Thursday, March 5, 2015

Of Hamsters and Big Bangs

Recently there has been quite a bit of talk around the webs about the idea that there was no "Big Bang".  Back in high school, we often contemplated doing things that might result in negative outcomes.  One of my cousins had a standard answer to any of us who expressed doubts about the wisdom of a course of action:  A hundred years from now who will ever know?  While the legend might sometimes live on, do we really think we know what happened a billion years ago?  Multiple by fourteen, and I am even more skeptical.  In general, I think physics has a good handle on it.  We are here.  As to the specifics, I am less confident. 

Regardless, Czech physicist Luboš Motl, talks about the value of the study that purports to abolish the Big Bang.  He laments the ignorance and, what I would call, a lack of discernment on the part of the general public.  I am uninterested disputes among physicists over the origins of the universe, having an alternate explanation myself, but I have to agree with Motl about the public's herd mentality. 

97% of the people simply have no capability or no intent or no desire to distinguish gold from cr*p, not even in the most obvious situation. This problem isn't restricted to physics or cosmology.
This fully explains the political leadership in countries with popular elections.

The Czech Republic has the same problem with environmental impact studies that we have in the U.S.:

Last September, they were going to build a new speed highway in Moravia – but it was found out that there were hamsters over there. So an "environmental" company called Ekoteam (which is really one person, Mr Vladimír Ludvík) was hired to count the burrows of hamsters between two villages (named Třebětice and Alexovice). His result was that there were 73 burrows including 45 active ones.

Wild hamsters of the Czech Republic.  It's a little known fact that wild hamsters invented the wheel.  Clearly, it's important that we know to what extent our road building impacts hamster civilization.  Thus the Czech government paid Mr. Ludvík something roughly equivalent to $100,000 USD to count hamster holes.  Motl says that amount of money would support a postdoc researcher in physics for two years. 

One doesn't necessarily have to realize the benefits of physics to get Motl's point.  We are wasting, around the world, billions of dollars every year on things that provide no discernible benefit of any kind -- assuming one is not a hamster.  These ludicrous expenditures are justified, not by accounting or cost-benefit comparisons but by emotion.  I do not know how many hamsters occupy the average active burrow, but I understand they tend to be solitary creatures, so 45 burrows might indicate the presence of 90, more or less, of these cuddly, short-tailed rats.  Just to make the math easy, say there are 100.  Surely, at a thousand dollars a piece, these are golden hamsters.   

This adds, of course, to the cost of the new highway in both time and money.  Those who would benefit from the better road suffer the direct loss of money from their pocket in taxes needed to fund such nonsense, as well as the loss of time that could have been saved had the project been finished sooner.  And, as Motl points out, this is only done because they are using someone else's, i.e., the taxpayers', money. 

The issue is really about the public's lack of understanding when it comes to what is of value, both in an absolute sense and relative to others "goods" that might be sought after.  The value of a thing may be simply what someone is willing to pay for it in the short-term.  To make an informed decision, the buyer needs to be aware of the true cost.  For one thing, in a world of limited resources, I want to know what a thing costs me in terms of other things I might need. 

Who doesn't love hamsters?  I think they have them deep-fried on a stick at the State Fair.  While most of us like paved roads, they are not as emotionally appealing in some cases as cute rodents.  If, however, I find out that research into a cure for cancer is underfunded by $100,000 because we took a hamster census before we turned the bulldozers loose on the new turnpike, I might start to ask if hamsters are somehow an endangered species threatened with extinction.  Run, little hamster.  Run!   


  1. Mushroom, you don't know how lucky you are. At least the Hamsters are real. Here in NZ we had a major road development halted because it was about to disturb a mythical Maori monster.


  2. Environmental impact studies is decent-sized industry. Youngest daughter's boyfriend is studying Geology not to exploit the planet for the betterment of mankind, no, he wants to be a governmental environmental geologist to block progress. Sigh. I was young once and had similar ideas about saving the planet.

    Our universities are cranking out scientists whose only desire is to work for the government and stop progress. And have us pay their salaries.

  3. Brendan, you could be right.I haven't heard that we have stopped anything for Big Foot yet.

    You've summed it up nicely, John. Using Mark Twain's corn pone test, it calls their objectivity into question.