Tuesday, December 20, 2005

In the beginning?

In 1993, the $10 billion Superconducting Super Collider, intended to be the world's most powerful particle accelerator, was canceled, leaving a very big hole in the ground in Texas, and suspending America's long dominance of high-energy particle physics. The reasons for the cancelation were multiple. The Cold War ended, cutting the perceived connection between high-energy particle physics and defense. The biological sciences began to capture some of the romance the previously had accrued to "the search for the fundamental particles of the universe." But also the public wearied of paying an ever increasing price tag for creating ever more esoteric and short-lived bits of matter. It seemed there might not be a bottom to the search for the ultimate stuff. Build a more powerful machine, and discover one more class of arcane ephemera.

If particle physicists were going to get the big bucks again, they would have to find a new way to package their quest.

We get a sense of what they're up to in a guest editorial by Michael Turner in a recent issue of Science (December 2). Turner is an astrophysicist and Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the National Science Foundation. He writes: "The focus has shifted from searching for the smallest subatomic seed to understanding the universe and the nature of matter, energy, space, and time. Big questions are ripe for answering. What is the "dark matter" that holds our galaxy together? Where did space and time come from, and how many space-time dimensions are there? How did the universe begin, and what is the mysterious dark energy accelerating its expansion? And perhaps the biggest question of all, one whose answers probably underlie all the others: How are the two pillars of modern physics -- quantum mechanics and general relativity -- to be reconciled and a unified understanding of the forces of nature achieved?"

This is surely a more glamorous agenda than looking for the next bit of nothing, and many physicists believe the answers to these lofty cosmological questions are just around the next $20 billion corner. Well, maybe. But big-budget projects in science are going to have a hard time of it while the country is preoccupied with paying for the war in Iraq and rebuilding the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. The present administration in Washington, and a substantial part of its constituency, are no big fans of science. Half of Americans think they already know how the universe began. Why spend billions finding out when it was all written down thousands of years ago at the instigation of the Maker himself.