Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 25  |  Friday, April 19, 2002  |  Number 7
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The Question

by Judy Jackson

Respond to this week's question:

To: Public Affairs
Subject: THE Question

I have worked at Fermilab for 12-plus years. Often in conversation I'm asked about Fermilab, and the one question that always comes up is, "What good is the information you're discovering?" So what I'm looking for is examples I can give them. I have heard that the physics we are doing and the results we find are 20 years ahead of their time. Meaning we won't realize what to do with the information for a very long time. Anyway, I'd like your help to answer this one "special" question.

Email from a Fermilab employee

What good is the information you're discovering?

Generations of particle physicists have grappled with this question, and many have attempted to address it, from various perspectives and with varying success. At a time when THE question is gaining insistence in the national dialogue on science policy, it may be useful to take another critical look at the reasons why we do particle physics research and how both we and others perceive its value for our nation and the world.

Joy and amazement at the beauty and grandeur of this world of which man can just form a faint notion - Albert Einstein Understanding the universe for understanding’s sake

“What, then,” Albert Einstein, asked, “impels us to devise theory after theory? Why do we devise theories at all? The answer is simply: because we enjoy ‘comprehending’.… There exists a passion for comprehending, just as there exists a passion for music.”

For most particle physicists, this passion for comprehending is surely why they have chosen high-energy physics—for what Einstein called the “joy and amazement at the beauty and grandeur of this world of which man can just form a faint notion…”

Many of Einstein’s successors continue to uphold the view that basic science represents human potential and civilization at their highest and best, the kind of endeavor that characterizes a great nation. While particle physics may ultimately contribute to the security and economic well-being of society, this reasoning goes, its true worth lies in the understanding of the ultimate nature of the universe. As Frank Oppenheimer once said, “Understanding is a lot like sex. It’s got a practical purpose, but that’s not why people do it normally.”

Unlike sex, however, the passion for comprehend-ing may not hold the same thrill for other audiences that it has for particle physicists. In a February keynote address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Marburger discussed government support for particle physics and astronomy.

”The justification for funding these fields,” Marburger said, “rests entirely on the usefulness of the technology needed for the quest, and on the joy we experience in simply knowing how nature works. (A joy, I am afraid, that is shared fully by a rapidly declining fraction of the population.)” (Italics added.)

Is the joy of particle physics apparent only to particle cognoscenti? In a March 26 story on the beauty of physics, New York Times writer Dennis Overbye wrote that while Einstein “maintained that it should be possible to explain scientific principles in words to a child… his followers often argue that words alone cannot convey the glories of physics, that there is a beauty apparent only to the mathematically adept.”

If that is true, it may be awhile before the glories of physics take hold in the general population.

Understanding the universe because it pays off

Lederman: The more exotic, the more abstract the knowledge, the more profound will be its consequences. The results of basic science, however, very often have benefits for society that go beyond the mere joy of understanding. In a 1996 speech, Nobel Prize winner and former Fermilab Director Leon Lederman put it this way:

“In 1680,” Lederman said, “Isaac Newton worked on the abstract problem of gravity and changed the world. In 1820, Michael Faraday discovered a connection between the exotic phenomena of electricity and magnetism, and his discoveries electrified the world. Einstein’s 1905 conceptual obsession with space and time led to nuclear energy and the operation of accelerators for knowledge, for cancer therapy and for machines that provide luminescent x-ray photographs of viruses and toxins. In 1897, the ‘useless’ electron was discovered. In 1977, Fermilab discovered the bottom quark and in 1995, the top quark was found. The lessons of history are clear—the more exotic, the more abstract the knowledge, the more profound will be its consequences.”

The down side of the usefulness of particle physics to society is the unpredictability of the payoff. By definition, the applications of basic science are unknown—if we could predict them, it would be applied science, and those who stood to benefit would fund it. But basic science is inherently risky. Who knows how or when its results will bear fruit, or whom they will benefit?

Perhaps the best-known application of fundamental physics came from the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project in World War II. Throughout the cold war, support for high-energy physics stayed strong—just in case, many believe, the nation needed a new Manhattan Project. Today, the case for a connection between particle physics and security appears less compelling. Despite high-level warnings of the potential impact on national security, federal funding for the physical sciences continues to fall.

“Defense Department Agency Severs Its Ties to an Elite Panel of Scientists,” read the headline in a March 23 New York Times story by James Glanz on the end of a decades-long relationship between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, and a group known as Jason, an “advisory panel of elite scientists,” including some of the nation’s best-known particle physicists. The story quoted the Defense Department on the reason for the change: “…a spokeswoman said the move was in fact a reflection of Jason’s inability to adjust its priorities to a post-cold-war world, where the physical sciences are no longer as important as information and computer sciences to the nation’s security.”

The universe on a T-shirt

Boston University theorist Ken Lane is frustrated that particle physics is a hard sell compared to, say, research on the human genome.

Does all science come down to particles? Not necessarily. More is different, say many solid-state physicists. “I don’t get it,” Lane said recently. “Particle physics is the most fascinating science that there is. And I’ll tell you one thing: there was physics long before there was DNA, and long after there isn’t any more DNA there will still be physics.”

