Wednesday, March 03, 2010

"Do You Remember Peace?" Introduction, pt. 2, 430 words

A popular question in the latter decades of the Atomic Age, when anti-intellectualism was cresting at a new peak, was why spend so much money on pure research? Why build a space station that does nothing but eat money? Why build massive particle accelerators looking for the Higgs boson? These efforts were seen as sinecures for the intelligentsia, funds thrown to academics to justify the need to throw more funds at academics. A similar question could be asked of how one expected war to produce useful peacetime technologies. How does making a better bomb to drop on foreign soil translate into a better life at home?

The answer to both was in fact the same. The research necessary to reach these goals necessitated following related lines of research that could spawn a variety of technologies. Research, after all, is not a straight line towards a marked-out target. It is a confluence of many lines that then branch off again once they intersect. Atomic bombs contributed to atomic power. Particle physics provided a great boon to nuclear medicine, instrumental in the detection and treatment of cancer, heart disease, and many other illnesses.

Yet the equivalence otherwise rings hollow. Military research is predicated upon an institution that requires massive expenditure in countless other areas. In the most egregious cases, such research might only be a tenth of the total military budget, and still be more than twice that of any and every other form of general research budget to which the government devoted its funds. For every unit of currency spent on that military research, nine more went to the entire rest of the military endeavor. It remains the most monetarily inefficient form of research in human history, while simultaneously lionized as the source of greatest progress by those of the era.

In other words, the Atomic Age's view of the primacy of military conflict and development as an efficient source of progress was an article of faith. It was never directly put to the test in a scientific manner, whether this system of conflict-growth was truly more efficient and effective at producing knowledge, wealth, and progress than a peacetime effort where pure science funding exceeded (or even achieved parity with) military research funding – to say nothing of being comparable to aggregate military funding in general! And it was a self-reinforcing system, where one nation that kept a high military budget induced paranoia in all other nations, forcing all to keep military expenditure high. Just the materiel maintenance costs of some large nations would have crippled the economies of smaller nations.

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