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Of Particles and Politics

How the Hunt for the Higgs and Other Ambitious Science Projects Promote the 'General Welfare' of Our Nation

SOURCE: Fractal from Big Stock Artist's depiction of collisions inside a particle accelerator.

This summer my colleagues at CERN, the large European physics laboratory, announced new “evidence” for the Higgs boson, a particle that plays an essential role in our understanding of the mass of fundamental particles. This was a tremendous achievement for physics, and a great example of what can be achieved by international collaborations, but it begs a few questions about our scientific priorities here in the United States.

No matter the result of the election this November 6, the next few months will see the nation’s leadership struggling over the U.S. budget yet again, replete with philosophical and political arguing as to the proper role of government in our country and proposals for budget cutting that will have real implications in many sectors across the country.

As a scientist on the front lines of fundamental research, I would like to make a few points concerning the implications of this budget debate on scientific research, bring some historical perspective to the debate, and point out a few facts that you might find relevant.

Overall, my goal is not to argue for or against any particular set 0f policies but rather to highlight three important concepts I think policymakers should keep in mind when considering our nation’s public investments in scientific and technological research:

  • Our long-term economic trajectory is set by breakthroughs in our understanding of the fundamental sciences.
  • Our ability to make good use of these breakthroughs, via technological innovation, also drives economic activity.
  • Public sector investments in scientific research play an indispensable role in training the next generation of Americans with the skills needed to invent, innovate, and lead our nation to a more prosperous future.

Science and the general welfare of the nation

Both sides of the political debate make important arguments about the need to balance budgets and invest in the future. As a physicist, I can’t think of much I can add to these philosophical struggles; as a young citizen attending public school in the 1960s, however, I clearly remember learning the preamble to the Constitution:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity…

These days, I’m especially drawn back to the idea of “promoting the general welfare,” and the emphasis on “ourselves and our posterity.” I remember from my history lessons the many great achievements in technology and infrastructure that our government has made possible through public investments and wise interventions.

Witness, for example, the transcontinental railroad that President Abraham Lincoln made possible, and the federal highway system that President Dwight Eisenhower initiated. Remember the breakup of the Standard Oil Trust in 1911, a controversial government action at the time that appears to have worked out well, followed by the automobile boom. Or recall the breakup of AT&T in 1982, which preceded the rise of information technology. Coincidences? Maybe. But who can tell?

What does seem to be clear is that while the exact path of federal investments and interventions in innovation is never clear in foresight, in hindsight it often seems to have been a wise investment.

Though it is often repeated, fundamental research plays a huge role in our basic economic prosperity. This reminds me of a physics anecdote. In the first half of the 19th century, the English physicist and chemist Michael Faraday (a devout Christian and always mentioned as one of the historical giants of science) made some of the first systematic studies of electricity—then state of the art in physics. It is said that a prime minister toured his lab and asked whatever could be the use of such research. Faraday is said to have replied, “Why, Prime Minister, someday you will tax it!”

There is some controversy over the details about this quote, but it’s an extraordinarily terse way to get the point across as to one of the values of investment in pure “curiosity-driven” research. Can you imagine your reaction if you were to read an editorial in the papers from Faraday’s time criticizing his research into the properties of electricity for not being “strategic” enough?

My field of research is in experimental particle physics, a field of research that took off after World War II and exists to this day. Up until the recent past, this research was primarily driven by what was happening in the United States, leading to—among other things—a great influx of some of the best and brightest scientists from outside the United States wanting to come to our shores, many of them planting roots, educating their children here, and staying. Not a bad collateral benefit.

However after many years of declining budgets in this country for this type of research, the torch has been passed to CERN, an organization located in Europe and funded at the state department level in each country. The United States contributed $531 million towards the more than $10 billion it took to build the particle accelerator and detectors used at CERN to find the Higgs, but the bottom line is that it is now “over there”—in Europe and not within our borders.

