Thursday, March 13, 2008

Jeopardizing Physics

The Big Bang Implosion of Physics

by David Perks

We are on the cusp of some of the biggest breakthroughs in physics in over three decades. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a massive particle collider built deep beneath the Swiss/French border, is nearing completion. Together with Fermilab’s Tevatron, a proton-antiproton collider near Chicago, the European and US facilities are in a race to discover the Higg’s Boson. This is the gaping hole in our theory of everything, the standard model of matter. Predicted by Peter Higgs in Edinburgh in 1964, the Higgs Boson is our best bet at explaining the nature of mass, that ubiquitous property of matter that has evaded explanation to date.

Now, particle physics is about to be kicked out of its speculative doldrums by the influx of long-awaited experimental data that may result in the revelation of a new fundamental force of nature, and could even allow us to create mini black holes here on Earth. But just as physics is about to receive a massive shot in the arm, its political masters seem prepared to pull the plug on fundamental research, introducing massive budget cutbacks both in the UK and in the US. Is this the beginning of the end for Big Physics?

Both Fermilab and the Standford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) in California, the two big particle physics labs in the US, are in near meltdown. Fermilab is cutting 10 per cent of its staff and has had the budgets for both its next generation projects cut to zero this year. SLAC looks likely to lose 300 staff at its facility. As Pier Oddone, Fermilab’s director put it: ‘The greatest impact is on the future of the lab, we have no ability now to develop our future.’ (1)

In the UK, the budget cuts imposed by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) are even more detrimental. In removing £80million from the physics budget, the UK faces losing its participation in the next generation particle physics projects to which it has already committed; it is also pulling out of two telescope collaborations: the Isaac Newton facility in the Canary Islands and the new £8million Gemini telescope in Hawaii. There are no equivalent facilities for UK astronomers to use in the northern hemisphere. Brian Foster, professor of experimental physics at Oxford University, described the cuts as ‘scientific vandalism’ (2).

There has been considerable discussion within the scientific community as to whether the swingeing cutbacks occurring on both sides of the Atlantic are the product, in the words of Manchester University’s Dr Brian Cox, of ‘accident, design or just sheer incompetence’. But even if you believe that, given better financial circumstances, things will right themselves in the future, we should be aware that something significant has changed.

Big Physics no longer has the same kudos with our political rulers as it once did. In the UK, the recent Sainsbury Review of the government’s science and innovation policies made it clear that the days of universities focusing on basic research are numbered. The key emphasis is now on ‘knowledge transfer’. The government is now only interested in the capacity of university research departments to kickstart high-end product development or ‘useful’ spin-offs from basic research. As Lord Sainsbury put it: ‘Today, we are seeing a transformation in the purpose and self-image of universities. Politicians, industrialists and economists are beginning to see universities as major agents of economic growth as well as creators of knowledge, developers of young minds and transmitters of culture.’ (3)

Over the past two or three decades, the era of backing for knowledge for its own sake has been dispensed with, both on economic and educational grounds. So even though US President George W Bush has promised increased spending in the physical sciences in 2009, no one is holding their breath in the US; the president promised the same in 2007 and 2008, but it did not materialise.

In truth, in the US Big Physics no longer has the political protection it once had when it comes to pushing a budget through Congress. In Britain, scientists have been promised a review of current spending priorities in the summer, but there is little chance that the STFC will rescind its decision to withdraw from the major international collaborations.
A petition on the Downing Street website to ‘reverse the decision to cut vital UK contributions to Particle Physics and Astronomy’ has attracted 17,380 signatures (4). But the petition has somewhat missed the point, since the writing has been on the wall for some time: physics just isn’t a vital priority for the political class. The UK government has happily turned our school science curriculum into a course on scientific literacy for the masses, allowed numerous university physics departments to close, and sponsored the creation of physics degrees that don’t require mathematics.

In the US, this is not the first time that funding priorities have forced drastic cuts in investment in fundamental physics research. In 1993, despite protestations from then president Bill Clinton, Congress cancelled the proposed Superconducting Super Collider, which would have challenged the dominance of the LHC in Europe.

Britain has until now retained its participation at the front-end of particle physics with its contribution to the LHC. The International Linear Collider was to be the next big step forward beyond the LHC. It would be able to explore matter at a finer detail than the LHC. The UK initially contributed to this project, yet it now seems stillborn: the UK pulled out last month, and the US is removing any further funding for it.

Even more perplexing is the American decision to cancel its funding for ITER, the new international fusion reactor to be built in France. This is the next stage in the project to develop commercial fusion power which will potentially produce energy from water by mimicking the action of the sun. This clean nuclear energy could replace the more conventional nuclear fission reactors in 30 years time.

Robert Wilson, Fermilab’s first director, when asked by a congressional committee if the lab would aid national defence, famously responded: ‘No, but it will help keep the nation worth defending.’ Today, such a strident belief in the quest for knowledge does not fit well within the constraints of an education system orientated towards skills, not knowledge, and access, not excellence. The political class does not think young people are interested enough in science to believe that any youngster could aspire to an understanding of the nature of the universe without somehow making it relevant to their everyday lives.

Even the physicists at the European Programme for Nuclear Research (CERN) and Fermilab are prone to justify their work feebly in terms of the potential spin-offs to medical research. That is like trying to justify the Apollo space programme because it gave us Teflon non-stick saucepans. Rationalising fundamental research on the basis of a few spin-offs just won’t wash. As Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, put it, the discovery of magnetic resonance imaging, a powerful way of identifying cancers, was discovered by a physicist ‘whose work would never have been possible without funding or basic physics’ (5).

In truth, fundamental research is a necessity, not a luxury. Most of the technological developments made in the past 100 years have been fuelled by fundamental research into science. Albert Einstein famously dismissed Enrico Fermi’s idea that massive amounts of energy could be released by splitting the atom. The unintended consequences of the theory of relativity gave us nuclear power. Similarly, from the esoteric beauty of the theory of quantum mechanics has emerged electronics, computing and laser optics, to name but a few developments.
We cannot foretell where research into the fundamental constituents of matter will take us, but to not travel down that path is to shut the door on the future. Our ability to understand and control nature is what gives us the capacity to carve out a different future not constrained by the fetters of the immediate problems of finite resources. It is our lack of vision and our preoccupation with the limitations of our society that holds us back from venturing further.

As a society, if we relinquish our quest to understand the universe within which we live, we curtail our ambition. This reflects a lesser view of humanity, capable at best of patching up the damage we have done to the planet, rather than seeking to expand our horizons.

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