It’s a bright week in the grand old blogosphere of science. Nobel Prizes have been dished out, alongside discussions about whether the old system really has any place in modern Big Science; Tuesday is Ava Lovelace day, with an accompanying online scheme collecting musings on gender and technology (http://findingada.com/); and the ongoing Lance Armstrong case provides plenty of public space to re-air discussions on the role of science in law. As per usual, the Guardian Science Blogs and Occam’s Typewriter are good places to start. But HOLD ON for just a second before dashing off please, as I’d like to add another high-profile event to the already bloated list of excitements. As I write, a man named Felix Baumgartner is attempting to simultaneously break two world records; the highest skydive ever, and the fastest freefall ever. From his point of view, it’s actually quite easy. He gets ferried up 36.5km, through the troposphere and into the stratosphere, by a big balloon. And then he jumps out. I could do that*. But the rather, erm, unique circumstance has given experimental engineers some quite tricky stuff to think about. Looking at Baumgartner’s biog http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felix_Baumgartner, he’s simply a guy who’s fallen in love (geddit?) with gravity. But what was conceived as a madcap stunt has ended up being covered alongside stories on the Nobel Prizes and the Mars Curiosity Rover. And this is where my ears prick up. Forget a guy falling from space, this is the exciting stuff.
So what actually is the reasoning behind the Red Bull Stratos mission? As far as Baumgartner is concerned, I think that question is better answered by a psychologist than a sociologist. For Red Bull, it’s obviously PR machinery building up their image as the leading supporters of the high-octane lifestyle. (Although the association of the Red Bull drink with the highest skydive ever does sit uneasily with me. I think if I was about to fall from 36.5km the last thing I’d need would be a stimulant. Particularly one that’s also a diuretic). But the website for the mission places heavy emphasis on the idea that this project is actually pushing back the boundaries of scientific knowledge. Consider this page http://www.redbullstratos.com/science/scientific-values/, somewhat pompously entitled ‘Scientific Values’, which highlights how data collected during Baumgartner’s fall will be shared for the benefit of the scientific community. The page reads like a funding application, talking of ‘vital questions’ and ‘development of the latest innovations’. But the practical applications they speak of, increasing the safety of deep-space exposure beyond levels already offered by NASA knowhow, are of benefit to an extremely niche market. It is true that this mission is venturing into unexplored. It certainly is the case that “never before has anyone reached the speed of sound without being in an aircraft”. But there’s pretty good reason for that. It doesn’t really tend to happen naturally. Or accidentally. Or indeed at all, outside of schemes like this. The lesson we can learn from putting a human through freefall is, well, whether a human can be put through freefall.
Those of you not distracted by my facetiousness might see where this is going. If so, well done. I personally didn’t see where this thought process would lead until my sneering brain was unexpectedly slapped by a pertinent issue. Basically, consider this: Baumgartner’s thing isn’t a million miles away from the work of the LHC. (It’s actually about 24 miles. A figure which will decrease rapidly). As with putting a human into freefall, the processes going on in the LHC don’t occur in nature. Science experiments haven’t really attempted to recreate nature since Boyle’s air pump work of the 16th century (for which he was criticised for setting up an extreme environment – a vacuum – that would not be found elsewhere). They push things to the extreme in order to make things more obvious, more studiable. And my throwaway comment at the end of the last paragraph actually conceals a lot of important information. It’s a bit like saying ‘all we learned from trying to detect Higgs Bosons is that we can detect Higgs Bosons’. Yes, but from that we infer that they exist, or at the very least something like them exists, and so on. Science is built from trying new things out, having new lessons to learn from. And on a more practical level, the direct engineering advances of the LHC – a device built for an incredibly niche purpose – don’t hold immediate benefits for most of us. But the hands-on learning experience of building something for an entirely new set of circumstances advances our net technological capabilities in very unexpected ways. If someone asked me if I was interested in a developing a method of sharing particle data across the entire network of CERN computers, I’d have made a non-committal noise and quietly walked away. Fortunately I’m not Tim Berners-Lee (contrary to the rumours), because if he’d done that we wouldn’t have the World Wide Web. And that would make a blogger’s life very difficult indeed**.