As a particle physicist, I now spend a great deal of my research time over there, along with my students and postdocs who work with me on this research. The United States simply no longer is the state of the art.

Origins of the federal science system

But so what? Why should the U.S. government fund such research?

Imagine you are in the American leadership in the early 1940s in a world that is looking and becoming increasingly dangerous. By 1941 the conflict finally landed on our shores. Now fast forward to 1945 and imagine you are still in the leadership. When you ponder with relief all the reasons for winning war, you would surely focus on, among other things, the role of science, technology and industrial capability.

Clearly the physicists, who were not considered a strategically important group several years before, turned out to have made enormously important contributions to the war effort: Think radar and atomic energy as two prominent examples.

To give you an idea of how much the public tuned into this, after the war ended we saw Einstein on the cover of TIME magazine in 1946, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who directed the atomic bomb project at the Los Alamos Lab, on the cover of TIME in 1948 and Life in 1949.

This same collection of scientists who fought the war effort in the lab were then requesting funding to continue their studies of cosmic rays, along with the development of accelerators, and even though it must not have been entirely clear to laymen what they were after, on the heels of the success of the war it seemed like a good investment.

In 1947 the Atomic Energy Commission, precursor to the Department of Energy, was created, and in 1950 the National Science Foundation was established. Over the years these two agencies, among others, have contributed significantly to our nation’s stock of fundamental research.

Progress in particle physics was swift, and the United States took the lead in this research. In the mid-1960s, a group of prominent physicists led by Robert Wilson from Cornell University (a Manhattan project contributor) made a proposal to the government to construct a large laboratory in the United States dedicated to this research, now known as the Fermi National Accelerator Lab (also known as Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, about 40 miles west of Chicago. It was completed in 1967 at a cost of $243 million, well under the $250 million appropriated at the time for building the lab.

In April 1969 Wilson testified before Congress’s Joint Committee on Atomic Energy and was grilled about the value of such a lab. His exchange with Sen. John Pastore, a Democrat from Rhode Island, is indeed telling:

 SEN. PASTORE: Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?

DR. WILSON: No, sir; I do not believe so.

SEN. PASTORE: Nothing at all?

DR. WILSON: Nothing at all.

SEN. PASTORE: It has no value in that respect?

DR. WILSON: It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things.

It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry.

SEN. PASTORE: Don’t be sorry for it.

DR. WILSON: I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.

SEN: PASTORE: Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

DR. WILSON: Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.

In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.

“Worth defending”

Professor Wilson was being too modest. While from his perspective, the investment in Fermilab may have been meant simply to venerate and honor a respect for knowledge in our country, the lab has in fact contributed a great deal to not only making the country more worth defending, but in making the country intrinsically more valuable. This happens precisely because progress in this research field requires the development of new technological understanding, and that new technology will always find a way to be useful, especially in the United States, where people are so entrepreneurial and inventive.

That is to say, the process of scientific pursuit, whether in particle accelerators or on Mars, leads to new technological capabilities, and these capability have historically lead to new business opportunities, creating jobs, and “promoting the general welfare,” as the preamble to the Constitution instructs us to pursue.

Here’s a clear example of how this process works: The enormous quantity of data generated by the experiments need to be analyzed by computers, and the largest and fastest computers in the late 1970s and early 1980s were too expensive and barely—if at all—able to keep up. The mother of this necessity gave birth to parallel computing, using large numbers of smaller and cheaper processors working in tandem, and particle physicists at Fermilab built the first instance of what is now the modern supercomputer—not because it wanted to bring something to market, but because it had a technical problem to solve and found a way to solve it.

Another example: The accelerator keeps beams of protons in circular orbits using intense magnetic fields, and this led to the first large-scale construction of superconducting magnets.

The lab to this day still focuses on the science of fundamental particles and the relationship between the Big Bang and the large-scale structure mapped out by astronomers and astrophysicists. The detectors used to collect the data are the prototypes of detectors now used by the Department of Homeland Security to monitor nuclear waste and proliferation. So, unbeknownst to Dr. Wilson all those years ago, not only has the research at Fermilab made us more worth defending, it has made us safer after all.

