Physics, physicists, and the Energy Crisis

WHEN THE GENERALS GO AWOL

The Energy Crisis is mankind’s greatest battlefield yet
The Genius-class physics Generals are missing
When the battle gets real, the Generals go AWOL

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THE-FOUNDATION-IS-THE-FRONTIER SERIES
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Essays on:
Physics in the Twenty-first Century

Series Index

by

Bibhas De

Copyright 2005 by Bibhas R. De


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It is not a stretch to expect that those who glory as the vanguard of civilization should hold their position when she comes under frontal attack.

It is a stretch to make a case that they should hightail it.

[A note for non-US readers: AWOL is a well-known American military acronym for Absent Without Official Leave. It is generally applied to soldiers who abscond.]

WHERE'S THE BATTLEGROUND SUSIE?

An invention is coming up with something that never existed before. A discovery is finding something that exists but was hidden until now.

Scientific inventions are often made to answer specific practical needs. Can a scientific discovery be made to suit a specific practical problem?

The answer to me – when we speak of a problem as large as the Energy Crisis – must begin with blurring the somewhat artificial distinction between invention and discovery. Now the above question can be seen in a new light.

The answer to the question is a blur between YES and NO. And pursuing a blur is what science is all about. This gives justification to the thesis of the present essay: It is entirely reasonable for the society to expect the Genius-class physicists to apply themselves to the issue of the Energy Crisis.

It is an interesting coincidence for the human civilization that just as mankind’s biggest scientific/technological battle is looming, we have also been reportedly blessed with a new, unprecedented breed of Superdupergenius physics generals.

But this seemingly opportune coincidence is no good to us if the generals do not know where the battlefield is. They are content to be busy and happy in their playfield.

Here I am drawing them a map to the battlefield.

THE MILITARY METAPHOR

The Military Metaphor is not mine.

Albert Einstein did not adjust comfortably to the great advent of Quantum Theory – especially its inherent element of uncertainty. A modern-day theoretical physicist has described him as a cavalry general in a modern battlefield. By direct implication, today’s Genius-class leaders of physics are the modern-day generals.

Today we are facing the great modern-day battle called the Energy Crisis – with great inherent uncertainty. It is a call for mankind to rise to its highest possible level of scientific excellence – and then some. Where are the aforementioned generals in this battle? They have gone AWOL.

So what do we have today? Modern generals in a post modern battlefield? More like, make-believe generals in a real-life battlefield. When the battle gets real, the generals go AWOL.

Bring back the cavalry general! At least he could heave a cutlass. After all, he knew something about finding new energy sources. And when the call to duty came, he showed a fine social conscience - and a genuine one to boot.

While the humans today urgently need the talent of the Genius-class to be keenly engaged in their energetics, the geniuses are however intensely busy calculating the energetics of universes beyond human ken.

This is very sad. For these universes can wait. The humans cannot.

THE BATTLE

Two of the greatest battles the human civilization faces at the dawn of the 21st century – battles that are to be fought mainly in the arena of science and technology – are Global Warming and the Energy Crisis. Of these the former – it is reasonable to say – does not, by its nature, call for radically new ideas in physics. But the latter does. It is also reasonable to say that urgency of the latter is far more pressing.

It is almost certain that the global climate battle has been faced in geologic times, when humans were not the cause of it. The inhabitants of the Earth then lost out for the most part. But the energy battle is an entirely new development – and needs to be approached as such. With new mind-set, new thinking, new imagination.

What will happen when the energy crunch actually starts to hit home (We haven’t seen anything yet!)? There will be great real battles over the limited resources. For a time, there will be survival of the strongest. But in the end, for everyone, it will be back to nature’s lap.

Call it the Hellstrom Chronicles where the hardiest of the insects inherit the Earth. Call it the energyless dark age of the Eloi and the Morlock.

This is then the battle: The battle for the civilization. Sure, the doom may not come in our lifetime. But the leading edge of it we are already seeing.

My key point then is made: We should now be in the advanced stages of scientific and technological mobilization. But who is to lead this mobilization? We know what scientific and technological arsenal we have to work with as of today. And they are being developed today – quite admirably. But even if these measures succeed, they do not seem adequate. We need new leads. We need the Genius-class generals engaged in this battlefield.

