From U.S. to Europe: A changing of the guard on the frontier of physics

A single piece of the Large Hadron Collider is lowered into place by sturdy cables.
Courtesy of CERN
A single piece of the Large Hadron Collider is lowered into place by sturdy cables.

In December 1951, scientists from 21 nations met in Paris to consider ideas for reviving Europe’s prominence in physics in the aftermath of World War II. Most of America’s best trained physicists had worked in Europe’s prewar laboratories. But with Europe shattered, a new generation of physicists had to go to the United States or the Soviet Union to conduct research.

The result of that meeting long ago in Paris is culminating now as scientists at the CERN laboratory near Geneva warm up their mighty Large Hadron Collider to begin smashing atoms and taking back their lead in physics, according to an essay in this week’s Nature (PDF).

And American physicists find themselves where their predecessors were decades ago, going to Europe if they want to do cutting-edge studies. Indeed, 26 scientists from the University of Minnesota are among the 1,700 worldwide who are collaborating on experiments at CERN that will explore the deepest mysteries of the universe. The United States contributed $531 million toward the $10 billion collider, but Europe has taken the lead in financing and building it.

The passing of the baton on physics is but one example of America’s sinking priorities in science. European and Asian countries also are taking giant strides in space exploration, stem-cell studies and other research while the United States falters.

Bittersweet moment
American physicists are not complaining when it comes to the Large Hadron Collider. It offers them exciting chances to explore leading scientific theories of our times and also collaborate with others from around the world.

Observers can’t help note, though, that this extraordinary development comes in a year when the United States came close to shutting down major portions of its premier physics program at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratories near Chicago, which conducts experiments in northern Minnesota as well as in Illinois and other places.

New York Times reporter Dennis Overbye watched the activation of CERN’s collider with scientists at Fermilab last week. It was a “bittersweet moment,” Overbye noted.

“Once upon a time the United States ruled particle physics,” Overbye said. “For the last two decades, Fermilab’s Tevatron, which hurls protons and their mirror opposites, antiprotons, together at energies of a trillion electron volts apiece, was the world’s largest particle machine.”

In 1993, the United States Congress canceled plans for an even bigger collider and more powerful machine, the Superconducting Supercollider, after its cost ballooned to $11 billion.

Particle physics never really recovered in the United States, the supercollider’s former director, Roy F. Schwitters of the University of Texas in Austin told Overbye.

More recently, Congress slashed Fermilab’s budget last December, delaying major experiments and forcing staff members to take mandatory work furloughs of one week a month. After prominent science publications worldwide noted the abrupt decline in American leadership, Congress restored the funding in June.

The buzz of activity last week at CERN’s Swiss campus dramatically illustrated a changing of the guard on the frontier of physics, with Europe taking over from the United States, Alan Boyle of MSNBC reported.

U.S. lead is eroding
“For decades, American know-how has benefited mightily from a ‘brain drain’ of talent from Europe,” Boyle said. “It started in earnest when German physicist Albert Einstein and many of his colleagues fled the Nazi threat in Europe in the 1930s and relocated in the United States. That flow of expertise continued right through the space effort of the 1960s and ’70s as well as the telecommunications revolution of the ’80s and ’90s.”

Today, the United States still ranks No. 1 in most science and engineering indicators, but recent figures from the National Science Foundation indicate that the lead is eroding.

“And it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that when it comes to cutting-edge physics, all roads are currently leading to Europe,” Boyle said.

Michio Kaku, a widely known author and theoretical physicist at the City College of New York, told Boyle, “Let’s be blunt about this: There could be a brain drain of some of our finest minds to Europe, because that’s where the action is. … We had our chance, but Congress canceled our supercollider back in 1994. We’re out of the picture.”

To understand why scientists worldwide are so excited about that European action, let’s look at CERN’s description of some of the experiments it plans to conduct once the collider is warmed up in a few weeks.

Big Bang
The collider is a particle accelerator, used by physicists to study the smallest known particles — the fundamental building blocks of all things. Inside the circular accelerator, two beams of subatomic particles called “hadrons” will travel in opposite directions, gaining energy with every lap. Physicists plan to recreate conditions just after the Big Bang, by colliding the two beams head-on.

They’ve offered convincing reassurances that they will not inadvertently set off a real Big Bang or create black holes big enough to swallow the planet. Instead, they plan to study a state of matter known as quark gluon plasma, which is believed to have existed soon after the Big Bang.

As most of us learned in science classes, ordinary matter in today’s universe is made up of atoms. Each atom contains a nucleus composed of protons and neutrons, surrounded by a cloud of electrons. Protons and neutrons are in turn made of quarks, which are bound together by other particles called gluons. This incredibly strong bond means that isolated quarks have never been found.

Physicists hope that protons and neutrons will “melt,” freeing the quarks from their bonds with the gluons as collisions inside their mighty new machine generate temperatures far hotter than the heart of the sun.

Dark matter, dark energy and Higgs boson
Astronomers and physicists say that everything we see in the universe — planets, stars, galaxies — accounts for only a tiny 4 percent of it. Most of the universe is made up of invisible substances that do not emit electromagnetic radiation — that is, we cannot detect them directly through telescopes or similar instruments. We detect them only through their gravitational effects, which makes them very difficult to study. These substances are known as dark matter, which makes up about 26 percent of the universe, and dark energy, which accounts for some 70 percent.

Beyond shedding light on mysterious darkness, scientists also plan to look for the elusive Higgs-boson particle, which some have called the God particle because it is believed to explain how all particles acquired mass — essentially, answering the mind-boggling question of why objects weigh something rather than nothing.

Secret dimensions
In everyday life, we inhabit a space of three dimensions — a vast “cupboard” with height, width and depth. Less obviously, we can consider time as an additional, fourth dimension, as Einstein famously revealed. But just as we are becoming more used to the idea of four dimensions, some theorists have made predictions wilder than even Einstein had imagined.

String theory intriguingly suggests that six more dimensions exist, but are somehow hidden from our senses. They could be all around us, but curled up to be so tiny that we have never realized their existence. It’s a long shot, but scientists hope to open the mysterious dimensions enough to move particles between our normal perception and the hidden dimensions.

More information about the experiments is available at CERN’s website.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ellen Wallace on 09/15/2008 - 11:55 am.

    Glad to see this; we will be linking to it on our Geneva news site, as a lot of non-US scientests at Cern will be interested in the retrospective here. And we invite you to see our Cern cartoon today by Patrick Chappatte (later: search for Chappatte).

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