Perhaps only a physicist would find that a comforting thought.

While Lane’s invidious comparison of physics and DNA may be faulted for a certain lack of political correctness, his frustration reflects a long-held view that particle physics has a unique place among the sciences, namely that when you get down to it, particle physics is the basis for them all.

“In science’s great chain of being,” wrote George Johnson in a December 4 New York Times article, ‘”New Contenders For a Theory of Everything,” “the particle physicists place themselves with the angels, looking down from the heavenly spheres on the chemists, biologists, geologists, meteorologists—those who are applying, not discovering, nature’s most fundamental laws. Everything, after all, is made from subatomic particles. Once you have a concise theory explaining how they work, the rest should just be filigree.”

The ultimate goal of particle physics, the “grand unification” of all the particle and forces, will, the joke goes, reduce the complexity of the universe to a single law that can fit on the back of a T-shirt. (“I discovered grand unification and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”?)

But this reductionist perspective, the view that, ultimately, it all comes down to particles, may be in trouble. Perhaps, say other scientists, it’s more complicated than that. Complex systems don’t necessarily reduce to the interactions of fundamental particles, according to some solid- state physicists. In the words of Nobel Prize winner Philip Anderson, “More is different.”

For at least some scientists, a simple theory of everything may simply be irrelevant. In Marburger’s words to the AAAS audience, science is “finally within reach of a new frontier, the frontier of complexity.”

Particle physics and the fabric of science

High Energy Physics Advisory Panel Chair Fred Gilman recently emphasized the interconnected-ness of science in a letter accompanying HEPAP’s Long-Range Plan for the Future of High-Energy Physics.

“One cannot tell where the next scientific or technical breakthrough will occur,” Gilman wrote, “or what combination of fields it will depend upon….An effort to revitalize the physical sciences is needed not only because of their intrinsic importance, but because of the coupling of progress across the sciences.”

As an example of such connections, particle physicists like to cite former NIH director Harold Varmus’s 2000 statement that today’s spectacular advances in medical science would not have occurred without the previous work of high-energy physicists, chemists and other basic scientists.

Particle physicists tend to find Varmus’s argument convincing—but not everyone responds that way. David Kramer, of Science and Government Report, reported on the release of HEPAP’s Long Range Plan in SGR’s February 15 issue.

“As further justification for their existence,” Kramer wrote, “the panel resorted to what are fast becoming the hackneyed words of former National Institutes of Health Director Harold Varmus—that the physical sciences form the basis for many of the advances made in biomedicine.”

The case for particle physics as biology’s best friend may need freshening up.

“From time to time, the discoveries of new particles and new symmetries in nature have made headlines, but they never fascinated the public the way supernovas, black holes, and pulsars did. The theoretical basis of particle physics is less visualizable than the astronomical action of gravity, even when gravity is dressed in its sophisticated garb of general relativity. And the flower-like bursts of tracks in particle detectors are more abstract and less emotionally compelling than the breathtaking photographs of dust clouds, say, illuminated by a nearby supernova.” —Jack Marburger, Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy

The world needs accelerator technology

Accelerator technology starts in particle physics but has applications far afield. Accelerators are tools for particle physics research, and accelerator R&D takes place almost exclusively at high-energy physics laboratories. Yet accelerator technology winds up in the service of fields far from particle physics: medical diagnosis and treatment, biological and biomedical research, materials science, industrial processes and even art authentication— the Louvre has its own particle accelerator. At the height of the anthrax scare last year, the Post Office considered using accelerators to sterilize mail.

Accelerator technology is a valuable contribution of high-energy physics to society’s health, prosperity and well-being; and without the stimulus of particle physics research, accelerator R&D would very likely stop. Nevertheless, accelerator R&D alone cannot sustain the enterprise of particle physics research.

Physics Without Borders

Particle physics is a thoroughly international science. For decades, the scale of accelerators has given particle physicists no choice but to carry out experiments in huge international collaborations at a handful of national laboratories. Born of scientific necessity, these collaborations take on new significance in the post-September 11 world as beacons for open, free, scientific exchange for men and women of all nations and across all borders. They offer an inspiring model for international cooperation at a time when the world seems more than ever fraught with international terror and strife.

Yet the international nature of particle physics raises difficult issues. Some form of global accelerator network is a logical, indeed a necessary, step in order to share both costs and benefits of the world’s next great accelerator, most agree. The technical challenges of such a world laboratory, they also agree, are solvable.

“If physics issues had forced us to put accelerators into space,” DESY Director Albrecht Wagner is fond of saying, “we would have solved these issues long ago.”

But the accelerator itself must be built somewhere. The choice of a site in one country versus another inevitably raises political, economic and social issues that will be far more challenging to resolve.

Message to the world

As particle physicists consider how to communicate the nature and value of their science in a way that reaches key audiences beyond their own ranks, they will need their own clear sense of the purpose of their field. Perhaps even more important will be a keen appreciation of how others see high-energy physics and its value and meaning for the world.


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