THE BATTLEFIELD FORMATIONS

The present battle strategy can be roughly summarized as follows. The enemy are the Morlocks, for they are the ones that will rule the world after the civilization has been vanquished. They live by night – so they do not need energy. Their food is just human flesh.

Right behind the Morlock armies are the insects air power. The two invaders will divvy up the prize. The insects will claim the surface of the Earth while the Morlocks claim the underground.

The pincer movement, followed by layered defenses (Red, Blue, Purple, Gray, Light Blue and Green Brigades), is designed to stall and vanquish the advancing armies as follows:


[Source: http://images2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20050721063221/uncyclopedia/images/a/ac/Locust_canary1.jpg]

                     
FOSSIL FUELS                      [Source: http://www.colemanzone.com/images/morlock%20eyes.jpg]                     NUCLEAR FISSION

                                 
NON-FOSSIL FUELS                                         HYDROELECTRIC

                                            
      SOLAR       GEOTHERMAL       CHEMICAL       WIND & SEA     

                                            
      NUCLEAR FUSION       ANTIMATTER       ZERO-POINT ENERGY       SPACE-BASED SCHEMES      


HUMAN AND ANIMAL ENERGY
(Handcrank Machines, Cow-pulled Plows, Carrier Pigeons, Horse-drawn Stagecoaches, Palanquins etc)


SPIRITUAL ENERGY: THE LAST LINE OF DEFENSE
(Chanting monks, Dancing flower children, Whirling dervishes et al)

Everyone take a few moments to examine the battle formation
It concerns your future!
Then ask:
Where are the Genius-class generals of physics in this battle formation?

In the above backdrop, we can now speak of the present Energy Crisis. What is this crisis? It is the uncontrollably increasing energy demand and thirst that are not being met by a corresponding increase in the available, or even potentially available, new energy sources. Beyond these there are explosive geopolitical issues, such as some parts of the world sucking up fast disproportionately large shares of the planetary resources. Add to this the fact that the main sources of fossil fuels are also a geopolitical powder keg. But I will not go there, for this is an article largely about science.

Our Genius-class generals, should they decide to heed the call to duty, would then have two strategic options:

A. Vanquish the enemy good and proper;
B. If the battle is not winnable, advise the planet so that a future is planned around dwindling energy resources.

But the generals do neither. So let me give you this prediction – not from my trusty crystal ball this time, but from my bread-and-butter class scientific analysis:

Physics will have no new deployed energy sources to offer in the next 50 years (out to 2050). The only way this situation might change is if Physics returned to reexamining its roots.

Why the 50-year term of the prediction? Because after that the quest for new energy sources may no longer be affordable – for multiple reasons.

So today we, the public, face these options:

A. Conserve energy. Practice this as though Death has grabbed us by the hair;
B. Face WWIII – the Last One. Although other reasons may be given, it will be fought for control of the fossil fuel sources. It will be apocalyptic.

THE GENERALS

Although the quest for additional energy sources is not uniquely the domain of the physicists, they are expected to be the leading players. Society has every reason to expect this – based on the story of our civilization.

But let us modify this statement. I used the term “additional energy sources”. These may be some type of modifications or variants of what is known today. Existing knowledge of physics and other disciplines may be applied to these efforts. Many such efforts are well underway, and the players from all disciplines are in place. All these admirable efforts should go on. But it is correct to say that – as far as we can see today - there are no brilliant rays of hope from these quarters.

Beyond the “additional energy sources” we may think boldly of “new energy sources”. This energy would be energy based on entirely new discoveries in theoretical physics – ideas not even in the realm of science fiction today. This is really where the challenge is. This is indeed the call to duty. The call to intellectual excellence. This is the subject of the present essay.

So where are the modern-day generals – the best and the brightest of our theoretical physicists today? I can tell you where they are not. They are not poring over maps in the combat headquarters or looking through binoculars in the beachheads. I can also tell you where many of them are. On the beachheads of fame, basking in the warm sun. And taking an occasional sip from a pineapple with a cute little umbrella sticking out of it. The generals have gone AWOL.

