As a Massive Atom Smasher Powers Up, 'Big Science' Moves Away from the US

Article excerpt

Physicists worldwide are expected to celebrate Wednesday's start- up of the world's most powerful particle accelerator, the 17-mile- long Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which straddles the French-Swiss border.

For many scientists, including a large contingent from the United States, the project represents a success story for international cooperation on "big science." But it also serves as evidence that the center of gravity for high-energy physics has shifted away from its post-World War II home in the United States.

The shift coincides with a broader US debate over whether the nation is in danger of losing its edge in science, technology, and innovation, notes David Goldston, a visiting lecturer at Harvard University who specializes in science policy.

In some ways, this could serve as a high-profile test of the notion that the emergence of cutting-edge labs outside the United States necessarily comes at the US's expense, he suggests. "The US has had the lead in facilities for a long time; now it won't," he says.

But, Mr. Goldston adds, US scientific and engineering contributions to the LHC have been significant. And several university-based researchers in the US note that even though the big show has shifted overseas, they are still seeing an increase in the number of students walking through their doors who want to help explore the frontier the LHC is expected to open.

Why should US taxpayers fund such projects? The arguments for spending on big science are similar to those of funding space missions: The effort to do cutting-edge physics research produces unexpected technological breakthroughs with everyday applications. For example, the World Wide Web was spawned by high-energy scientists at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) trying to find a way to send graphics and other data to their colleagues elsewhere who used different computer systems. Accelerator technology has been adapted to make computer microchips. And there are now medical diagnostic and therapeutic tools, such as proton-beam therapy, that have emerged from this research.

In fields such as cosmology and high-energy physics, researchers are tackling profound questions about the origins and nature of the universe from the smallest to the largest scales. But they acknowledge that the experiments needed to address cutting-edge questions are getting too big and too expensive for any one nation to afford.

Over the years, a network of different but complementary world- class physics labs have emerged in different regions.

Europe built the LHC's predecessor, the Large Electron-Positron Collider. Japan built its so-called "B Factory" for indirectly probing particle interactions at energy levels higher than the accelerator itself could attain. And the US had important experiments running at the Stanford Linear Accelerator and at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. Fermilab's "Tevatron" is currently the world's most powerful accelerator.

For the US, this meant that physicists wouldn't have to ask Congress to help bankroll directly a big-science project built and operated overseas - a proposition many would see as dead on arrival. …