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
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
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
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. …