STFC and the fall of the Roman Empire

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One puzzle about the Roman Empire is that while they had tech­no­logy they often didn’t use it to its full poten­tial. For instance, take the steam engine. Hero of Alexandria had demon­strated a basic steam engine, the aeolio­pile, around two thou­sand years ago. A little work would have given them the rail­way and in later years Rome really needed a railway.


The aeol­i­pile in action

One use is the obvi­ous applic­a­tion to the mil­it­ary and com­mu­nic­a­tions. With a rail net­work Rome could have moved legions to trou­bles­pots quickly and reacted to incur­sions much faster. If you want a simple peer into the future then you could argue that with rail­ways the Roman Empire may never have fallen. In fact the future prob­ably would have been much more rad­ic­ally different.

A rail­way would have made much more of the Empire eco­nom­ic­ally access­ible. Rome was fed by corn from Egypt because Egypt was much more eco­nom­ic­ally access­ible than the Italian hin­ter­land. Sailing from Egypt didn’t con­sume corn in the way that an ox-pulled cart would. The sea, and to a lesser extent the rivers, were the cargo high­ways of the ancient world. A rail­way could have added much more ter­rit­ory into an empire-wide mar­ket. To be hon­est I couldn’t start to work what the effects of a pancon­tin­ental single eco­nomy would have had on Rome and Europe over two thou­sand years. Its likely that even within a cen­tury or so Rome would have been eco­nom­ic­ally and tech­no­lo­gic­ally more advanced by any meas­ure you’d care to use. In the longer term it’s harder to tell. Socially, bet­ter com­mu­nic­a­tions might have helped the devel­op­ment of demo­cracy, but equally it could aid a repress­ive régime. The arrival of ori­ental cults would have been a fur­ther con­found­ing factor. Still, given the bene­fits for increased wealth, why didn’t rail­ways happen?

There’s plenty of reas­ons, but one major prob­lem is polit­ical. Roman polit­ics worked through a cli­ent and pat­ron sys­tem. A sen­ator would be a cli­ent and provide oppor­tun­it­ies to lesser sen­at­ors and equites (knights). These would in turn be pat­rons to cli­ents fur­ther down the food chain and so on. One top sen­ator there­fore had a lot of influ­ence. This mattered when passing laws because influ­ence can be turned into votes. Now, if you have a mine where you replace a lot of the work­ers with a mech­an­ical pump or track, what hap­pens to that influ­ence? All those work­ers now become cli­ents of other sen­at­ors and you’re in a polit­ic­ally weaker pos­i­tion. Being rich and weak then makes you a tar­get for any­one with a passing fancy to your wealth.

Investment in tech­no­logy would prob­ably have been a long-term suc­cess story and changed life in unima­gin­able ways. The polit­ical sys­tem how­ever was geared to work against change.

In the past week the STFC slashed budgets for a stag­ger­ing num­ber of pro­jects in Astronomy, Nuclear Physics and Particle Physics. There was a £80,000,000 hole in the fin­ances that was due to mis­man­ag­ment rather than the cur­rent nation­wide crisis. Interestingly the mis­man­aged RBS has a bonus pot of around £1,500,000,000, and at the same time is tak­ing a fur­ther gov­ern­ment bail­out to pay for this suc­cess. There’s also an event lined up for 2012 in London much of which is designed to leave min­imal impact cost­ing £12,000,000,000.

It’s hard to pre­dict what kind of future is being lost by the STFC. At Leicester there’s an X-ray lens based on lob­ster eyes wait­ing for a launch. The prob­lem with X-rays is that you can’t really use a lens like you would for the vis­ible spec­trum, but you can bend it by hav­ing glance off mir­rors. That’s what this lens does to bring and image to a focus, and it’s going to have a big impact on X-ray astro­nomy which is the part of the EM spec­trum you need to be look­ing at for high energy events. What is par­tic­u­larly nifty about it is that it’s quite small. Usually when you thing of power­ful tele­scopes you think of some­thing massive. This is small enough to be able to be used in hos­pit­als, so it turns out a prob­lem in observing black holes will have a med­ical applic­a­tion. On top of that it could also help build smal­ler tran­sist­ors for cir­cuit boards.

It’s not pos­sible to say what the pro­jects axed by the STFC could have revealed. If someone could say what they would achieve then no one would need to actu­ally do them. The fact that they are lost and the STFC is present­ing this as a Good Thing shows a ter­ri­fy­ing lack of ima­gin­a­tion. What is needed is a gov­ern­ment with long term vis­ion, but the UK’s cur­rent gov­ern­ment struggles with see­ing more than a year in advance. It’s not really will­ing to make an invest­ment that someone else might bene­fit from, even if it’s the best course for the nation.

On December the 22nd, the gov­ern­ment announced £398m cuts from a HE budget. They made a big show of main­tain­ing a £109m rise in research fund­ing to off­set the near £400m cuts. What seems to have slipped their minds is that the research budget is only for 2010-11 and the recent pre-budget report tar­gets HE for £600m of cuts, with the research cuts being the prime source of money (p. 110 [PDF]).

I think this shows why History of Science isn’t just about the sci­ence, you need a social dimen­sion too. A his­tor­ian look­ing back at this era, look­ing only at the pro­jects would go mad. We’ve paid to build the Gemini tele­scopes, but we won’t get to use them because we’ve cut our sub­scrip­tion. We paid to build ALICE at the Large Hadron Collider, which hasn’t been run­ning that long. According to the STFC now the LHC has been switched on and there’s the pos­sib­il­ity of res­ults, it’s time to with­draw from ALICE so we “can do some­thing new.” The decisions only make sense* if you under­stand that politi­cians in the UK value incom­pet­ent bankers more than they value excel­lent research.

* The wrong word I know, but I can’t think of a bet­ter one at the moment.