Now, I’m not saying Baumgartner is basically another LHC. If so, he’d require a much bigger balloon. There are obviously some differences – the LHC is completely essential for the whole of particle physics to make any further progress, the LHC is asking and answering deep universal questions, the engineering advances (and potential spin-offs) from CERN are far in advance of those required to get a man through space, etc. etc. All science is equal, but some science is more equal than others. But assessing how valuable a project is needn’t descend into sneering (sorry Felix. Sorry Red Bull). There isn’t a clear, distinct separation in the underlying philosophy. Seeing how a biological entity reacts to a distinctly unbiological environment isn’t an intrinsically worthless question. And although it seems unlikely that the lessons learned from dropping a man through space will have any relevance outside of the (somewhat restricted) sphere of space travel, we simply cannot be sure. That’s the nature of new experiences. And I’m sure the space tourists of the future will appreciate any useful lessons Baumgartner provides, particularly as other sources of space-based research funding are rapidly drying up.
But hang about. Bringing in the f-word raises a whole new issue. There’s a whole socio-political world around all this stuff. Yes, both CERN and Red Bull Stratos are extending our knowledge by trying out brand new things. And yes, that’s jolly good of them. But a) new things don’t just extend knowledge and b) we simply don’t have the resources to try out all the new things. Taking point (b) first (I’ve come over all maverick this week) – even if human freefall turns out to have no useful spin-offs, no-one will have really lost out. The public will have got an entertaining display, Red Bull will have their PR fun, and Baumgartner will temporarily be World’s Most Celebrated Lunatic. Whereas there’s plenty of ‘crazy’ or ‘niche’ scientific schemes that simply will never see funding, because their craziness and nicheness isn’t offset by appeal to a PR-thirsty beverage mogul***. By contrast, people could arguably be losing out because of the massive LHC funding. Whether the LHC is ‘niche’ is actually a very important debate, as ‘niche’ doesn’t really sit easily with taxpayers and rival funding-bereft projects. But we should always remember point (a), that the impact of the LHC isn’t simply scientific – it’s one of the greatest collaborations in the history of the world ever, requiring communication between even the most fractious of nations. Even if the Higgs Boson didn’t get the Nobel Physics Prize, CERN exemplifies the qualities which won the EU the Peace Prize (a bit of consolation there, I hope). Similarly, while the Baumgartner jump has attracted viewers largely as a groundbreaking (or skybreaking) human achievement, it has provided a lot of opportunity to slip viewers a bit of education about outer space and the like. Brian Cox is probably drawing up a shortlist of death-defying schemes already.
Debates about funding are fraught and complicated and frankly I can’t be bothered to deal with them here. But Baumgartner reminds us of something we should all be aware of anyway – fundability is not simply based on immediate, direct relevance. This leads to a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: can niche-er projects get funding by leaping on PR or politics-friendly bandwagons? Or do said bandwagons actually give rise to new science? Or both? Is one approach better than the other? How do they fit in with other forms of funding? Who wins and loses? Grand and crazy ideas occur in many forms, from building the world’s most powerful particle accelerator (the world’s most powerful machine, even), to, well, what Baumgartner’s doing. So even though I still strongly suspect that Red Bull Stratos emerged from one man’s loose screw and Red Bull’s craving for all things publicity-based – rather than being born from a burning desire to advance human knowledge – Baumgartner still fits in a grand old tradition of science. That’s something for him to think about on the way down.
* = Theoretically.
** = As well as other problems, maybe.
*** = As well as this rather anomalous example, there’s more common debates about private sources of funding for research directed along particular medical lines – consider http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/occams-corner/2012/oct/08/icancer-cancer-public-funding