you would have to do a lot more than stop looking at the
        sky. Even if you shut down all of experimental particle physics too, the subject will keep progressing, because we already have a lot of data that is not definitively explained, many ideas, and many theoretical leads. Basically, you would have to insist that people who already know the data must stop thinking about how to explain it.

      • IMASBA

        “Does cosmology boost the chances of discovering room temperature superconductors”

        It actually might, yes.

        “We’re talking about high energy rays produced in conditions not found on earth.”

        That “not found on Earth” factor is precisely why cosmology is so important: relativity and quantum mechanics do not fit together nicely, at the extremes they produce contrary, sometimes even non-physical, predictions, only cosmology allows us to study these extremes and come up with a uniting theory that’s required for future “holy grails” of science.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        No, cosmology has almost no chance of helping find room temp superconductors.

      • notriddle

        You sure? Solving the problem of quantum gravity will probably result in “side effects” the same way relativity accurately predicted black holes even though Einstein had no data on them and didn’t believe his own theory when he saw it. Those side-effects could include a way to manufacture room temperature superconductors, or a proof that room temperature superconductors cannot exist.

  • ShardPhoenix

    The people of the past could have easily thought the same about the study of planetary motion, which would have left us worse off now, due to slower development of more general laws of motion. Likewise, if cosmology helps us to discover a theory of quantum gravity, that could have large as-yet-unknown benefits – perhaps more practical quantum computers, or some sort of anti-gravity.

    If you’re really that desperate to give the people of the future something to do (which seems to suggest a lack of imagination on your part – mathematics at least is not going to run out anytime soon), surely it’s better to go with Eliezer’s suggestion of keeping science knowledge secret from those who haven’t found it for themselves. That way any technological benefits can still be had while people get the joy of rediscovering the principles for themselves.

    • Doug

      “mathematics at least is not going to run out anytime soon”

      Math will never run out. Godel guarantees that math is infinite. There will always be new fields and structures in math to explore and discover.

      Future descendants can be just as proud about logical discoveries as we are today about physical discoveries. Since our future descendants are likely to be more disconnected from the physical world (spending most of their lives in virtual worlds), the importance of physical reality compared to mathematical abstractions will be less relevant.

  • Juraj Lörinc

    These thoughts have instantly reminded me of a practice currently used by Wizards of the Coast in developing their the most famous collectible card game Magic: the Gathering. They are regularly adding new cards with new functionality to the game (about 800 a year), but in their design and development they are consciously saving design space for the future. Their head designer Mark Rosewater in his regular weekly column writes about it, I remember he has called it even “precious design space”. They know something about sustainability of discovery rate there.

  • http://barrkel.blogspot.com/ barrkel

    (a) Pride comes from cultural value, it is not objective; so building in social disapproval today will also hurt the value to the future, as the society will have changed not to value those things.

    (b) We don’t know whether more basic and fundamental physics will be helpful or not. Current computer chips already have to deal with some quantum effects, and they’re still getting smaller.

    So while it’s an interesting thought experiment, I think there are serious problems with what you suggest.

    • Robin Hanson

      What intrinsic value is there is learning about something that doesn’t effect our world? If not doing cosmology for a while leads us to not care about cosmology, maybe it isn’t worth caring about.

      • IMASBA

        Do you believe the discovery of alien life, or the formulation of quantum gravity (which undoubtedly requires cosmology) which might enable wormhole travel won’t affect our world?

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        The odds we will learn to get use from wormholes anytime soon is extremely low.

      • IMASBA

        Where did I say “soon”? There’s no denying that if wormholes can be used, the field of cosmology will help us find out that it can be done and how.

      • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

        It has to be soon to matter, because otherwise there’s no reason to spend on cosmology instead of directly on space based manufacturing in the near term.

        A robust space based manufacturing infrastructure would put us in a much, much better position to a) gather information from distant galaxies, and b) put it to use on energy-intensive things like wormholes and interstellar travel.