New thinking by theoretical physicists in what is needed now. Tell us that physics holds out some promise, or tell us not to count on physics. It is helpful either way. But do something! Today you are awfully busy calculating the stuffings out of the far universes, with extreme urgency. The universes will wait. The planet will not.

THAT UNAGING RED HERRING:
Half a century, if a day

Eyes right!

If you ask any physicist what they are doing to help the society with the Energy Crisis, they will point to fusion energy research, and specifically to a machine named Iter. I have discussed this extensively elsewhere. For now, let us simply note that there is nothing “frontier” about this frontier. The idea is very old. The promise is very old. The science and the technology are very old. But fusion research remains always at its unchanging youth. The researchers grow old like the picture of Dorian Gray, but the project remains ever fresh, like the man himself.

Fusion research is done by confining an ionized gas in a reflecting magnetic field barrier. Think of the gas as smoke, and the barrier as mirrors, and you will quickly get to the bottom of what this whole business is really about.

At any rate, fusion research has always been done by the able-class physicists. The Genius-class never engaged in this. May be that’s the reason the effort does not go anywhere. You think?

Has it ever occurred to you why, when their able-class colleagues are spinning their wheels for decades, the Genius-class do not pitch in and help look for any fundamental reasons why this is so?

The fusion research effort serves a wide variety of purposes for the physics establishment. One of these is to point at it and say: Look, we are doing our part in the civilization’s latest battlefield. Then the Genius-class can go about freely contemplating that which they love to contemplate. The Able-class are earning daily bread and butter. The Genius-class are making cosmic music.

WHAT NEW IDEAS?!

Obviously, the next question that comes to mind is: Are there really any new ideas to be found?

Now I make my next point: This question is premature as far as the society is concerned. We “the laity” are not the ones who will search for the ideas. You pay a physicist $5. He will then dive deep into the ocean of the great unknown, and surface again with an oyster in hand. He will open that oyster, and see if there is a pearl inside. Then you will know if you have got a pearl for your $5. Or not.

So we laity can no more excuse the physicists by saying that there are no new ideas to be found, than we can excuse the medical researchers by saying that there no cures for cancer to be found.

As I said, there is today no effort on the part of the leaders of the physics community on the Energy Crisis that would indicate the necessary war room mentality. This can mean two things:

(1). They are heeding some greater call; or
(2). They have made a determination that there are unlikely to be found any radically new ideas.

But if the latter is the case, then they had positive obligation to loudly declare to the society: Physics is unlikely to solve your Energy Crisis. Making this statement is just as important as finding new ideas. Your doctor has obligation to tell you that you will be cured, or that there are no cures for you. You can then plan accordingly.

The “official” (as in AWOL) duty of the generals today are these:

(1). Look for a solution with a Manhattan Project mentality; and
(2). Let the society know you are on the job.

OR

(3). Tell the society you have no cures.

For the purpose (2) above, by all means use your superfine media-savvy that you have cultivated with such ardor, to let the world know what jobs you are on. I will not fault you in this case.

STILL AND ALL, WHAT NEW IDEAS?!

OK, let me try to play a Genius-class theoretical physicist. I am standing at the very frontier of physics. What is known is behind me. What is unknown lies ahead. I want to contribute to the energy problem by exploring the Great Unknown.

What is the first thing I do? First I enumerate in my mind all the places where energy could be found: I look at my desk and think: wood-burning and E = mc**2 energy. I look at my potted plant and think: chemical and biological energy. I look out the window and skyward, and think: The Sun’s heat and light. I look downward and think: The Earth’s interior heat and the deposit of fuel sources, the river flows and the ocean waves, the wind, the combustibles, the chemical reactions, the nuclear reactions,… . But after I have done all that and got me a cup of coffee, I realize that all of these have been investigated or are being investigated. Even if one considered energy from the subnuclear domain or matter-antimatter reaction, this still would not be a new idea. There really are no conceivable physics frontier issues here.

So, it does seem now that the entrenched physics community can have nothing new to offer. Perhaps it would serve no purpose to send the MPs to round up the generals? Perhaps we should just let them be?

But I could have continued my musings and, having inventoried every energy source that I could possibly imagine, asked: Well, what about the space around me after it has been drained of all energy? Is there energy there then?

