Particular Problems


Ever since Ernest Lawrence built the first 11-inch cyclotron at Berkeley, the United States has taken the lead in building “atom smashers” to probe the recesses of inner space. Now miles in circumference, these mammoth machines accelerate subatomic particles to nearly the speed of light, then smash them together. The idea is to re-create the specks of the primordial soup that spawned particles during the big bang.

During the last decade, however, the United States has lost its primacy, many physicists fear. Funding for the superconducting super collider died in Congress after the 54-mile-round accelerator was half-completed, leaving an empty tunnel in Texas and an equally big hole in the hopes of many particle physicists. The next big accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, is under construction in Europe.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 8, 1999 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 8, 1999 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 2 Metro Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Because of a transcription error, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin was misquoted in the Science File in last Thursday’s Times. Goldin said that particle physicists were “wallowing like Job in his cloth.”

Late last month, NASA chief Dan Goldin spoke to the particle physics community at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Ill., which houses the country’s foremost accelerator. His message was not encouraging for physicists hoping to resurrect something like the super collider in the United States.


Getting U.S. particle physics off the ground again, Goldin suggested, will probably require going into space--taking advantage of processes that create high-energy particles naturally.

Times science writer K.C. Cole followed up at breakfast with Goldin in Burbank.

Q: At Fermilab, you said that particle physicists should be looking ahead 50 years. . . . To the particle physics community that’s an especially sensitive issue. After all, the superconducting super collider got killed halfway through because the funding cycle is only one year and nobody could look ahead far enough to actually complete the project. So how do you reconcile this vision of looking 50 years into the future with the practical constraints of the way we fund science in the United States today?

A: Let me put it to you this way. When I was a kid and I was playing ball and we lost the game, the world was over. And my father would say: Are you kidding? You’ve got to think ahead. So we lost the superconducting super collider. The world is not over. If you spend your life lamenting over lost loves and don’t think about where you want to go, you have assurance you’ll never get there.


Q: But the problem that caused the super collider to die has not changed.

A: The problem was, there isn’t a shared vision. The public doesn’t know where they want to go. Because the scientific community doesn’t know where they want to go. Let me give you an example. Almost seven years ago when I came out here I blasted JPL [the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena]. They had no vision. All that JPL was interested in was the last ship out of port. The focus was on survival. So they were guaranteeing that they were going to live in the present and slug it out every single year.

I said you guys haven’t told the American people what your vision is. And never forget: The scientists don’t determine the future, the American people do. So I said I want to see a vision for Mars for the next 10 years. And the American people gave us a Mars program and we’re launching two spacecraft for Mars every two years.


Q: So you’re saying if the public had really supported the super collider, for example, or even if the scientific community had been 100% behind it . . .

A: All the public was told was that we were going to build the next biggest machine. They didn’t tell the public where are we going, what is the vision.


Q: The vision for the super collider was finding the structure of the vacuum, the fundamental particle families, the fundamental constituents of nature.

A: It never got explained to the American people.


Q: Well . . . let’s grant that they tried. The current vision in particle physics is the search for super symmetry or evidence of string theory [in which elementary particles are treated as tiny one-dimensional strings], evidence of higher dimensions. That’s certainly a vision that speaks to the future. How are you going do that if you don’t have accelerators on Earth?

A: Instead of pushing to build ever bigger accelerators on Earth, I’d like to see a wide open discussion. What questions are we trying to answer? What’s the best approach to getting those answers? For example, start thinking about these energy sources in space. Might it be more effective to have a program of machines on the ground, [and] maybe some accelerators and others sensors and detectors in space? What is the right integrated approach? I don’t care what the answer is so long as I see a vigorous discussion.


Q: But you can’t control gamma ray bursts or high-energy cosmic rays, so how do you study these things?

A: Beyond that, we need to think about gravity. We don’t understand gravity, and it’s crucial to understand it. There is no way you are going to limit yourself to the surface of the Earth [in the search for] gravity waves. I would say [this is] one of the things that ought to be a pretty high priority, but I don’t see any rush of enthusiasm.

There are also ways of testing equivalence theories [in space. That is, tests of the equivalence of gravity and inertia, a relationship at the heart of Einstein’s theory of gravity].


Q: You’re doing that already, though. Isn’t STEP [Satellite Test of the Equivalence Principle] a JPL project? Isn’t it all ready to go?

A: No.


Q: What happened to STEP?

A: There is no support for STEP. Because the astrophysicists are locking out fundamental physics at NASA. I’ve had to step in three times just to keep it alive.


Q: So is that why there’s not more support for LISA [a complex of telescopes in space for detecting gravity waves]?

A: The particle physics community likes to work on ground-based machines. People come to me all the time [interested in] planetary science, optical telescopes, infrared telescopes, ultraviolet telescopes. I very rarely get the particle physics community coming into NASA and saying we’re interested. I’m asking that people don’t stay in a rut and say I’ve got to have a bigger accelerator. I’m asking them to look at other approaches. And not get in the rut that NASA was in.

It’s like that movie “Groundhog Day.” Take a look at the age distribution of the particle physics community [which is generally older, according to Goldin, than scientists in the life sciences] and see if you see the vibrancy. I want to stir the pot. [Particle physics] is the most noble element of science. I think they have the smartest people and I’m trying to get them engaged.


Q: Is that why you implied at Fermilab that there isn’t life today in the particle physics community? You said something to the effect NASA already had an Origins program that was searching for life in the universe. And that now you wanted to search for life in the particle physics community.

A: Particle physics offers the potential to resolve [questions about] fundamental laws of physics. It could have a bigger impact on the human intellect and the human way of life than any other single thing. Yet they’re sitting and wallowing like Job on their cross about why they didn’t get a superconducting super collider. Get on with life!

I wouldn’t be saying this if I didn’t have such respect for these people. I think these are the people who have made the change that’s driving our economy now. And I’m worried that they’re in a rut. Privately they came over to me and thanked me. So I’m not backing off, I’m pressing into this.


Q: Well it was a little ironic that you chose Fermilab as a venue [for this speech]--the very heart of particle physics in this country.

A: I wanted to take the hunt to the fox’s den. And again I’m doing it because I respect them so, but I’d like to shake them out of their trees.

We are on the verge in my mind of losing one of the key strengths of the science community. Particle physics has been the lead dog, and they are not bringing the very best minds in the world into it. You cannot hold on to the past because when you’re holding on to the past you’re protecting yourself and you’re stealing from future generations.