May 18, 2004
Revenge of the "C" students
In this Wall Street Journal ($) op-ed, novelist Herman Wouk addresses the serious implications arising from the fact that governmental funding of science research in America has become simply another political football. Mr. Wouk focuses on the poor political decisions that undermined the Texas Supercollider Project back in the early 1990's:
Back in 1993, Congress abruptly killed the largest basic science project of all time, the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas. With three billion dollars already spent, and the project pretty much on time and on budget, our lawmakers cut off all funding, and voted another billion just to shut the project down. This bizarre abort sent a shock wave through the scientific world which has never entirely subsided. The event remains in controversy, but one undeniable outcome has been the diminished international repute of American science.
The Superconducting Super Collider would have been an oval tunnel 54 miles around, where some 10,000 magnets cooled by liquid helium would accelerate protons to collide almost at the speed of light, and thus to wrest from the subatomic debris a prime secret of nature: the Higgs boson, dubbed by one Nobel laureate the "God Particle," a possible key to the final understanding of the universe. Ronald Reagan approved the project, George Bush senior sustained it, and it died under Bill Clinton. Today a powerful super collider in Geneva is being upgraded by a consortium of European physicists, intent on beating the world to the Higgs boson, with the Americans out of the picture.
* * *
Nevertheless, even Benjamin Franklin, a founding father and a one-man interface of science and politics, could not have foreseen how this loose play in American governance might one day affect world destiny, nor how the pace of scientific advancement would lethally accelerate in times to come. It is a long reach from the capture of a lightning spark in a Leyden jar in Philadelphia, to the dropping of a uranium bomb on Japan. Yet the same intellectual curiosity that moved Franklin to risk electrocution from the clouds motivated the British physicist James Chadwick to discover the neutron, and so to unlock the horrific energy in the atomic nucleus. And it motivated thousands of high-energy physicists to venture their careers and years of their lives on the Superconducting Super Collider, only to be stranded by Congress, high, dry and unemployed at a vast abandoned hole in Texas.
These scientists had been the darlings of Congressional budgeting ever since the end of World War II, when they delivered into President Truman's hands a weapon new in human history. The president, an artilleryman in World War I, said of the bomb, "It was a bigger piece of artillery, so I used it." It did stop the war at once, to be sure. The historical debate about his decision may never end, but the triumph of particle physics was brilliant, and the rise in its annual funding spectacular, until the ax rudely fell. One SSC physicist bitterly exclaimed on getting the word, "It's the revenge of the C students." A more philosophical colleague observed: "Well, our 50-year ride on the bomb is over."
And then, with the wisdom of his almost 90 years, Mr. Wouk makes an insightful observation for us to ponder:
I go through the days with good cheer and jokes, aware of dark threats looming ahead for our little global home, probably beyond my time, but close enough. The prime task of today's politicians, after getting themselves elected and re-elected, is to deal open-eyed and intelligently with those threats in the light of the best science. We who elect them bear the ultimate, inescapable responsibility to choose well.
Posted by Tom at May 18, 2004 6:36 AM |
Did not the Germans achieve all that the SSC might do using a newer type of linear accelerator?
Posted by: graft at February 26, 2006 4:58 PM
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