        Give some thought to the immense capabilities of using the sun’s full output and the solar system’s full mass, or even an appreciable fraction. This is considerably more than than any earth-based industry could ever hope to match.

      • IMASBA

        “A robust space based manufacturing infrastructure would put us in a much, much better position to a) gather information from distant galaxies, and b) put it to use on energy-intensive things like wormholes and interstellar travel.”

        Then investing in space based infrastructure simply becomes part of the cosmology budget in some way. I’d be fine with that, but bear in mind how cheap current cosmology is compared to a space based infrastructure, the vast majority is literally people on Earth working behind a desk.

  • IMASBA

    “This ability to unite via our discoveries is a scarce resource that we now greedily consume, at the cost of future generations to whom they will no longer be available.”

    In return they get a lot of certainties that we have to forego: the certainty that you they won’t be completely disconnected from the way their grandchildren live and think, the certainty that their job won’t suddenly become obsolete during their lifetime, the certainty that their way of life is sustainable, those sort of things, incredibly valuable to future humans’ peace of mind.

    Besides, there is no way to spread out the remaining important discoveries across all of the future without most future generations still never seeing an important discovery being made within their lifetimes. Who knows, maybe future humans will pity their ancestors for having lived their entire lives without knowing the “theory of everything”, after all, just knowing about these discoveries can be seen as a valuable resource as well.

  • lump1

    In the future there will be more “stuff”, so there will be more to discover. So yes, there are no more undiscovered islands now, but there will be many, once we start thinking about virtual/generated worlds which will serve as an environment for Ems.

    Regarding the fundamentals of physics, I think the first 3 decades of the previous century were the era of discovery. I feel like we’re now living in the post-discovery time, and we’re fine. “Little” discoveries inflate in importance; importance is graded on a curve and there does not appear to be a psychological mechanism that can track something like “objective importance”. Arguably, everything in science is getting more important, because there are more scientists now fighting over scraps. When you discover one such scrap, you are the subject of far more envy even than, say, Dirac was in his day – even though there might not ever be anyone who makes as many important discoveries as Dirac.

    Also, let’s not overestimate the theories we have now. Scientists of the future will be having great fun at the expense of theoretical ideas that now strike us as sound. Knocking down false theories is fun and important, and false theories are a potentially inexhaustible resource!

  • Jess Riedel

    Luckily for those poor, poor future citizens from whom cosmologists have been greedily stealing warm, unifying fuzzies, the rate of actual discovery in cosmology has been slowing exponentially. (Even if modeling building–unchained by experimental input–has been steadily accelerating.) We used to have periodic upheavals in our understanding of the early universe; now we build billion-dollar space craft which can only confirm what we already knew to an extra digit of precision.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_(spacecraft)

    Problem solved!

    Alternative argument: Reject the premise that the true value of fundamental discovery is simply to stoke the pride of the discoverer (whether or not it dominates the discoverer’s motivations). Discovery is valuable because it creates the intrinsic good of knowledge, and knowledge can be copied endlessly without being diluted. For every day we delay cosmology, people die who will never have this knowledge.

    Also note: we don’t need to work in future far mode in analyzing these supposed negative future effects. The rate of discovery in *all* of fundamental physics peaked in the first half of the 20th century, with 99% of current fundamental physics knowledge achieved in the mid 70′s following completion of the Standard Model. Does anyone think we would be better off had those discoveries been delayed for status reasons?

  • http://www.facebook.com/howard.a.landman Howard A. Landman

    This assumes that all discoveries are independent and/or that there are only so many things which can be discovered. If instead, some discoveries can only be made after other discoveries have been made before them, then new discoveries enable further discoveries, increasing the number of accessible discoveries. For example, in space travel, if we reasonably assume that the astronomical things we can know are (at a cosmological scale) uniformly distributed in space, then the amount we can know grows cubically with the distance humans venture from earth. In fact, with the universe expanding and most things flying away from us, the longer we wait, the less we can ultimately know.

    Further, some discoveries have immediate benefits. Delaying these denies those benefits to all humanity for the period of the delay. This is a net harm.

