The nations of Europe, home to Galileo and Newton, are poised to reclaim the lead in physics from the U.S., as scientists around the world flock to Geneva in search of the so-called God particle.
More than 10,000 scientists are working at the Large Hadron Collider, a 27-kilometer (17-mile) circumference particle accelerator buried beneath France and Switzerland, in search of the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle believed to create mass and hold together the universe. Discovery of the particle -- if it exists -- may be announced this year.
While the U.S. has contributed $531 million to the $10.5 billion project and supplied 1,708 researchers, it doesn’t participate in running it and can’t fully share in commercial technologies from it. The U.S., which canceled funding for its own accelerator in 1993, risks ceding the lead in science to Europe, even with its economic woes, because the U.S. is no longer investing in large projects like the collider, said Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York.
“Being at the top is not a forever thing, and too many people took that for granted,” Tyson said in an interview. “We will fade.”
Since the 1930s, when Albert Einstein led a flood of scientists fleeing Europe, the U.S. has been a dominant power in physics. American physicists developed the atomic bomb, discovered the quark and built the space shuttle. U.S. discoveries in physics led to the transistor, microchips and the modern computer industry.
The U.S. is now losing the will to push scientific boundaries, said Pushpa Bhat, an American physicist working at the hadron collider.
“The U.S. is giving up its leadership and we’re giving it up too easily,” she said. “We put a man on the moon. We had a can-do attitude. Now we’re settling for second best, and that’s not very American.”
Last year, the U.S. Energy Department shut down the Tevatron, a 4-mile accelerator at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, that had been the U.S.’s most powerful collider.
With the Tevatron’s demise, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, has become the world’s center for cutting-edge research in high-energy physics, the discipline devoted to exploring questions about the fundamental nature of the universe. CERN, founded in 1954, is a consortium of 20 European nations that built the hadron collider. The U.S shares observer status with countries including Turkey, Israel and India.
A lack of public investment in science threatens U.S. competitiveness internationally, according to “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” a report by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine published in 2005 and updated in 2010. Its authors include Richard Levin, president of Yale University, and Lee Raymond, former chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp.
Math and science education in U.S. public schools lags behind other industrialized nations, and the U.S. ranks 27th among developed nations in the percentage of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering degrees, according to the report.
Federal funding for research and development as a fraction of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product has declined 58 percent from 1967 to 2007, according to the National Science Foundation.
At CERN’s headquarters, between Lake Geneva and the Jura Mountains, scientists work in a complex that resembles a college campus. In the cafeteria, physicists sip espresso and eat pastries, chattering in French, German, Spanish and English. On the wall, digital screens post updates on the progress of the massive machine 100 meters beneath them.
Accelerators, called “atom smashers,” collide tiny particles at high speeds. At the Large Hadron Collider, billions of protons from hydrogen atoms are hurled together at almost the speed of light to recreate conditions that existed fractions of a second after the Big Bang.
The particles are directed by thousands of magnets that are cooled to minus 271 degrees Celsius, or almost absolute zero, with liquid helium. The particles whip around the accelerator, making 11,245 circuits and generating 600 million collisions a second. Those collisions are monitored by the teams of scientists using detectors that weigh as much as 12,500 metric tons and cost about half a billion dollars. Sophisticated computer algorithms sift and analyze the data.
The hope of many scientists at CERN is they will discover the Higgs boson, a particle first theorized in the 1960s by Peter Higgs, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, and other physicists. The Higgs, nicknamed the “God particle” by U.S. physicist Leon Lederman because of its significance and elusiveness, is thought to generate mass, allowing matter to stick together and form the atoms that make up stars, planets and life. Its discovery would help validate the Standard Model, which has been used to explain the building blocks of the universe.
“If we discover the Higgs, that’s arguably one of the biggest discoveries in half a century in our field and one of the biggest scientific discoveries of all time,” said Joe Incandela, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who heads one of the main experiments at CERN. “We’re basically finding why there is structure, why mass exists, why life can happen.”
Because the Large Hadron Collider is in Europe, U.S. business has less opportunity to benefit from new technologies developed there.
Only companies in CERN’s 20 European member states are eligible to bid on CERN contracts. CERN also licenses new technologies to industry and while they aren’t limited to Europe, “primarily European companies benefit,” said Giovanni Anelli, the head of CERN’s knowledge-transfer group.
Among the innovations derived from the hadron collider are scintillating crystals, first used in particle detectors and now part of next-generation medical-diagnostic equipment in France; oncological hadron therapy, used to treat cancerous tumors in Italy; and grid computing, designed to process the huge amounts of data produced by the LHC, and now used by a U.K. company to model computer data for the pharmaceutical industry.
If the Higgs exists, it should have been discovered more than a decade ago in Texas, said Chris Quigg, an American theoretical physicist who was involved in the design of the proposed U.S. accelerator, the Superconducting Super Collider. A machine 54 miles long, it would have been three times as powerful as the collider at CERN, Quigg said.
“We could have done it, and we didn’t do it,” said Quigg, who works at Fermilab.
Congress canceled the $11 billion project in 1993 after years of planning and $2 billion spent in underground construction near Waxahachie, Texas, with members citing its high cost, uncertain benefits and annual budget overruns.
CERN was able to secure funding for the Large Hadron Collider because the U.S. scrapped the Texas project, making the European device the only collider capable of discovering the Higgs, said Chris Llewellyn Smith, an Oxford University physicist who was director general of CERN from 1994 to 1998.
The cancellation “played into CERN’s hands,” Smith said. “People were proud that CERN had taken the lead away from the Americans in this field.”
The Texas collider was an obvious target for Congressional budget cutters, said Jim Slattery, a former Democratic representative from Kansas who said he voted against the project partly because the estimated cost kept climbing.
“It was almost a textbook lesson in how you could lose a project,” said Slattery, now a lobbyist in Washington. “The Congress loses confidence in the numbers crunchers’ ability to project a cost. They feel like they’re being hoodwinked.”
Slattery said the U.S. will still see the scientific advances that come out of the hadron accelerator and he has no regrets about voting to kill the Texas collider.
“The interesting thing is how will this affect anyone’s lives as we go forward,” he said. “In 15 years, 20 years, it may look like it was a terrible choice. Right now, I’m not convinced it was.”
The U.S. is unlikely to host any device that succeeds the hadron collider, because it won’t make a large commitment to a project that it can’t control, said Barry Barish, a scientist at the California Institute of Technology who is helping to plan the next-generation machine. Historically, the U.S. hasn’t collaborated with other nations on science projects because it hasn’t needed to, he said.
“The U.S. is very nationalistic in its outlook and it takes some realization that to do big things you have to partner in ways where you are not the dominant force,” Barish said. “We’re not there yet.”
As CERN’s hadron collider becomes the premiere facility for particle physics, young European scientists are choosing to pursue careers at home rather than work at U.S. universities.
David Lopez Mateos, 29, is a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University who received his undergraduate degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. at Caltech. The native of Salamanca, Spain, said he would prefer to work at a Swiss university when he finds a permanent job.
“For young people, it’s very advantageous to be near the machine,” Lopez said.
Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize-winning American physicist who helped create the Standard Model that predicted the Higgs Boson, said U.S. society loses something important when it is no longer pushing the frontiers of science.
“I would feel just as badly as if there were no poets writing in America,” Weinberg says.