AN EXAMPLE OF AN ENERGY IDEA IN THE FRONTIER PHYSICS: In fact, the closest example we have of a frontier thinking is the zero-point energy – essentially getting useful energy from a seemingly energyless region. Practical merits aside, this I pose as an example of thinking in the very frontier of physics. This is the kind of idea I speak of here. However, this particular energy source idea is being discussed today by ragtag people in the fringes of physics. They are not the people you will see on the catwalk of the Physics Fashion Parade.

THE PHYSICIST AS A LOST HIKER

But let me continue to play the Genius. I have stood at the frontier, I have thoroughly surveyed the situation, I have let my imagination run wild – but I still do not see any paths along which to proceed. There are no more new energy ideas to be found.

That is basically where a genius would come today if he wished to fervently apply himself to the cause.

Should we have come here?

Now I step out of the character of the Genius and be my own ordinary (but not humble) self. Suppose that I am a lone hitchhiker in an unknown forest, with only a rough trail map. Suddenly I find myself at a place where my trail has faded out – and there is no continuation in sight (What hiker hasn’t been there?!). I look for the conventional mounds of rocks that hikers traditionally use to mark the continuation of obliterated trails. I see none. What would I do? What would you do?

I would backtrack until I came to place that clearly matched my map, or is clearly marked, and plan fresh strategy from there.

I would tell myself that true physics exploration is unlikely to lead to a dead end. This would be just my lay scientific gut speaking, nothing else. Therefore, the frontier I was standing at was a false frontier – I should not have gone there. I would go back to the foundations of physics. I would try to find out what went wrong and thence to the way to the true frontier. (Indeed, in a way, the idea of zero-point energy – the example I used above - represents a return to the foundation.)

AN EXAMPLE OF A FONDATION ISSUE WHERE THE GENIUS-CLASS COULD HAVE CONTRIBUTED: Fusion Energy Research – in which the basic physics is considered all sewn up – is slogging away for a half a century without visible success, in spite of the fact that fine engineers and experimentalists have done their part well. This may be a false frontier. A return to the foundation may cause us to radically rethink the physics of fusion reactors. After that, fusion energy may indeed become a frontier energy source. This was an ideal place for the Genius-class to pitch in, and help their able class colleagues. They did not.

The foundation is the frontier.

PARLIAMENTARY HEARINGS IN THE KINGDOM OF BOMBAGOR

His Imperial Majesty the King of Bombagor is the most progressive leader in the world today. Because he is an absolute monarch, he does not bother with political correctness. He raises clear issues that are normally kept out of public eyes through some contrived norms of politeness. The King ordered his ministers to hold a public hearing on the most advanced, even futuristic scientific visions on resolving the current Energy Crisis. As the first witness, the ministers called the greatest theoretical physicist in the world. The audience saw this announcement poster in front of the Parliament Conference Hall:

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On His Imperial Majesty’s Service

Hearings on
The Energy Crisis and Future Visions

Today’s witness:

Professor Sir Trompé S. Zeitfahrer, FRSB, FNASB, FinstPB, FYI, FAQ

Holder of the distinguished endowed chair:
Der Philosoph des schönsten Verstandes
Institute for Visionary Contemplation
HM University of Bombagor

All invited
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Sir Trompé Svarog Zeitfahrer is a highly decorated physicist. It has been said that there are more letters after his name than ribbons on a four-star general’s chest. The Nobel Prize is practically in the bag, for his work described in his wildly popular best-seller Exponential Ecstasy: The Physics of the Z-World (Univ. of Bombagor Press, 2001; They also sell Z-World tee shirts; sizes S, M, L, XL, and XXL). The Nobel people have already planned out some way cool stagecraft on how to explain the concept of Exponential Ecstasy to us simple folks. But until his Prize is announced, every year for many days in October, Sir Trompé spends sleepless nights waiting for that phone call from Stockholm. And each year the Nobel Bookmakers pitch him as a top contender. This painful situation was eased somewhat when in 2004 he received an equally coveted honor, a mention in TEMPUS Magazine's annual list of Seventy Suave Savants - considered the pinnacle of scientific achievement.