    • IMASBA

      I don’t think Hanson was talking about being the first to set foot on planet #236517 orbiting star #5716388. He was talking about scientific discoveries and leaps in technology and knowledge. The number of discoveries we can make about physics are limited because once you find a theory of everything there is nothing more, even material science will end when we’ve tried all combinations of atoms and molecules. Exploration can be part of these discoveries but only when it is unique: the first human to set foot on an exoplanet will be celebrated, after that humans can, in time, explore a billion other exoplanets but those won’t be celebrated discoveries with cultural significance, but rather business as usual.

      Still I agree with what you said about knowledge and technology bing their own rewards.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nancy-Lebovitz/1306892564 Nancy Lebovitz

    How is it possible to estimate how many fundamental things there are to discover?

  • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

    I sort of wonder how much value cosmology has provided us with, really. Chemistry is much more successful at being responsible for economically valuable, life-enhancing goods that we can realistically say could not have been created without studying chemistry. What does cosmology provide us with?

    Quantum mechanics is a fundamental part of chemistry, sure. But is there any evidence that cosmology builds our understanding of QM in ways that studying chemistry would not?

    Eventually, we will have self replicating factories of some kind in space. These can be used to create a vast array of observers, up to and beyond the Dyson Sphere level, which will put us in a far better position to answer pretty much any cosmological question. Understanding basic physics, and even general and special relativity, will be needed for this. But will we actually need any knowledge of cosmology to get there?

    Seems like a question worth asking.

    • IMASBA

      “I sort of wonder how much value cosmology has provided us with, really. Chemistry is much more successful at being responsible for economically valuable, life-enhancing goods that we can realistically say could not have been created without studying chemistry. What does cosmology provide us with?”

      Many people would consider that a strange question. Exploration and asking the big questions is at least as important a need for human beings as food or shelter. Cosmology provides a lot of utility to many people, not just cosmologists. Even the most ignorant hick will have at least one moment in his life where he is in awe of some scientific discovery or feels the need to consult a religious figure on the big questions. People do not care about champagne and superyachts if their “spiritual needs” aren’t taken care off by things like cosmology/other fundamental research, or religion, and in a different way also love. I’ve never heard about someone committing suicide because they were only middle class in today’s world and dirt poor compared to some super advanced civilization, but people commit suicide over existential stuff every day. On the other end of the spectrum people fear death because they fear not being able to think and love anymore if there is no afterlife, not out of fear of losing material possessions.

      So the answer to your question is: without things like cosmology material wealth is pointless, at least to human beings (but probably all other self-aware entities as well). This hidden assumption that life is intrinsically “worth it”, therefore we should strive to lengthen and improve it, actually underpinnes all of economics but it is ultimately based around the way our minds couple to things like religion and science and can’t really enjoy material wealth without having at least one of those “higher” things to comtemplate.

      “Quantum mechanics is a fundamental part of chemistry, sure. But is there any evidence that cosmology builds our understanding of QM in ways that studying chemistry would not?”

      Cosmology allows us to examine extreme conditions (black holes, early universe, measurable influence of large amounts of dark matter, dark energy, neutrinos, etc…) that we cannot create on Earth and that’s certainly necessary to construct a theory of everything that may be necessary for practical things like FTL travel, maybe to create artificial intelligence (maybe you need some advanced quantum processes to produce consciousness in a system).

      • IMASBA

        To provide an example: we would not have had general relativity without cosmology, the whole thing would just not have occured to anyone because classical physics and quantum mechanics describe everything on Earth so well. And perhaps we would have abandoned nuclear fusion research long ago if we didn’t know fusion powers the stars (proving that it’s possible to use it as an energy source)?

      • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

        “So the answer to your question is: without things like cosmology material wealth is pointless, at least to human beings (but probably all other self-aware entities as well). ”

        I can get these same “spiritual” feelings thinking about pretty much any “big” topic. Nanotech, immortality, uploading/AI, cryptography, chemistry, entropy… Is cosmology really so special that it deserves universal accolades, when many of these areas are still ridiculed by people who don’t understand them?