The lab is also heavily committed to advancing the technology of accelerators toward commercial uses and has formed various partnerships in both the public and private sector. Such machines are essential in cancer therapy and medical diagnostic instrumentation and have led to development of accelerators that generate intense x-rays used for applications in material science, protein structural analysis and pharmaceuticals, and even art restoration.

Fermilab is also an important Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education center, a resource for teachers and a draw for students, who take to it like a moth to a flame.

Would this research have come out of the private sector had there not been a far-sighted Department of Energy, and its investment in 17 multimillion dollar national labs? Who is to say? What we know, however, is that we have this capability now because we did indeed make the previous investments.

“Someday, you may tax it”

This brings me to the Higgs boson.

Weighing in about the same as 135 protons, the Higgs particle mass is close to that of the Cesium atom used to make the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s atomic clocks. The particle only lasts a trillionth of a trillionth of a second before decaying. The scientific and technological might that is brought to bear to detect such an elusive particle is so vast that it is arguably the most complex and challenging single scientific-technological achievement in history—rivaled perhaps only by the effort to put a man on the moon in the 1960s.

Some people say “So what? How does knowing the Higgs exists help anything in the ‘real’ world?” Well, it doesn’t, but the pursuit of the Higgs surely does. Would you be surprised to hear that the pursuit of the understanding of exotic particles such as the Higgs played a direct role in the creation of the Internet?

It was due to the need of the scientists at CERN to find a new way in the 1980s to store, catalog, and retrieve vast amounts of data distributed in large numbers of individual, isolated computers that necessitated putting the World Wide Web together in the first place. With connections made possible by the federally sponsored research out of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the pursuit of elusive particles such as the Higgs led to the Internet that now supports trillions of dollars of commerce and plays an integral role in modern life.

More than just the data and the network, the idea of a creating a graphical user interface that allows computer users to access information visually via “point-and-click” came from an National Science Foundation-funded supercomputer center in Urbana, Illinois. The graphical user interface is the foundation for all modern computer systems and plays a huge role in driving technology and innovation.

Who would have thought of such a thing in advance, putting together the research from the investments of so many different funding agencies with such different missions? Clearly this shows that it is not only the results of research that lead to important discoveries, but also that the process of doing research leads to new capabilities, new technologies, and, ultimately, new economic opportunities.

Do we know what we will see when we shine a light in a dark place?  Of course not—that’s why we shine it. But when we do, we might discover something amazing and fantastic, something that will completely surprise us and change our world forever—and for the better.

A light in a dark place

In the late 19th century—before relativity, quantum mechanics, and a deep understanding of the physical world—the noted British nobleman and scientist William Thomson, First Baron Kelvin (also known as Lord Kelvin), believed that physics was “done,” that everything had been understood, and that scientists at the time knew pretty much everything there was to know. Well, almost everything—there were a few loose strings that, when pulled, unraveled the entire framework of science.

The 20th century dawned and within a few years, we saw an unimaginable new understanding of nature appear: special relativity, general relativity, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, atomic physics, electronics, and so on. Could this have possibly been anticipated? Could you imagine Thomas Edison’s amazement if he could actually hold and talk on an iPhone?

If fundamental research in science is similar to shining a light in a dark place, it’s also possible, then, that when we shine this light, we might very well see nothing but cobwebs. Often we learn as much or more from proving theories false as we do from showing them true. Failure in science is part of success.

Shining the light itself is a very good deal for the country. It generates new technology (necessity once again being the mother of invention); it is a medium for training scientists, engineers, and technicians, who go on to contribute in all sectors of society; it assists in their education; and it inspires them when they’re young.

