Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, June 18, 1999  |  Number 12
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Frontiers of Particle Physics:

Right Here on Terra Firma, and Out in Space

by Sharon Butler

At a special session at the Inner Space-Outer Space conference held last month at Fermilab, officials from the three largest funding agencies for the physical sciences weighed in with support for research on both fronts. As one of those officials put it at a press conference, "no one agency can do it all."

"The Inner Space-Outer Space concept," said Bob Eisenstein, assistant director for mathematical and physical sciences at the National Science Foundation, "is that an ultimate understanding of the physical laws that govern the universe can only be realized by investigating both the smallest and the largest structures in nature, namely, subatomic particles and the universe itself.

"…The processes examined with our most advanced high-energy colliders and heavy-ion accelerators are necessary to understand the evolution of the universe; and, yet, some of the most elementary processes in nature can never be produced on earth and require instead using the universe itself as the ultimate high-energy collider."

Ernest Moniz, undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Energy, lauded the colliders and accelerators that have enabled scientists to piece together an understanding of the fundamental constituents of matter. Indispensable tools in Inner Space-Outer Space, they give physicists a concentrated beam of particles, under controlled conditions, to test their theories with scientific authority. But these same tools, Moniz emphasized, have been useful in understanding the large-scale flow of ocean currents and in enhancing geological storage of toxic wastes—in areas as diverse as national security, energy and environment, and environmental remediation.

"Our investment in this technology over the decades has been an essential one," Moniz said.

While DOE has built laboratories here on earth, Dan Goldin, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was heady with the possibilities of using space as a possible new laboratory for particle physics as well—a "Cosmic Laboratory." That laboratory could provide access to energy scales unattainable in the highest-energy accelerators of today.

"Are you interested in probing the first 10-38 seconds of the Big Bang, corresponding to energies of the Grand Unified Theory scale? We might do that by measuring relic gravitational radiation," he said. "…Evaporating black holes may tell us something about quantum gravity or string theory…. If you want to study bulk nuclear matter or even quark matter, then neutron stars are your laboratory! X-rays and gamma rays are your probes!"

"My point," said Goldin, "is that we should expand our horizons and think of new ways to answer the fundamental questions of physics in space."

"Think of visionary new experiments to test your theories," Goldin urged the scientists. "You are the experts."

And meanwhile, emphasized Eisenstein, whose agency has long supported research in both particle physics and astronomy, "there’s an awful lot one can learn right here on terra firma."

"Progress in understanding inner space and outer space has been exhilarating over the last century," he said. "Yet there is good reason to believe that the best is still to come."

last modified 6/18/1999   email Fermilab