As a massive atom smasher powers up, 'Big Science' moves away from the US

The first trial of the Large Hadron Collider on Wednesday signals a shift to Europe of high-energy physics.

Martial Trezzini/Keystone/AP/FILE
The first test of the Large Hadron Collider will take place on Sept. 10.

Physicists worldwide are expected to celebrate Wednesday's start-up of the world's most powerful particle accelerator, the 17-mile-long Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which straddles the French-Swiss border.

For many scientists, including a large contingent from the United States, the project represents a success story for international cooperation on "big science." But it also serves as evidence that the center of gravity for high-energy physics has shifted away from its post-World War II home in the United States.

The shift coincides with a broader US debate over whether the nation is in danger of losing its edge in science, technology, and innovation, notes David Goldston, a visiting lecturer at Harvard University who specializes in science policy.

In some ways, this could serve as a high-profile test of the notion that the emergence of cutting-edge labs outside the United States necessarily comes at the US’s expense, he suggests. "The US has had the lead in facilities for a long time; now it won't," he says.

But, Mr. Goldston adds, US scientific and engineering contributions to the LHC have been significant. And several university-based researchers in the US note that even though the big show has shifted overseas, they are still seeing an increase in the number of students walking through their doors who want to help explore the frontier the LHC is expected to open.

Why should US taxpayers fund such projects? The arguments for spending on big science are similar to those of funding space missions: The effort to do cutting-edge physics research produces unexpected technological breakthroughs with everyday applications. For example, the World Wide Web was spawned by high-energy scientists at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) trying to find a way to send graphics and other data to their colleagues elsewhere who used different computer systems. Accelerator technology has been adapted to make computer microchips. And there are now medical diagnostic and therapeutic tools, such as proton-beam therapy, that have emerged from this research.

In fields such as cosmology and high-energy physics, researchers are tackling profound questions about the origins and nature of the universe from the smallest to the largest scales. But they acknowledge that the experiments needed to address cutting-edge questions are getting too big and too expensive for any one nation to afford.

Over the years, a network of different but complementary world-class physics labs have emerged in different regions.

Europe built the LHC’s predecessor, the Large Electron-Positron Collider. Japan built its so-called "B Factory" for indirectly probing particle interactions at energy levels higher than the accelerator itself could attain. And the US had important experiments running at the Stanford Linear Accelerator and at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. Fermilab’s "Tevatron" is currently the world’s most powerful accelerator.

For the US, this meant that physicists wouldn’t have to ask Congress to help bankroll directly a big-science project built and operated overseas – a proposition many would see as dead on arrival. Instead, researchers say, the US in effect received access to those facilities – and a seat at the planning table for new ones – because along with its high-caliber scientists, it had world-class labs open to overseas researchers.

"There was some balance across the regions," says Pier Oddone, who heads Fermilab. But, he adds, budget cuts closed high-energy accelerators at Stanford University and Cornell University earlier this year. Fermilab’s Tevatron, currently the most powerful accelerator operating, is slated to shut down in two years with no replacement in sight.

"This system is becoming unstable," he says. "In terms of bringing the world to the US, enabling the world to work with us to explore this physics, we certainly have taken a step back." The danger, he and others say, is that a paucity of world-class labs in the US would make it more difficult to sit at the leadership table and threatens to leave the US with little to offer others as a way to ensure US access to key laboratories abroad.

Moreover, researchers overseas point to a lack of stable funding in the US that is turning the country from widely courted partner to an "Ugly Betty" for some big-science projects.

Referring to budget cuts last December that all but eliminated US funding for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), what happened "has severely damaged the credibility of the US as a partner," says Albrecht Wagner, chairman of the board at DESY, Germany’s high-energy physics lab in Hamburg. In an e-mail, he explains that "seen from abroad, the cuts were caused by a fight between the Congress and the White House. They had nothing to do with science strategy" and sent "very destructive signals to funding agencies and governments around the world."

He adds that while European governments also have annual budget cycles, those governments still honor Europe-wide commitments, such as those needed for the LHC or ITER, even when governments change hands.

In grappling with growing scientific clout among countries overseas as well as with home-grown problems, the US high-energy physics community is having to redefine US leadership in light of the growing scientific competition from abroad, as well as in light of the nature of the questions the field is trying to solve.

Among other aspects, the US cedes the high-energy frontier to the LHC, at least for now, and urges strong US support for future upgrades to the accelerator. At the same time, the US science community puts emphasis for ensuring world-class programs in two related fields – the particle-astrophysics frontier and what it terms the “intensity” frontier, where very intense particle beams are used to tackle some of the fundamental questions about the universe while building a research and development base for a new generation of smaller but more powerful accelerators.

The recommendations are contained in a blueprint for the coming decade that the  physics community issued in May.

For more LHC coverage, check out:
Europe’s Large Hadron Collider tests the bounds of physics – and budgets
Could the Large Hadron Collider destroy Earth?

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