Support for fundamental science on a large scale, then, is clearly also a good deal for the country. You may ask whether this is something more appropriately done by the private sector, which is an interesting theory. I would point out, however, that the relevant experiment has been done. Note that Bell Labs (which invented the transistor and much more) and IBM (once the proud host of a first-rate group of physicists, chemists, and engineers working in material science) are no longer in this business of pure and fundamental research.

There are other examples here and there. I think it is also true, though, that without NASA, the aerospace industry would have found it difficult to bring to market the new technology that has made air travel faster and safer for the public and has contributed substantially to our military prowess.

We need these technological breakthroughs, even though we can’t picture them in advance. It is very likely true that such technological breakthroughs only come about from working on problems that are so difficult and so beyond the private sector’s need to know, that government support for fundamental science is the only way to see such things accomplished.

The good news is that there are still enormously difficult and interesting fundamental problems to solve in the sciences, and, if history repeats itself, solving these problems will lead to new and significant economic opportunities. In particle physics, we now have found the Higgs (though technically we have not declared total victory, which is likely to come by early next year) and, along with it, a deeper understanding of nature and how things fit together on a fundamental level. This is, of course, thanks to the support of governments around the world.

From our long history of turning our attention to the stars and galaxies with increasingly powerful tools, we now know without a doubt that a mysterious energy source (called dark energy) is pushing the universe apart, accelerating the increase in the length scale of the universe, and that a mysterious form of matter (called dark matter) is holding the galaxies together.

We have no real idea about the nature of these dark things, but it is a sure thing that fundamental particle physics has something to do with the dark things that constitute 95 percent of all the mass/energy in the universe. What will we gain by studying and understanding such things outside of the cultural and educational benefits of inspiring us all, especially our young?

Such a question was asked before , and years later we can’t imagine why. So it will be asked again, and it will be déjà vu once more.

Investing in our future

I believe all of these arguments make the support of science and technology a great investment for our future. Given that a vast majority of the big public policy issues involve science and technology, fundamental research is surely worth protecting while the political animals fight it out.

Can I guarantee a return on such an investment? Of course not. But then again maybe Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist and Nobel Laureate Robert Solow is right: Maybe half of the U.S. economic growth contributing to the gross domestic product since World War II is due to science and technology, which makes it a pretty good investment, if you ask me.

Would cutting nearly $4 billion in science via the budget sequestration hurt the nation irreparably? In the short run, it might be hard to see the impact, aside from the many out-of-work young scientists. Though difficult to measure, the consequences would be significant in the long run.

The $538 million in cuts to the National Science Foundation under sequestration would be equivalent to defunding 13 of the top 50 American research programs entirely. It would be like shutting down Florida State University, Harvard University, Oregon State University, Iowa State University, Ohio State University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Southern California, Virginia Tech University, University of Florida, University of Indiana, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, University of Hawaii, and University of Tennessee—combined. Put another way, the cuts would be the equivalent of cutting nearly half of the entire National Science Foundation budget for mathematical and physical sciences across the entire country.

Is this the way we want to prepare for the future? Such cuts will inevitably turn many young scientists away from their current career path and deter others from even trying. We will fall further behind in training the innovators of tomorrow.

Cuts today mean fewer discoveries and fewer teachers tomorrow, fewer technological breakthroughs, a lower rate of economic growth, fewer new industries and fewer jobs. That is the road to mediocrity and second-tier status in the global innovation economy.

For all these reasons, I believe we should think twice—or maybe three or four times—about whether drastic cuts in our nation’s support for research in science is in our best interest. Cutting investments in fundamental science today may be equivalent to shooting ourselves in the foot tomorrow.

Even in a country such as ours, with all of our natural beauty and enviable freedoms, investing in science and technology makes the country more worth defending.

Drew Baden is a Professor of Physics and Chair of the Physics Department at the University of Maryland in College Park, and a Fellow of the American Physical Society.  His research focus is in particle physics and he is a member of an international team of scientists at CERN involved with the July 2012 observation of the Higgs boson. Orbital Model and Lamp in Hand images via


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