        “Cosmology allows us to examine extreme conditions (black holes, early universe, measurable influence of large amounts of dark matter, dark energy, neutrinos, etc…) that we cannot create on Earth and that’s certainly necessary to construct a theory of everything that may be necessary for practical things like FTL travel, maybe to create artificial intelligence (maybe you need some advanced quantum processes to produce consciousness in a system).”

        Assuming these things are desirable and possible, why not focus instead on things we know are prerequisite for e.g. creating a Dyson Sphere? The amount of information you can collect and process with a solar system spanning telescope/computational array is orders of magnitude better than anything we can realistically collect and process in the near term.

        Isn’t it more likely that people 500 years from now will have both means to discover and practical use for this kind of information anyway? Why the push to figure it all out in our own short lifespans, at a time in history when we don’t even have the means to sustainably live off planet yet? If we’re that curious, wouldn’t it be better to invent good cryonics and/or life extension, and figure it all out over the course of the centuries?

      • IMASBA

        “I can get these same “spiritual” feelings thinking about pretty much any “big” topic. Nanotech, immortality, uploading/AI, cryptography, chemistry, entropy…”

        Half those subjects are connected to cosmology. The others are pretty mundane. Building tiny robots or extedning human lifespan a few centuries (which is all that mind uploading or cryonics really are, the word immortality shouldn’t be used in the same sentence) is interesting but it’s not on the “spiritual” level of figuring out how it all began and the fate of the universe (which for example tells us if immortality is even physically possible).

        “when many of these areas are still ridiculed by people who don’t understand them?”

        Ridiculed by people who use religion to fill that gap. Trust me, they need something, they just chose religion over science.

        “Assuming these things are desirable and possible, why not focus instead on things we know are prerequisite for e.g. creating a Dyson Sphere?”

        Why can’t we do both? Cosmology takes up a tiny percentage of human effort and the Earth’s natural resources and energy sources. if you are so concerned about Dyson spheres why not eliminate reality TV, or set an upper limit on personal wealth at $1 billion, etc… to free up a lot more resources than eliminating cosmology would? Why are you so sure we can’t complete the Dyson Sphere faster if we spend a tiny percentage of our resources on cosmology? As a larger point, why think you know it all? What’s so great about a Dyson Sphere that you’re willing to bet it is better than anything 500 years of future science could come up with? And who says you need a Dyson Sphere to come up with the theory of everything? Einstein needed much less.

        “Isn’t it more likely that people 500 years from now will have both means to discover and practical use for this kind of information anyway? Why the push to figure it all out in our own short lifespans”

        Because we like “the chase”, it provides utility to us. But also the fact that you never know whether it pays (for other people, we’ll be long dead and that’s an important consideration in its own right) to postpone research a certain amount of time.

        “If we’re that curious, wouldn’t it be better to invent good cryonics and/or life extension, and figure it all out over the course of the centuries?”

        Again, there are plenty of resources to both in parallel and truth be told, I think a continuous supply of young people are necessary to advance thinking, 400 year olds would probably be 300 years behind the times and constantly rehashing their own old ideas instead of coming up with something new. Not spending a dime on cosmology might hasten a life extension from 500 years into the future to 499 years into the future, meanwhile generations have lived and died deprived of cosmological insights.

  • komponisto

    1. Curiosity is a virtue. Suppressing it may have bad consequences.

    2. You can’t delay cosmology *too* long, because the data may only be accessible for a limited time (distant structures receding too fast).

    3. What criteria should govern which cosmological discoveries to make, and when? As far as I can tell your argument applied in the past, too; but if previous generations had not made their discoveries, we would be worse off. How could Newton have known in advance that he was doing the right thing?

    4, According to you, we shouldn’t play concert piano, nor study cosmology. But these don’t seem much different from most fun things we do; the arguments you make against them could be made against many other things. So why not try it from the other side: what fun things do you think we should do, or are there any?

