The Essential Pursuit of Science

Oct 11, 2013

On Tuesday, October 8, it was announced that two Europeans, Peter Higgs and François Englert, had been awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics. The same day, the Boulder Colorado Daily Camera reported that two Boulder Nobel-Prize-winning physicists, David Wineland (2012) and Eric Cornell (2001) were furloughed from their jobs at local national laboratories. In today’s America, science is considered a “non-essential” pursuit.

The sequester has already cut deeply into the U.S. research budget, including that most essential of government agencies, the National Institutes of Health. NIH funding is now 22 percent less, $4.7 billion, than it was in 2003. The American Association for the Advancement of Science projects that $9.3 billion is being cut from the 2013 R&D budgets.

In the meantime, job opportunities for recent science graduates have almost completely dried up and the number of graduate students in research programs in virtually all scientific fields at the top research universities has plummeted.

And, all of this was before the government shutdown.

This year’s prize was awarded to two of the six physicists who, in 1964, proposed that the universe is filled with particles that are responsible for the masses of certain elementary particles. To the dismay of the unassuming Peter Higgs, they came to be called Higgs bosons. In the media, to the dismay of most physicists, they came to be called “God particles.”

The name God particle was coined by Nobel laureate (1988) and then director of Fermilab Leon Lederman in his 1993 book, written with Dick Teresi: The God Particle: if the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? The book was written, in part, to generate public support for the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) that would seek to confirm, or deny, the existence of the Higgs boson. This particle had become an intrinsic ingredient of the highly successful standard model of elementary particles, which was developed in the 1970s. The Higgs was the only element of the model that remained to be empirically tested.

The plan to build the SSC was going full-speed ahead in the 1980s and I attended several workshops. President Ronald Reagan had given his approval and in 1988 the site was selected to be Waxahachie, Texas. It may have been no coincidence that the new president elected that year, George H.W. Bush, was (nominally) a Texan. However, geologically it was a good site and the State of Texas also put up $1 billion to help cover costs. Construction began in 1991. The collider was to be a ring 87.1 kilometers (54.1 miles) around and would collide beams of protons together, each with energy 20 TeV (trillion electron-volts).

When, in 1993, the estimated cost jumped from $4.4 billion to $12 billion, Congress took another look. By that time, $2 billion had already been spent and the tunnel for the ring was almost 30 percent complete. Furthermore, not all the scientific community was behind it.

The SSC might have had better luck if the originally favored site, Lederman’s Fermilab in Illinois, had been chosen. Much of the infrastructure and expert staff would have already been in place rather than having to be built up from scratch. With the scientifically unjustified $25 billion International Space Station program also earmarked for Texas, the two giant Texas projects had little support in the rest of the country. The SSC was cancelled by a vote of 2 to 1 in Congress, while the space station passed by one vote. Although president Bill Clinton had voiced mild support for the SSC, he signed the bill canceling it on October 31, 1993.

This event marked the beginning of a sharp decline in support for elementary particle physics in the U.S. that has continued to this day. Physics graduate students looked elsewhere for opportunities, and still do.

At this point, elementary particle physics became centered on the international CERN laboratory in Geneva, which was already the largest particle accelerator facility in the world. There the greatest scientific effort of all time was mounted to build the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). While the LHC is huge and still cost billions, it is smaller and cheaper than the SSC would have been. It uses an already existing tunnel “only” 27 kilometers long compared to 87.1 kilometers and “only” 14 TeV total collision energy compared to 40 TeV for the SSC. In his book, Lederman had predicted that the Higgs would be seen at the SSC by 2005. It certainly would have settled the matter one way or the other, and it would have already probed far deeper than the LHC will be able to do unless and until it is considerably upgraded.

The LHC first began circulating beams of protons in opposite directions on September 10, 2008. It operated at 4 TeV per proton beam until February 2013, when it was shut down for an upgrade. It is scheduled to run at 7 TeV per beam in 2014.

Of the six detectors assembled at the LHC, two, ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus) and CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid), are general-purpose detectors that were involved in the hunt for the Higgs and other new phenomena. The ATLAS collaboration consists of 3,000 physicists from 174 institutions in 38 countries. CMS consists of 3,275 physicists, of which 1,535 are students, and 790 engineers and technicians, from 179 institutes in 41 counties. Each experiment cost about a billion dollars and the LHC itself about $10 billion.

On July 4, 2012, CERN announced that both ATLAS and CMS had seen a signal in the mass range 125-126 GeV that is very likely the long sought-after Higgs boson. The statistical significance in each case was reported as “5-sigma,” which implies that the probability it was a statistical fluctuation is one in 3.5 million. That is, each experiment taken alone was highly significant statistically. Even more important was the independent replication.

Lederman and theoretical physicist Christopher Hill have just published a new book called Beyond the God Particle (Prometheus Books, 2013). It has something for everyone, but I will just mention the science politics.

The authors make an impassioned case for the importance of basic science to society. They tell the probably apocryphal story of a visit to Michael Faraday’s lab by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone. Gladstone wanted to see where all this wasteful spending on electricity was going. Faraday supposedly responded, “I don’t know what good this will be, but one day you may tax it.”

Lederman and Hill remind us that in 1989 a young computer scientist working at CERN named Tim Berners-Lee proposed what he called a “distributed information system” to enable the lab’s scientists to handle the great amounts of data that were then coming in from its Proton Synchrotron accelerator. I don’t know who was the author, but in the early 1980s I used an early version of the program, involving now-familiar “hyper-links,” to organize the data from a neutrino experiment with the 15-foot bubble chamber at Fermilab. The collaboration involved several universities, each with a different computer and different set of analysis programs. I wrote to CERN and they provided me with the program free of charge, including the cost of shipping a heavy magnetic tape from Geneva to Honolulu. No one had ever heard of software licensing in those days.

As is now legend, Berners-Lee’s program became the World Wide Web, a vital part of the Internet. Lederman and Hill call it “the greatest information revolution humanity has ever seen” and note that today it “garners many trillions of dollars worth of new gross domestic product per year for all the people on Planet Earth.

No one can predict what practical applications can come out of the basic scientific research being done today, but history shows that without basic science we can expect little human progress. The Internet and Web did not result from a direct application of particle physics, but when you have very talented and dedicated people working on uncovering the basic nature of the universe, you can expect just this sort of spin-off.

Lederman and Hill calculate, “If U.S. particle physics received a mere 0.01 percent (a hundredth of a penny on the dollar) of the tax revenue per year on the cash flow it [that is, European particle physics] has generated by inventing the World Wide Web, the Superconducting Supercollider would have been built in Waxahachie, it would have discovered the Higgs boson ten years ago, and we’d be well on to the next machines.”

The fundamental importance of basic research cannot be overstated. Conceptually, basic research clarifies our understanding of the world by answering today’s questions, while at the same time generating rich new questions that lead us to entirely new and unanticipated horizons. Economically, both the process and the subjects of research have enriched our lives to incalculable proportions. And existentially, basic research extends our lives, beginning with Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine and, hopefully, continuing now with the development of the energy and resource alternatives that may save us from today’s threats. Far from cutting the research budget, we should highly prioritize that budget.