ADVERTISEMENT
See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 2

Who Said U.S. Particle Physics Is Dead?

The death of particle physics in the U.S. has been greatly exaggerated
particle physics USA, american particle physics, particle physics



Emmanuel Polanco

More In This Article

Physicists find God particle! That has become a common headline since the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva began turning out data. Researchers have been more cautious and have completely disavowed the ridiculous name used for the Higgs boson, but we agree that the LHC indeed turned up a new particle last summer.

Another common conclusion from the LHC work is that the U.S., the world leader in physics for the past century, has passed the torch to Europe and that U.S. particle physics is doomed to decay. But there is no strong evidence to support this conclusion. The U.S. is still a leader in particle physics, and physicists are determined to keep it that way.

To be sure, the steady stream of updates in the saga of the Higgs boson is based on data from the LHC, which is funded largely by Europe. Even so, the imprimatur of U.S. physicists is indelibly stamped on each scientific paper. The two collaborations producing these results—ATLAS and CMS—are huge, with 6,600 physicists between them, of which 1,700 hail from 96 U.S. universities, national laboratories and other institutions. The U.S. scientific community has not abandoned particle physics research.

Nor should you think that these U.S. scientists are moving to Europe. By and large, these physicists are permanently stationed in the U.S. While we may fly to Switzerland for periods of time, we return to our families and jobs in America. In the heyday of the Fermilab Tevatron, the opposite was true. Scientists from Europe, Asia and other continents came to the American heartland before boarding a plane back home. Particle physics has long been an international endeavor, and scientists will travel to the laboratory that has the equipment they need. A migration of scientists in both directions continues today.

The shift to Europe in particle physics research is mainly economic. Any large installation is expensive, and the host country or region will reap the rewards of having the facility located inside their borders. To run a big accelerator requires engineers, programmers, technicians and a host of businesses to support them. Given the economic impact of such a large operation, it is entirely fitting that the host country foot the lion's share of the bill, as that money is plowed into the local economy. The LHC cost about $10 billion to build over many years. That money went into acquiring and installing the components necessary to do the desired experiments. The U.S. contribution to the construction of both the LHC and the detectors was $531 million, a sizable sum but only 5 percent of the total.

While American physicists work hard at LHC research, they also have exciting experiments in the U.S., some just getting under way. For example, among a broad network of national laboratories that investigate diverse questions of fundamental science, Fermilab's sole mission is to study the big questions of the universe. Between the existence of the LHC and Fermilab's budget decline over the past few years, hope is dwindling for a new accelerator in the U.S. with energy high enough to eclipse the LHC anytime soon. Still, the lab has been pursuing a dynamic research agenda, studying the behavior of neutrinos, probing detailed questions of the behavior of muons, studying dark matter and energy, improving and upgrading existing accelerators, and doing vigorous R&D on future accelerator technologies.

These are not mere placeholder efforts. If the U.S. were not pursuing them, the experiments would be done elsewhere because the questions are crucial to furthering our understanding of the universe. In fact, the laboratory's high-intensity experiments will be able to probe phenomena not accessible at the higher-energy LHC and will draw experimenters from all across the world.

This is not to say that the future of particle physics in the U.S. is rosy. The Department of Energy's budget for particle physics had been dropping for a decade when the economic downturn of 2008 accelerated the downturn, and continuing political turmoil in Washington makes for uncertain times.

The questions physicists ask about the origins of the universe and the nature of reality have puzzled thinkers for ages. In the U.S., we will continue to ask these big questions. And we expect to answer some of them.

Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Dinosaurs

Get Total Access to our Digital Anthology

1,200 Articles

Order Now - Just $39! >

X

Email this Article

X