  • komponisto

    Also, discovery isn’t the only good thing future generations might like to do, and other things might depend on it. Once science is done, they’ll be able to do engineering, and can unite around that.

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    Is this post really by the same man who has blogged for so many years about the relevance of cosmological and astronomical observations to major issues like the Great Filter?

    • Jess Riedel

      I think he’s just putting the concept out there, possibly as a platform for talking about other stuff, rather than seriously advocating for it.

  • Robert Koslover

    Well, I don’t see it that way. The number of people who actually get to discover anything, during their lifetimes, that is new to humanity overall, is already very, very small. And for these few in the near future who might lose the chance to make a great discovery because others got there first, let us shed few tears. They will, after all, still be far smarter and likely achieve more than most. Also, note well that one need not personally make original discoveries of nature’s laws in order to appreciate them. Nor must one be alive at the time the discoveries are made. After all, one need not compose Mozart’s works to appreciate them today, right?

    • IMASBA

      The cultural significance of a discovery extends beyond the discoverer, like Hanson says the people from the same nation will be “proud” of “their” hero and the whole world is inspired.

  • Stephen Diamond

    Solving the problem of mortality would deprive future generations of one of humanity’s deepest and most moving challenges. I propose a moratorium on cryonics!

    (I have to wonder whether Robin’s newfound distaste for cosmology isn’t a byproduct of his detente with religion.)

    • IMASBA

      Cryonics doesn’t bring immortality, neither does uploading your mind to a computer (which would probably mean copying your mind, so “you” would die anyway), it just makes it possible to live for a few centuries, maybe a few millennia. No mechanism in the universe can store infinite memories, the best we can ever hope for is a cyclical universe that resets before maximum entropy is reached allowing your “thinking essence” (which would have to be some kind of state that’s not made of matter and is the result of either a natural afterlife the universe happens to provide us with or the product of fantastically advanced technology) and a finite amount of memories to carry over into the next iteration of the universe. I’d be okay with that, but there are undoubtedly people who would say that “you” are no longer “you” after stripping the vast majority of your memories.

  • Stephen Diamond

    We live in an age of unusually rapid fundamental discovery. This age cannot last long; it must soon slow down as we run out of basic things to discover. We may never run out of small things to discover, but there can be only so many big things.

    True, but the fact that they’re necessarily limited in number doesn’t show that humanity will ever run out of them. Part of the issue is whether we solve the fundamental problems first and then move on to smaller things or we solve increasingly fundamental problems. If that, this must stop short of infinity, but whether continued acceleration or deceleration of discovery rate is the order of the day for the far future isn’t decided by that bare truth.

  • Stephen Diamond

    it unites us more I think, in pride as part of this age of discovery.

    Deserves more adequate treatment. The claim is more interesting than the proposal.

  • John_Maxwell_IV

    What if we discover much better ways to achieve joy, pride, and unification than through making discoveries?

  • free_agent

    In any particular discipline or area the number of Really Big discoveries is probably finite. But every advance creates a new field. The possibilities of Facebook and the like couldn’t be imagined without the Web, the Web couldn’t be imagined without the Internet, and the Internet couldn’t be imagined without the computer. Our definition of “fundamental advance” is backward-looking.

  • arch1

    Considering knowledge as a function k(t) of time, this posting makes useful points about about the societal benefits and costs of k’ per se, and how one might think about present-vs-future tradeoffs of these. But it seems to ignore the societal benefits of k per se.

    Put another way, it undervalues the richness of life that knowledge per se, *once discovered*, brings to people living at or after the time of its discovery.

    By way of example (drawn from just one life and one domain): I consider that my life has been substantially enriched by cosmological knowledge, quite apart from
    -the practical technological side effects of that knowledge
    -direct or vicarious pride of discovery

    To those who would otherwise have enjoyed it, discovery delayed is this (considerable) richness denied.

    • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

      Is each additional unit of cosmological knowledge just as worthwhile? It seems to me that cosmological knowledge available 100 years ago was pretty good compared to the thousands of years before. They knew the earth went around the sun, the universe was billions of years old, that stars are other suns, and so forth. The low-hanging fruit was picked, leaving a more than adequate foundation for a scientific view of the universe. What use are recent discoveries in this regard?

      • IMASBA

        100 years ago we (proverbial “we”, I’m not an astronomer) didn’t even know about other galaxies or dark matter. The discovery that the universal expansion is accelerating came after the year 2000 I believe, the cosmic microwave background radiation was discovered in the 1960s, exoplanets were first discovered in the 1990s. I’m pretty sure that we’ll make important discoveries in the next 100 years as well that will affect theories on quantum gravity (for example by (not) measuring gravitational waves for the first time), even 10 years from now we might very well discover strong signs that an exoplanet has life on it, a discovery that will change our world forever. We will also start testing theories that deal will multiverses, what happened “before” the big bang and what the fate of the universe or multiverse is (heat death or cyclical universe, how and when). Some of the big questions in life are now coming into reach and you want to give that up for a few more material toys?

      • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

        Hate to say it, but those new discoveries don’t really change my outlook on the universe much. It’s still unfathomably big, and I’m still a tiny speck living on a speck circling another speck. This isn’t new news. Maybe we can add a few degrees of precision to that understanding, but does it actually help get the job done any better?

        I’m still stuck on this single planet with no other options. Better chemistry and so forth might get me into space within my lifetime, or extend my lifetime. Cosmology seems like a cheap substitute to actually going there. I’d be happy to continue cosmological study and other fulfilling intellectual exercises from the other side of the moon or something.

      • IMASBA

        “Hate to say it, but those new discoveries don’t really change my outlook on the universe much.”

        Public budgets aren’t designed with just you in mind… If the majority finds a deep understanding of the universe more important than a slight increase in the amount of Chinese-crap-they-don’t-really-need they can posess than resources will continue to go to cosmology. All the religious strife alone shows that many, many people in the world care deeply about immaterial things. Our cultures will change drastically when alien life is discovered.

        “I’m still stuck on this single planet with no other options.”

        As are we all, but our great, great grandchildren don’t have to be if a better understanding of cosmology leads to wormhole travel.

      • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

        Judging by popular science articles and science fiction, adding more info isn’t actually making people deeper thinkers about science. Especially not cosmology information, which seems to attract a lot of rather vapid minds, many of which have no problem harmonizing it with their religion. It is basically an entertainment budget, no more intellectually helpful for them than a science fiction convention.

        More self-reflection of a useful nature (i.e. dispelling notions of the soul and so forth) seems to be triggered by neuroscience or social sciences than by cosmology.

        As to manufactured goods versus cosmology research, that’s a false dichotomy. Why would we not put the money into education instead of cosmology, and/or put the people working in cosmology to work on useful chemistry stuff? They could be developing the next life-saving medical innovation, better recycling, more durable plastics, etc.

        The problem that traps us on the planet is the earth’s gravity well, not the speed of light. It is kind of weird that you would propose a wormhole for this purpose. Plausible mechanisms for beating the gravity problem include better chemical rockets, high tensile material space elevators, and electromagnetic launch loops.

      • IMASBA

        “Judging by popular science articles and science fiction, adding more info isn’t actually making people deeper thinkers about science. Especially not cosmology information, which seems to attract a lot of rather vapid minds, many of which have no problem harmonizing it with their religion.”

        So what if they make a religion out of it? That serves their spiritual needs. ALso, it just takes time, people are already more curious about cutting edge science in Europe where religion isn’t as strong as it is in the US.

        “More self-reflection of a useful nature (i.e. dispelling notions of the soul and so forth) seems to be triggered by neuroscience or social sciences than by cosmology.”

        When will neuroscience explain what time is or where the universe comes from? And how long before neuroscience delves into the subatomic? You can’t just cut up science like that, it’s all connected. Btw, I really wouldn’t be surprised if our notion of reality keeps changing the way general relativity and quantum mechanics have changed it in the past. God doesn’t exist and the laws of physics apply to everything but it may very well be that the workings of the universe turn out to be something of a nature that would sound like religion to us or that’s so strange that it can only be described by mathematics, like 10 spatial dimensions and an eternally time looping universe with no beginning and no end.