Sir Trompé is a person of French-German-Russian extraction, and when excited, he breaks out into one of these languages. He also has some Eastern royal blood. He is widely believed to be a successor of the Great Queen Padme Amidala. When he was born, his French mother had a revelation about his remarkable future, and lovingly named him Trompé. His childhood was filled with acts befitting a budding genius. He actually started out as a student of Geography. One day – while sitting by a stream and staring at the firmament - he had an epiphany. He started shivering, then shouted “Goonga!” and changed his major to Physics. All good men say that this was a sad day for Geography and a great day for Physics. A few bad people say the opposite.

Today Sir Trompé occupies a Distinguished Chair whose seat cushion in the past has been warmed by the posterior of many an historical luminary.

In the hearing, the very alert Minister of Energy did the questioning. The following is an extract from the interview (reproduced with permission):

In the Parliament of the Kingdom of Bombagor

Question: Many greetings, Sir Trompé! This body is indeed honored by your presence. Would you begin by telling us how you describe yourself?

Zeitfahrer: I am that I am.

Q: I am sorry, but I was asking about your professional field of expertise. His Imperial Majesty the King is an avid reader of your exploits. He has read how you worked out in detail the energy sources and the energy balances in far universes. He therefore feels that your expertise is the most suited to attempt to seek new ways out of this crisis the world faces.

Z: The world is not enough with me.

Q: Excuse me, Sir Trompé, but I do not understand your response. Are you saying that the Energy Crisis is not an important enough problem for you?

Z: Das ist nicht mein kampf! Or in plain language, as the British say: Not my brief!

Q: This is a rather unexpected development. His Imperial Majesty the King was telling us how, in the Manhattan Project, scientists were gathered based mainly on their brilliance and not so much on any specific expertise. They then applied themselves successfully to a very specific issue. That is how versatile we perceive physicists to be. You yourself, Sir Trompé, made the great leap from Geography to Physics.

Z: Manhattan Schmanhattan!

Q: I see. But generally speaking, would you say that today’s Genius-class theoretical physicists should apply themselves to the energy problem?

Z: The Energy Crisis is a matter of the Anthropic Principle – it is a part of the grand design, the work of the Intelligent Mind, you follow? Those few of us who commune with that Mind can see the Crisis for what it is. It is nothing to do with high physics. In the grand scheme of Intelligent Design, humans are mere prawns.

Q: Prawns or pawns?

Z: Praste'etye! I misspoke. But when I think of the humans who attack me…. Well, let us not go there.

Q: Let’s just call this a Freudian prawn. Now, Sir Trompé, His Imperial Majesty the King is curious to know what your physics worldview is.

Z: The frontier is the foundation.

Q: I see. Lastly, just to clarify, you do not think then that today’s Genius-class physicists should heed the call to excellence by looking for radically new solutions to the Energy Crisis?

Z: Yolki Palki! Do not distract these Genius-class physicists from their greater calling. Leave them alone - Tun Sie was ich sage! You do not use Sveruga caviar to make a seafood casserole, Monsieur! That would be declasse.

Q: It certainly would be inedible. So we cannot look to physics at all?

Z: Our Able-class colleagues have already given you the solution: Fusion Energy – clean unlimited affordable energy for everyone on the Earth. The Iter is the Way. I am absolutely confident that this is the case.

Q: Then there is nothing to worry about?

Z: Nothing at all. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Q: And this unlimited energy supply will come when?

Z: I can see this happening on the first Thursday of the fourth month of the year 2010.

Q: You can see the Future?

Z: Aber naturlich! I have come from there.

THE HEARINGS: THE SECOND DAY

On the second day of the Hearings, the interested citizens arrived in great numbers to hear Professor Sir Barthelomew Fotheringay-St. John, FRS etc (pronounced Fungy-Sinjan; or simply call him Sir Barmy), the leader of British fusion energy research. He is sometimes referred to as Sir Confident because of his profuse use of the expression “I am absolutely confident”. He was to be followed on the same day by his American counterpart, Professor Wallingford “Wally” Walnut.

Instead, there was this strange announcement:

Today’s witness:

“Diogenes”

Indigent person

Of course everybody knew who this witness is. This is a shabby homeless person who hangs out in the marketplace of Bombagor’s tiny capital city of Ultoraja. He always wears a miner’s headlamp which is always lit. Hence the name Diogenes. Nobody knows his real name or anything else about him. He makes his home in an abandoned jacuzzi by the river. He is also seen spending a great deal of time in the University library where he reads voraciously, and uses the free Internet service to run a Blog site. When anyone cares to speak to him, he rails against the physics establishment.

