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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