        “Why would we not put the money into education instead of cosmology, and/or put the people working in cosmology to work on useful chemistry stuff? They could be developing the next life-saving medical innovation, better recycling, more durable plastics, etc.”

        All of which would just be to gather more crap, or to gather crap for a slightly longer time, no matter how you turn it.

        “The problem that traps us on the planet is the earth’s gravity well, not the speed of light. It is kind of weird that you would propose a wormhole for this purpose. Plausible mechanisms for beating the gravity problem include better chemical rockets, high tensile material space elevators, and electromagnetic launch loops.”

        You’re thinking way too small. It’s not about the solar system, it’s about the whole universe. There isn’t that much special stuff in our solar system.

      • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

        “So what if they make a religion out of it? That serves their spiritual needs.”

        Religion marketed as science is fraud.

        “When will neuroscience explain what time is or where the universe comes from?”

        The point is more answering the question “why do I keep asking questions like where the universe comes from instead of focusing on the practical needs of human beings”?

        The stuff you learn about entropy and time when you study the big bang is roughly the same stuff you learn in practical subjects like cryprography or chemistry. Disorder tends to be a one way street. There are mathematical algorithms for increasing entropy, known as hashing algorithms, which are very hard to reverse.

        “And how long before neuroscience delves into the subatomic?”

        Neuroscience is not high energy physics, it is room temperature physics. All this stuff about quarks and gluons you’ve been reading is either irrelevant, or a part of room temperature chemistry.

        “All of which would just be to gather more crap, or to gather crap for a slightly longer time, no matter how you turn it.”

        I’m being trolled, right?

        “You’re thinking way too small. It’s not about the solar system, it’s about the whole universe. There isn’t that much special stuff in our solar system.”

        There’s a lot more special stuff in the solar system than you are capable of imagining. Most of it is rocks and ice at the moment. But thanks to chemistry, it can become more or less anything you like, ranging from computer chips and telescopes to trees and dirt.

      • arch1

        Luke,

        In addition to the discoveries mentioned by IMASBA, there are, off the top of my head:
        -Hubble’s discovery that the universe is expanding in the first place
        -cosmic inflation models as a resolution of multiple deep mysteries concerning the big bang,
        -dark matter and energy: we have been focusing on 5%, oblivious to the 95%
        -the numerous speculative multiverse scenarios which may explain fine-tuning mystery, massively expand our conception of reality, etc.

        I suspect that you will be similarly unimpressed by this list, as your focus seems to be more exclusively on stuff w/ practical consequences than mine.

        Practical benefits are IMO important (I am looking forward to reading Drexler’s latest book for this reason). That said, I personally *also* find much value in understanding / trying to understand the world and our place in it, independently of whether that understanding yields practical benefits.

      • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

        In the long run, I’m happy to concede that these kinds of discoveries are valuable (they produce pleasure, wonder, and so forth, so they should be). But if they compete against the ability to extend lifespan and/or increase our overall (especially, space-based) infrastructure as quickly, that produces a tradeoff in terms of the ability to actually satisfy curiosity.

        How many more questions could we resolve if we had a robust system of space based manufacturing, instead of having to launch our telescopes one at a time? It seems to me that even through the lens of someone whose only goal is to satisfy their own/humanity’s curiosity, it is worth wondering whether delaying cosmology would be a good thing (assuming no connection to practical applications can be found).

  • Dániel

    Wow, very-very clever. Do you actually believe this, Robin?

    • consider

      “What intrinsic value is there is learning about something that doesn’t effect our world? ” (pssst…The word is “affect”. I doubt he really believes this. John Horgan territory (eye roll)w

    • http://twitter.com/Rodneythepear Rodneythepear

      Naw, he’s writing this post so that he can make a much cooler post later about how many of us are espousing wishy-washy values such as the joy in discovery when he attacks a sacred value.