Now, here’s what transpired in the background. The wise king of Bombagor often surfs the Net. One day, he came upon Diogenes’s Blog site. He read, and he thought. Then he read some more, and he thought some more. After he watched the first day of the Hearings on live television, his mind turned to Diogenes. He then ordered that Diogenes be the second witness, never mind that it upsets the prearranged parade of great luminaries. This of course created a huge wave of murmuring among the distinguished Ministers. Some were offended that they would have to deal with a street person. But the Minister of Energy said to himself: If he is good enough for the King, he’s good enough for me. And this is how it came about that on this morning, Diogenes was seated at the witness table, wearing his shirt with the least amount of darning. He also polished his headlamp for this occasion, and put in fresh batteries. The Minister of Energy continued the questioning.

In the Parliament of the Kingdom of Bombagor

Question: Many greetings and welcome! His Imperial Majesty the King has requested your kind presence at these Hearings. How are you this morning, Sir?

Diogenes: (Turns his head and looks uncertainly around him) Are you speaking to me?

Q: Indeed I have the honor of speaking to you...er...Mister...Diogenes. Now, I understand that you have watched yesterday’s Hearings from the library. What is your view on this?

D: It is as fine an example of intellectual bs artistry as I have ever seen.

Q: And bs stands for bad science, I suppose?

D: That will work fine.

Q: What is your view of fusion energy research?

D: To be specific, we are speaking here of magnetically confined plasma fusion – the latest step in this program being the Iter. It is either the greatest collective foolishness or the most organized scam artistry in the history of science.

Q: Go on.

D: Magnetic confinement of a plasma is a valid scientific idea – and we see striking examples of this in the solar atmosphere. But magnetic confinement of a plasma in sustained fusion is another matter of physics altogether. Before we pursued this concept, we should have asked, first and foremost: What is magnetic field? But after 50 years and three generations of fusion researchers, no one has asked this rudimentary question. What is worse, no one seems to understand this fundamental issue even when it has been repeatedly called to their attention recently by an obscure author named De.

Q: You seem to say that no one among perhaps thousands of eminent plasma researchers has asked the question which should have been the starting point of this entire program? This is both broad and simplistic. This would be very hard to swallow.

D: That is exactly what I am saying. It is the broad truth and the simple truth. Our highly touted plasma theorists are basically equation jocks. By massaging equations, they find new types of waves, frequencies, instabilities, singularities etc et al so they can attach their names to these. They can do more things with equations than a cheerleader can do with her baton. This is all mindless exercise without any deep understanding. But what I am saying is a matter in plain evidence. The evidence is this: While for 50 years we have heard no end of how the magnetic field will confine a fusion plasma, no one – but no one – has asked: What will the plasma do to the magnetic field?

Q: What will the plasma do to the magnetic field?

D: De has suggested that at sustained fusion, the distinction between the magnetic field as “the confiner” and the plasma as “the confinee” may be lost. It just becomes one amorphous mass.

Q: So, in your view, fusion is not a viable energy source for the future?

D: Quite the opposite. It is likely to be the most important energy source for the future. But magnetically confined plasma fusion is exactly the wrong way to go.

Q: Is cold fusion the way?

D: Not necessarily. But I am glad to be able to address this. Pons and Fleischmann are pathfinders. There may be much to the idea of compact, mechanically confined fusion. I believe that the ridiculing of them has been greatly overdone, and I believe that this was done intentionally, so that others could lay historical claim to the general idea of a compact, mechanically confined fusion reactor. The Media was doing the dirty work for the physics establishment in maligning Pons and Fleischmann.

Q: Any other thoughts on the future directions?

D: Beyond magnetic confinement, the idea of sustained – meaning continuous - fusion might also need a fresh look. For example, today’s automobile engines do not use sustained burning of gasoline. Instead, they use a series of explosions. Is this a possibility for fusion “burning”?

Q: Are you saying that the present effort may be doubly flawed?

D: Something to think about for original thinkers.

Q: Sir Trompé has said that today’s Genius-class physicists have better things to do than to think about physics issues such as these.

