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.