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The Dayside : Freedom and physics

By: Charles Day
Fri Jun 06 11:56:00 UTC 2014

In his 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Scottish economist Adam Smith identified three factors that propel a country to prosperity:

Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.

Peace, modest taxation, and the rule of law are more likely to be found in democracies than in autocracies. It is not a coincidence, Smith's successors contend, that the top 50 countries ranked by per capita GDP are all democracies except for a sprinkling of oil-rich states such as Brunei and Oman.

What are the factors that propel a country's success in physics and other sciences? Certainly, a country's young people should have access to good education at school and university. And if they choose to become scientists, they'll need sufficient access to research funding. But do scientists, like economies, also need political freedom to flourish?

The question is tricky to answer. Although Nazi Germany's murderous persecutions led to an exodus of some of the country's brightest scientific minds, the regime—thankfully—lasted only 12 years. That span was barely long enough for students who began high school in 1933, when Adolf Hitler first became chancellor, to earn a PhD and become practicing scientists.

The Soviet Union serves as a better test case. From 1922 to 1991, Russia and its satellite nations were ruled by the Communist Party. To maintain its exclusive grip on power, the party controlled every aspect of civil life. Opponents were exiled, imprisoned, or killed—scientists among them.

The Soviet Union, nevertheless, did nurture world-class physics. Eight physicists, who received their university education and did their prize-winning research in the Soviet Union, have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

In his engaging autobiography for the Nobel Foundation, Andre Geim recounts the excellent education he received in high school in Sochi, Russia, in the waning years of Communist rule, and later at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. Geim earned his PhD in 1987. By that time, he writes,

Soviet experimental science had decayed to the point where it was considered that the most appropriate route to reach the top of fame and glory for an experimentalist was to confirm a theory produced by an eminent Soviet theoretician.

Geim's observation about the need to satisfy higher-ups resonates with Mara Hvistendahl's report "Tiananmen's bitter legacy," which appeared in last week's issue of Science magazine.

Thousands of students march toward Beijing's Tiananmen Square on 4 May 1989, one month before the massacre. CREDIT: AP

Thousands of students march toward Beijing's Tiananmen Square on 4 May 1989, one month before the massacre. CREDIT: AP

The brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square 25 years ago stamped out attempts by cosmologist Fang Lizhi and others to promote democracy and liberalize China's research culture. According to Hvistendahl's interviews with Chinese researchers and Western sinologists, China's current intellectual environment, while better funded than it was in 1989, is dominated by political connections, intolerant of dissent, and hindered by a top-down distribution of grants and accolades. “If you have a higher position, people think you are more right," one prominent scientist told her.

But physics in China is hardly sick. When I visited Chinese physics departments and laboratories in 2008 and 2009, I met world-class researchers doing world-class research.

In March 2012 Italian researchers announced that their purported discovery of faster-than-light muon neutrinos was spurious. That same month, Chinese researchers and their international collaborators announced that the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment had measured the neutrino mixing angle, θ13. The angle's surprisingly large value of 8.8° ± 0.8° has raised physicists' hopes that an explanation of matter's preponderance over anitmatter could be found in neutrino physics.

Given the examples of the Soviet Union and China, political freedom is not necessary for physics to flourish. But where unelected politicians control the flow of money and favors, where political connections matter more than scientific merit, success in physics will be less than what it could be.

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