Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, April 2, 1999  |  Number 7
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Dialogue Box

Physicist Alvin Tollestrup’s open letter to the physics community (FERMINEWS, February 19, 1999) prompted debate in the halls of Fermilab, and brought this response from Glen Crawford, a fellow physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.


Dear Alvin,

I enjoyed your open letter to the physics community, and I am glad to see it is generating discussion in the halls of our national labs. I think you may be right about the "impending disaster’’ in high-energy physics, but your solutions ignore too many realities. The workshops are a good idea–we should all be thinking about the future of our field– but your recipe for jump-starting accelerator R&D would fail because it tries to recreate a high-energy physics culture that no longer exists.

In many ways the situation you describe is a result of our great success at building bigger and better accelerators; unfortunately, the scales of time, money and complexity associated with these machines have increased along with their energy and luminosity. These changes of scale signaled the end of the university accelerator programs when the size and cost of a forefront accelerator could no longer be accommodated in the basement of the physics building or in the university research budget. The centers of accelerator physics research moved to the national labs, and the accelerator physicists went with them. How can universities restore accelerator physics to its "rightful place’’ (whatever that may be) if there are few accelerator physicists in academia any more?

The same problem would plague any effort on the part of the labs to involve the academic community in accelerator experiments, though it’s an admirable goal. Who is going to supervise these students? Who will run interference with their home institutions? It’s one thing to offer students greater exposure to the physics of accelerators and some hands-on experience, but quite another to get these students involved in accelerator R&D. And unless you can convince the universities that such a program would benefit their research portfolio, I doubt you would get many takers. So far, the success rate has not been good, as you know: there are very few university groups involved in future accelerator R&D.

Which brings us to the question of money, and here I agree with you that more "seed money’’ would help the situation. But the "half-and-half’’ postdoc position to do machine-related R&D while also working on ongoing experiments, although a great idea for accelerator R&D, is a questionable proposition at best for the postdoc who might accept such a position. Why would any smart postdoc invest half of her time working on a project that is at least 10 years away when all the other smart postdocs are working full-time on projects with more immediate impact? What university would hire someone who made such choices, when it could have another talented person who would immediately enhance the university’s position (and perhaps, funding) on The Big Collider Experiment? This, Alvin, is why you hear, "We can’t work on that...it will be 20 years to...,’’ etc. Postdocs cannot afford to think that far ahead, or their children will go hungry.

Instead, the money for accelerator R&D would be better spent enticing smart people to move from academia to the labs, as you did 24 years ago, or getting some of the smart people already at the labs to work on accelerator physics full-time. People who have job security can work on making the dream a reality. Once that effort becomes viable, you may find more universities knocking at your door asking if they can help out.

I’d love to continue this discussion, but I’ve got to get back to my PAW session running in the background. I have to get some analysis done.



Glen Crawford

last modified 4/2/1999   email Fermilab