U.S. loses ground in scientific research

By Libby Sherwood
Staff Writer

The U.S. no longer leads the way in particle physics. Funding for advancements in the field has been diverted from domestic projects such as those in central Illinois and Stanford, California and put toward globally funded projects, including the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland.

The LHC, opened in 2009, accelerates beams of “hadrons,” either protons or lead ions, in opposite directions in order to study the way the particles dissemble upon collision. The experiment claims to “revolutionize our understanding, from the minuscule world deep within atoms to the vastness of the Universe.” Applications could reach from medical advancements and engineering to nanotechnology.

Particle physics studies the world of the infinitely small, and in order to do so, they must use extremely large, powerful microscopes and detectors. “You need to accelerate particles very fast in order to be able to probe the very small differences,” said Michele Zanolin, physics professor at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University.

On April 10, one researcher on the LHC’s largest experiment, Kenneth Johns, met with students from Embry Riddle to explain previous and ongoing work. Displaying slide after slide of complex multi-variable graphs, he explained that deducing clear results takes arduous work and years of data.

The LHC stands as one of the largest, most expensive science experiments in the world. The LHC is run by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). It lies on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, and runs 27 km in circumference. “ATLAS,” just one of several detectors, would barely fit onto a baseball field, yet many of its individual components are smaller than a fingernail.

“Every time you want to break a new barrier and discover something new, you need to have something that’s even bigger. And that’s why particle physics requires a lot of money,” said Zanolin.

In 1993, the U.S. Congress pulled funding on what would have been the largest collider in the world, built in Texas. The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), as it was named, had a planned circumference of 87.1 km and was scheduled to run at a power of 20 Tera Electron Volts (TeV).

At the time of shut-down, due to apparent exceeding budgets and “poor management,” 14 miles of the tunnel had already been built, as well as 17 shafts that ran to the surface. Nearly two billion dollars had been spent. Critics argued that the U.S. could not fund both NASA’s contribution to the International Space Station and the SSC (estimated around the same cost).

“The whole field of particle physics started because they found out about nuclear weapons. … Now we are at a point where we understand what can be used for military purposes. Everything else is just science. Just science,” explained Zanolin.

At this time, President Bill Clinton sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee to encourage “support [for] this important and challenging effort,” specifically highlighting the benefits of the SSC for the nation’s business, medicine and technology.

“Abandoning the SSC at this point would signal that the United States is compromising its position of leadership in basic science — a position unquestioned for generations,” stated Clinton.

With prices of building and maintaining research equipment reaching high into the billions, the U.S. stepped down as the world leader in the field, and shifted support to the globally-funded LHC.

Photo Courtesy of CERN

“We’re going to cut the funding for the particle accelerator in the U.S. and try to put money into CERN, and send people working at CERN and we’re going to try to be number one in other fields,” said Zanolin.

Meanwhile, the remaining U.S. accelerators at Fermilab in Illinois and SLAC at Stanford will be shut down or transformed into other research facilities in upcoming years. Both facilities use different testing methods than the LHC and therefore are not entirely redundant. SLAC, for example, uses a linear accelerator, and at a length of 2 miles, still holds the record as the world’s longest of its kind. SLAC also conducts astrophysics and photon science in their multifaceted laboratory.

Research positions may be lost, transformed, or re-located, but the lab claims, “Six scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize for work carried out at SLAC and the future of the laboratory promises to be just as extraordinary.”

On April 6, Fermilab’s announcement of a “potential” discovery of a new particle on appeared promising. However, after disclosing that only one of the two detectors signaled anything, their claim indicates a final plea to continue funding.

Prospects may not look good for Fermilab, but the LHC also encountered some unexpected problems. Within their first week of operation in 2008, one of the circuits broke, causing severe damage to a sector of the collider. Although they were able to mend the damages, taking more than a year, they realized crucial problems with the structural integrity of the joints.

From now through 2012, the LHC collider will run on half-power. This means that instead of sending 7 TeV of particles in each direction, resulting in a cumulative 14 TeV as planned, they will be sending only 3.5 TeV, with a resulting 7 TeV. This significantly decreases the frequency of particle collisions, reducing the amount of data collected.

Johns described the current situation: “Because there are so many of these splices, we tried to fix as many of the known, high resistance ones as possible, but still some less-than-perfect ones remain. So the accelerator experts basically say, ‘We cannot run at 14 TeV without having another incident like this. And in fact, we can’t even run at 8 TeV without their being some chance of having another incident, it’s just too risky.’”

Global endeavors claim to revolutionize the field of science, yet it has taken the back burner during the U.S.’s economic turmoil. Faced with diminishing financial support, Zanolin switched from the field of particle physics to the currently more well-funded field of gravitational waves. These days, doing research “in the name of science” just may not cut it.

This article appeared in the May 2011 print edition of The Raven Review.
One Response to “U.S. loses ground in scientific research”
  1. TonyTruax says:

    The US might be delayed or behind other allied powers but they have not lost the lead in my opinion. The article is great.

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