Home » Cosmology, News, Physics » He said it: Impact of Americans’ waning interest in fundamental physics research

He said it: Impact of Americans’ waning interest in fundamental physics research

In “Encounters With the God Particle” (Tablet, September 27, 2012), Paul Fishbane, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Virginia, offers to muse for us on “The Higgs boson, the pope, and the curious interaction between organized religion and big science” but soon turns his attention to the gradual withdrawal of the United States from major physics research, and its implications for the future of the discipline:

Physicists prefer the term Higgs boson to “god particle.” That title, after one of several theorists who around 1964 more or less simultaneously proposed a mechanism that implies its existence, does have significance for those who know the science. The CERN discovery was not a matter of blind luck, like that of a gambler discovering a row of five cherries on a slot machine. The invention and search for the Higgs boson are part of the next stage of physics research, where we attempt to learn the rules that govern the sub-constituent parts of the nucleus and other stable or unstable particles and give us a coherent picture of the basic rules governing the way the universe was, is, and will be. In fact, there remains much to do to confirm and test whether what was found was really the Higgs boson, as well as to continue to sift through the various ways this particle fits into our larger conceptual framework about matter. The machine that discovered the Higgs boson at CERN has a physical scale of tens of kilometers and costs many billions of dollars—so expensive that politics killed a counterpart machine here in the United States after much money had already been spent.

But the fact that the United States has not provided an equivalent machine to check CERN’s results—or even to have beaten them to the punch—is discouraging. Will experiments at a single machine, without a second machine to check the results, be acceptable? This is not going to get any easier. Peter Higgs had to wait 50 years to learn that his proposal was at least partly proven right. He retired in 1996 and is now in his early eighties. Results from modern machines come slowly, and many theorists have wandered off into regions where unverifiable speculation is king. For the worker bees who stick to experimentation, thousand-person collaborations are now the rule. Will the most creative individuals be willing to spend all their time in such collaborations on a single life-spanning experiment? I wouldn’t bet on it.

It’s tempting to look for scapegoats but the reduced emphasis is likely primarily due to waning public attention. The US has not been to the moon in forty years, and life has not been found on other planets. It’s that kind of thing that interests a broad public, even while fundamental physics research would reveal more about our cosmos.

One guesses that these problem will catch up with Europe shortly too. Not all times and places are equally suited to major advances in a given type of science. Thoughts?


10 Nov 2010. ALPHA experiment facility and Prof. Jeffrey Hangst.

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4 Responses to He said it: Impact of Americans’ waning interest in fundamental physics research

  1. News:

    Welcome back.

    The other side of the issue can be put in one word:

    CO$T.*

    KF

    * IIRC, SSSC was to cost US$ 50 bn.

  2. Yes, kairosfocus, cost is an issue, but it was an issue with the space program back in the 1960s. Other things have changed too. An aging population needs more investment in medicine than the Boomer kids growing up did. An increasingly dependent population tends not to be interested in science.

    For one thing, if a person can get a degree or diploma in any STEM field, chances are they will be employed and therefore not dependent. Cultural changes drive this stuff, and one outcome is less funding for fundamental science research, and (one hopes) more for medical science research.

  3. There’s a whole series of interacting issues here, which are hard to disentangle. Let’s start with cost. Scientific research used to be cheap. Einstein didn’t have a big lab. Neither did Faraday. And despite Edison’s huge lab, he didn’t use public money to finance it. However, the Manhattan project changed all that, and today we expect the public to fund the $50bn SSSC, (which was sold to the public at $10bn). How did this transformation from private to public occur?

    Well, it was all part of the New Deal and the relationship of government to people. Clearly defense is a job of government, and the Manhattan project was clearly defense. But then the physicists began to view everything as related to defense and demanding public money, and pretty soon the defense part sort of vanished from the equation. Big government is a like a black hole and soon it vacuumed up all the basic physics research.

    But of course, governments are never efficient at anything they do, and as the big ticket items got bigger, the science got less and less important. Sure, we get Nobel prize winners saying how important the Standard Model is to quark research, and that We Are Behind and must Beat the Russians, but honestly, the Higgs isn’t going to change an iota of Gross Domestic Product, Air Force efficiency, or Afghanistan soldier deaths. It won’t even change the probability of a physics graduate student being employed.

    Does that mean basic research in physics is being abandoned, say, for basic research in medicine? Well, if you are a big government bureaucrat, you might say that. Those are exactly the sort of tradeoffs you have to make when you are disbursing money from the common purse. But if you are a scientist, you should be asking whether any of these big projects should be pursued in the first place regardless of cost. Because what drives science should never be the money, but the importance of the question. And frankly, it is very, very hard for me to see the importance of the Higgs Boson. That’s because no one really doubted its effect, which was to produce mass. Everyone knows that material has mass, and the existence of the Higgs doesn’t change that.

    Rather, the Higgs was pursued for metaphysical reasons, to bring closure to the idea that particles are the basic building blocks of our universe. That is why it was called the “god particle”. And that closure was somehow meant to cut off at the pass all the weird QM theories about wave functions and extra dimensions. But if, like me, you don’t believe that particles are the basic ontological entities, then the Higgs is of only minimal interest. After all, anything that lives less than a nanosecond isn’t going to be a big factor in anything.

    So in the end, all the cultural investment in the Higgs, all the money for accelerators and basic physics research is driven by a certain type of curiosity, a certain type of metaphysical search that is at its base, religious. This is why Cornelius Hunter puts that tag line on all his blog posts. Science is, at its most basic motivation, a religious enterprise.

    And the reason why we see less and less effort on basic research isn’t just cost. It isn’t just fewer STEM students. It isn’t just cultural decay. But it is because our society is no longer pursuing Modernist metaphysics with the same fervor we had in 1950. It is because the religion has changed. And perhaps more surprisingly, it is entirely predictable. Materialism writes its own eulogy, and its very success in the Standard Model, is its own obituary.

    Of course there are still interesting questions to ask. Of course science is the never-ending frontier. But only if it is driven by something other than science itself. And today, we are seeing the success of science kill science.

    -yours truly,
    Rob Sheldon

  4. Robert Sheldon at 3,

    Very interesting. Thank you.

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