The big physics story of the day is bound to be this new report on American particle physics:
The United States should be prepared to spend up to half a billion dollars in the next five years to ensure that a giant particle accelerator now being designed by a worldwide consortium of scientists can be built on American soil, the panel said. If that does not happen, particle physics, the quest for the fundamental forces and constituents of nature, will wither in this country, it said.
You might assume that, as a physicist, I’m all in favor of this– half a billion is a lot of money, after all. In fact, though, I’m fairly ambivalent about it.
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I haven’t read the full report, but the Overbye piece in the Times deploys all the usual arguments: it’s the most exciting moment ever for particle physics, if we don’t act now, we’ll be left behind, etc. The capper is really this gem of a sentence:
The blow to American physics would erode the base of science and technology that has fueled innovation, provided intellectual and cultural inspiration and bolstered national security over the last century.
So, if we don’t spend half a billion on a particle accelerator, the terrorists will win?
The article is a nice example of why I’m conflicted about particle physics. Is it cool stuff? Absolutely. Is it relentlessly over-hyped? Dear God, yes.
There are a bunch of problems with the arguments put forward in the article– physics is always in crisis, and it’s always the most exciting moment in the history of science– but the biggest problem is a sort of fundamentalism that’s distressingly common to arguments about particle physics. The implied reasoning goes like this: Physics is fundamental to modern technology, and particle physics is the most fundamental sort of physics there is, therefore we must fund particle physics or else physics in general will collapse, and take all of modern society with it.
This is really a distressingly stupid argument, especially considering the number of smart people who advance it. Yes, particle physics is the study of the most fundamental particles and interactions in the Universe. Is particle physics fundamental to the scientific enterprise we know as physics? Not really– you can have a long and distinguished career in lots of areas of physics without knowing much of anything about particle physics.
Is particle physics fundamental to modern technology? Hell, no. You don’t study high-temperature superconductivity by starting with a quark-level description of the nuclei of the atoms in the superconductor, after all. The Standard Model has almost no impact on the study of atoms, let alone solids, and learning the mass of a Higgs boson won’t make it any easier to make flying cars.
Look, I’m all in favor of funding the study of fundamental laws and interactions– my most significant research funding to date is via the Particle Astrophysics program at the NSF, after all– but we should be clear about what it is that we’re doing. If you want to shell out that kind of money because you really, truly think that studying fundamental physics is the most important thing we can do with half a billion dollars, then make that case.
But if the real goal is to support the base of science and technology, fuel innovation, and bolster national security, your money would be better spent elsewhere in physics. Specifically, on solid state physics, biophysics, and atomic and molecular physics, optical physics, and even quantum information sciences. Not only do those fields have more direct applications to real, useful technology, they’re also a whole lot cheaper. Half a billion dollars will fund one experiment in particle physics, but it could fund a hundred different low-energy experiments, with money left over.
Yeah, fine, some nifty gadgets will probably be developed along the way to a supercollider. And if we spend a trillion dollars on a manned mission to Mars, we’ll get some pens that write upside down.
The thing that really bothers me about these arguments is that it implicitly equates physics as a whole with particle physics, simply because particle physics is more “fundamental” than other sorts of physics. But that has nothing to do with technology. Physics is the basis of modern technology– computer chips, superconductors, lasers, radar, RFID technology, GPS navigation, all those things are based in physics. Modern particle physics? Not so much. The physics advances that have really had a transforming effect on our world have nothing to do with the Standard Model or physics beyond it, and the sub-fields that drive those innovations will continue to thrive here even if all the particle experimentalists move to Geneva.
Do I think the US should have an active particle physics program? Sure. It’s cool stuff, it tells us interesting things about how the universe works, and it’s a goal worth pursuing. But it’s a luxury, not the essential core of the scientific endeavor of physics, no matter how fundamental its area of study.
If we as a nation were flush with cash, in a time of peace, and willing to fund science in the abstract, then I absolutely agree with the idea of spending money to build an accelerator here. Here in the real world, I think there are better things you could do with half a billion dollars of physics funding.
(If you’ve read this far, you might also consider voting in the poll below…)