Benjamin Esham

Powers of $10

Earlier this year a group called the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel published its recommendations on how the government’s particle-physics money should be divided over the next ten years. The budgets aren’t known that far in advance, so the panel considered three funding scenarios: A, B, and C, with A the most austere and C the most generous. I want to draw attention not to the details of the projects but merely to the dollar amounts being discussed:

Scenario B has about $30 million a year more than scenario A until 2018, and then the gap grows, reaching $95 million in 2024. Summed over the decade, the difference comes to $500 million. With the annual DOE budget for high-energy physics hovering around $750 million, the difference between the two scenarios may seem small. But, says [P5 chair Steve] Ritz, “the bang for the buck for the investment is huge.”

Under scenario A, not only would the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument be sacrificed, but R&D for dark matter and other experiments would get reduced funding and the long-baseline neutrino experiment would progress more slowly. “As valuable as each of these items is, they simply do not fit in Scenario A,” the report says.

(This quote comes from a Physics Today article by Toni Feder.)

So at least one project, DESI, would live or die by a difference of $50 million per year. In units that might be more familiar to the tech industry, the difference is 0.05 Instagrams — or 2.6 × 10−3 WhatsApps.

In a Wired profile of Slack founder Stewart Butterfield, Mat Honan wrote,

He admits that if the right offer comes along, the kind of offer that only three or four companies in the world could come up with, he would have to jump. But what is that? Five billion? Seven? Ten? It’s hard to know, because in Silicon Valley today, money has lost all meaning and value. It is an abstract construct that can be exchanged for homes and Teslas and handmade selvedge denim jeans flown in from Japan, but nobody really has any idea what constitutes “a lot” anymore.

I know I’d love to see some of that lucre flow back upstream to the people and institutions that made all of this technology possible in the first place.1

  1. Of course, physics research is not the only thing that is being underfunded compared to messaging apps. Humanitarian aid, for one, is even more important. ↩︎