      Or something like that. Because I thought we believed in utility.

  • Douglas Summers-Stay

    Deliberately delaying discoveries is a practice in archaeology, but for a different reason– by digging up a site, we may be inadvertantly destroying information valuable to future archaeologists.

  • BGriffin

    ‘…it must soon slow down as we run out of basic things to discover. …….there can be only so
    many big things…..’
    .
    Ideas that the supply of big things to discover is dwindling doesn’t seem well supported…or supported at all really.
    .
    New understanding typically broadens what is in view and under consideration. Discoveries tend to enlarge fields of study not sew them shut.
    .
    It seems a bit pompous an pessimistic to assume with such certainly that around the corner we have yet to turn, that there will be fewer and fewer paths to take.

  • Stephen Diamond

    What makes a discovery big–or what aspect of “bigness” is relevant to promoting societal unity: fundamental changes to concepts or widespread practical repercussions? Robin tacitly embraces fundamental conceptual change, since he thinks cosmology lacks practical repercussions. But then, there’s less reason to think there are few fundamental things to discover with further fundamental discovery. There may be a potential infinity of increasingly superior theoretical reconceptionalizations about fundamental matters. (Part of the problem is with the term “discovery,” which is more applicable to practical matters than to scientific theory, which is in some sense invented rather than discovered.)

    To bring this nearer, compare Newtonian mechanics with general relativity. In practical application, it seems easy (although it probably isn’t really so easy) to say Newton made a more important advance than Einstein. But it doesn’t seem so clear that general relativity represents a less fundamental advance, from a purely theoretical point of view.

    Which provided more energy for “uniting humanity”? Seems to me Newton’s the clear winner.

    This suggests that it’s precisely the practical applications that make theories capable of uniting humanity. If cosmology has no practical applications (per Robin, arguendo), it probably doesn’t have the stuff that “unites mankind.”

  • Axa

    I would consider the same topic under a little different approach about fundamental discovery. For a long period of time in history it was necessary the “universal” approach. Why the rivers flow? Why the Sun shines? It was the very first food for curiosity and the way of early discovery. However, working under this perspective, it’s not a surprise that Kepler found about elliptical patterns in planet orbits 400 years ago. But, it took another 250 years for another guy named Pasteur to find about microbes. For me, it’s kind of laughable that ancient cultures had super precise calendars, fine arts and even the “rule of law” but they were so fragile that an extended dry season or an epidemic brought distress, death and the end of flourishing cultures. When I think about present time, it’s not laughable anymore because I see the same pattern repeated all around. More money is devoted to understand the “stars” than fully understanding the water cycle. Guess why the past cultures went bust.

  • http://twitter.com/ndril endril

    Dear 2013 cosmologist,
    Find something else to do so that a 2093 cosmologist can have fun instead of you.
    Thanks,
    Discovery Rationing Committee

  • delicate genius

    Robin, maybe you should delay your fundamental insights too !

  • Stephen Diamond

    The conventional wisdom has long been that the pursuit of pure science will almost be bound to have practical applications, even if we lack the slightest idea at the moment what those might be. If Robin intends to attack this conventional wisdom, he owes more than appeals to his own authority: ‘it is unlikely that …’

  • jhertzli

    I heard of peak oil but peak astrophysics?

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Cosmology has applications to the Fermi paradox and hence to estimates of current existential risk, making (some of it) very relevant today.

    Which is as good a time as any to pitch: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0094576513001148

  • Fikacek

    Cosmology was one motivation and one source for theory of relativity, what means as well, nuclear power engineering. Cosmology helped as well a bit with quantum mechanics development, what is basement of our computers.

    So, I think, that useless cosmology is only apparent, not real. And on cosmology will be based probably the core of power engineering of our future civilization.

    BTW, very often totally useless investigations appeared to be fundamental for future development of civilization. What about a toy like a car, electricity, what was only matter of useless curiosity first, and many others.