Let Them Eat Particles: The Real Crisis in American Physics

Op-Ed piece submitted to The New York Times (2006)

My heart nearly burst with grief and shame when I first read in the newspapers (April 2006) that the United States will not have the largest particle accelerator on the planet unless the US government (i.e. American taxpayers) are willing to lay out billions of dollars in the next five years. Otherwise, according to a new report of the National Academy of Sciences, there will be a "Crisis in American Physics". This crisis, as I understand it - and I am trying hard to grasp the full implications - means that American high-energy physicists will have to share facilities located in other countries. How awful! Imagine the discomfort suffered by these scientists on their multiple junkets to Geneva, Tokyo, and other international cities with terrific hotels, great restaurants, and incomparable scenery.

However, after further thought, it seems to me that US high-energy physicists have forgotten that public support of the personal pursuit of science is not an entitlement, but a national investment with an expectation of a return for the common good. I don't see how winning a race to find elementary particles will benefit Americans, especially where they need help the most, e.g. developing alternative sources of energy besides combustion of fossil fuels. Yes, I remember the famous encounter between Fermilab Director Robert Wilson and a congressional committee that wanted to know what good the once-proposed Superconducting Supercollider would be. Wilson deftly avoided the question by linking the search for fundamental knowledge to recognized cultural achievements like great works of art or literature. The reply increased his heroic stature within the high-energy physics community and was (and is) oft quoted, but, like many other phrases that slip easily from the tongue and make good "ear candy", they vaporize into meaninglessness when scrutinized closely. Of course the search for fundamental knowledge is a good thing; no competent scientist denies that. The seminal issue is who shall pay for it.

Historically, artists, writers, and musicians have either financed their creativity out of pocket or else sought support from wealthy private patrons. Apart from Bill Gates, who is already contributing some of his billions to socially responsible causes, there is probably no private patron of greater wealth than the oil companies whose unparalleled profits could keep the NSF or NASA afloat. I would like therefore to make the following proposal: High-energy physicists should ask the oil companies (and not US taxpayers) to build them the next generation of particle accelerator. Surely the oil companies can use some good publicity, and the scientists always need money.

Since US high-energy physicists are never satisfied anyway, and no sooner is one accelerator constructed than they want a bigger one - always on American soil - they may as well ask for the largest machine that can fit within the more or less rectangular periphery of the lower 48 states. Beam lines emerging periodically from around the roughly 3000 mile by 2000 mile accelerator ring can supply particles nationwide so that even the most remote physicists in North Dakota in the dead of winter or in southern Arizona in the hell of summer would not have to undergo the arduous trip to Switzerland, France, or Japan (although they might want to). Furthermore, the long array of tall accelerator buildings girdling US borders can bar Mexicans from entering America (which many Americans would like), bar Americans from entering Canada (which the pharmaceutical industry and perhaps many Canadians would like), and serve as barriers to protect coastal cities from catastrophic sea-level rise as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere inevitably lead to the melting of glaciers in Greenland and the West Antarctic ice shelf. Hey! It's a win-win-win situation all around.

Now I don't like to spread bad news, but there actually is a real crisis in American physics and it has nothing to do with whether the US builds a gargantuan, home-based particle accelerator. Rather, it concerns the fact that relatively few Americans know anything about physics or care to, that American pre-college students do poorly in physics and mathematics compared with students from many other nations, and that physics is frequently perceived by those who have taken courses in high school and college as boring and difficult. Physics is the foundation upon which rests every intellectual discipline that purports to be a science. Any mode of reasoning not supported by the laws, principles, and experimental procedures of physics is not a science - and if it is not science, then the conclusions drawn are probably irrelevant to the physical world and unreliable. When a population of nearly 300 million people go about their daily lives in ignorance of sound science, the consequences are....well, just what you see them to be: the irresponsible exploitation of limited resources, environmental degradation, an irrational reliance on the supernatural, and an absurd resistance to the teaching of well-established biological and physical principles in the public schools.

The real "Crisis in American Physics" transcends the parochial self-indulgence of US high-energy physicists. It is a societal problem of wide scale. The billions of dollars that would go wastefully to another American particle accelerator could be spent to much greater effectiveness on alternative energy research and nationwide physics education.

About the author

Mark P. Silverman is Jarvis Professor of Physics at Trinity College. He wrote of his investigations of light, electrons, nuclei, and atoms in his books Waves and Grains: Reflections on Light and Learning (Princeton, 1998), Probing the Atom (Princeton, 2000), and A Universe of Atoms, An Atom in the Universe (Springer, 2002). His latest book Quantum Superposition (Springer, 2008) elucidates principles underlying the strange, counterintuitive behaviour of quantum systems.