D: There I agree wholeheartedly. It is better that these people remain busy and happy doing whatever it is that they do. Otherwise, they will mess things up even more, if that were possible.

Q: Lastly, Sir, would you do us the honor of having luncheon with us?

D: Um…er… I don’t know any table manners.

Q: Nor do I. We were just going to get some fried chicken and sit out on the grass lawn, and have a picnic.

D: That would suit me eminently. Perhaps I can also take a doggy bag – for dinner, I mean?

Q: Absolutely. We will fix you right up.

ISN’T THIS A STRETCH?

To many, this thesis that physics geniuses should apply themselves to the Energy Crisis may seem quite a stretch. Isn’t the very idea that noble thinkers at the forefront of civilization should be asked to put their shoulders to the yoke crass?

It may be, or it may not be. We just do not know. As I pointed out at the beginning, there is no precedent for this problem our civilization faces. There is no historical context. Therefore, it is reasonable to focus on where the solution is likely to come from (physics), and who there are the most equipped to contribute (geniuses).

Medical research is the field of science people can relate most easily to. Let us seek some parallels there. Now, we do not of course have any expectation that the geniuses of medical research should apply themselves to cancer research. This is because cancer, as important as it is, does not threaten the civilization. But now imagine a mysterious disease that is killing people indiscriminately all around the globe. Suppose that its virulence is growing with time. What now?

I have used the imagery of the Morlock and the Hellstrom Chronicles. This is of course a great stretch. But then, how great is it?

The Energy Crisis is also food crisis. Or rather, an abundance of energy could mean an abundance of food. And to many children in parts of Africa, the Morlocks are here. They can smell the Morlocks. Having smelled, they die.

Many will remember the long gas station lines of the early seventies, and flaring tempers. In August of 2005, there were reports of isolated incidents where, because of the high price of gas, people were filling their tanks and driving away without paying. In one instance, the gas station attendant tried to wave to a SUV to stop, but was run over and killed.

Isolated incidents that occur when a problem is barely surfacing will be the norm when the problem takes greater hold. A stretch?

With regard to assigning responsibility to the Genius-class physicists, the feeling of a stretch comes from a certain image people have in their mind of the great physicist. It is traditionally an image that can be described as a composite of two icons: Albert Einstein and Rodin’s Thinker. A larger-than-life human being and a lifeless piece of the earth shaped with imagination. One’s response is to admire such an image, and not of assign any social responsibility to it. In recent times, perhaps in preparation for the twenty-first century, physicists and the Media have engaged in a concerted effort to refurbish the image, adding a third component: God.

It is not a stretch to expect that those who glory as the vanguard of civilization should hold their position when she comes under frontal attack.

It is a stretch to make a case that they should hightail it.

DON’T BUG ME, MAN!

Today, intellectuals in the most tenuous of fields rise to meet the society’s call. Hasn’t mythologist Joseph Campbell made you look at your own practical life in a way no one else has? Hasn’t the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt alerted you to the perils of your daily surroundings? Poets are trying to help prison inmates through poetry therapy. I could go on and on.

I read somewhere that a Genius-class physicist once said or did something that was not sensitive vis-à-vis women. A female student then wrote him a note of protestation about this. The genius scribbled her a reply on that note: Don’t bug me, Man!

This is cutesy humor from some people’s point of view, but not from the viewpoint of some others. It serves to illustrate how the Genius-class physicists handle criticism about their social responsibility: They dismiss it with silence, evasiveness or haughtiness. There is not a heck of a whole lot you can do about it.

Except in one area. Next time you see the Media in its many forms croak into your ears or blast into your eyes the sublime exploits of some physics genius or other, and subliminally pitch the case that you admire his beautiful mind, ask yourself instead: If he is such an answer to the maiden’s prayer, why doesn’t he heed the society’s prayer?

Public adulation is what they count on and thrive on. You – the public - have the ability to give it or not. When someone solicits your adulation, you too can say: Don’t bug me, Man!

It is a very fine desire on our part to admire truly beautiful minds. But instead of the Genius-class physicists, look for example to the quiet and unassuming Médecins Sans Frontières – the Doctors without Borders.

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Posted 31 August 2005

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