High Energy Physics: Exit America?

Science magazine has an article this week entitled High Energy Physics: Exit America?. It describes the US HEP budget situation, and gives details of the probable cancellation of the BTeV experiment. Evidently neither Michael Witherell, the Fermilab director, nor any of the physicists working on BTeV, had any idea this was going to happen until the day the FY 2006 budget was released.

The Science article is a lot more pessimistic about the future of high energy physics in the U.S. than any of the public reports you will read produced by the US high energy physics community, but it is also a lot more realistic. The underlying reality is that after the Tevatron stops operations in 2010 (because it can’t compete with the LHC), for the first time in the history of modern physics there will be no machine operatiing at the high energy frontier in the US. Fermilab is planning an active neutrino physics program, but this will be much more limited in scope than what the lab is doing today and has been doing since its founding.

The only plan on the table for the US to get back into the high energy accelerator business is the International Linear Collider (ILC), but the question of how such a machine would be financed, and whether it would even be constructed in the US at all, remains up in the air. In a very real sense, the future of experimental high energy physics in the US after 2010 is a very large question mark.

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21 Responses to High Energy Physics: Exit America?

  1. D R Lunsford says:

    Actually, it’s far worse – because it’s something that can’t be fought – lack of curiosity.


    An incurious society is a dead one.


  2. Juan R. says:

    I think that high-energy physicists fail to recognize the point,
    I don’t agree with Quantoken about “energy economics”. The reason of decreasing of interest by society is that High-energy physics is mainly a useless discipline.
    Therefore, it is rather natural to stop its funding.
    Dear Peter, I sincerely think that you are chosen the wrong discipline.

  3. Chris Oakley says:

    Re: The Pauli anecdote, the version I heard was this.

    Pauli dies and goes to heaven. Before St. Peter gets a chance to look through his records, Pauli demands to see God. St. Peter eventually gets tired of arguing and leads him to God.

    “WHY IS THERE A MUON!?” demands Pauli.

    “Well, my son, let me explain …”

    God then writes down the equations and just as he starts to wade through the deeper mathematics Pauli says,


  4. Heinrich says:

    Another reason why the anthropic principle is wrong is the one given in some internet book I read recently (I think it was Schiller’s): Also apes can claim that the laws of the universe are made in just that way that apes could evolve. It would therefore be equally correct to call it “simian principle”.

    From the quality of the argument it might even be the better name.


  5. D R Lunsford says:

    I’m a physicist, I can live with a result. You talk to God, I’m busy!


  6. Alejandro says:

    Which remember me… was Pauli the one in the joke where G-d starts explaining how He waved the universe, and in the middle of the explanation he stands up, signals an equation G-d has just written, and shouts “Wrong!”

  7. Alejandro says:

    Nonsense. Ask Him for a proof!

    Of course, we are still interested on His Opinion about Continuum Hypothesis.

  8. D R Lunsford says:

    Yo G,

    Please ask God if the the Riemann conjecture is true. Thanks in advance!


  9. G.H. Hardy says:

    Good Math is useless, EXCEPT, up here in heaven where I’m forced to work on applications!

    And I take back my apology; if you people had let me asassinate Benito Mussolini like I wanted to…I wouldn’t be stuck in this heaven-hole.

  10. Quantoken says:

    DRL said: “(PS: Did you notice how Q made my point for me? He instantly began a good old Republican harangue on power, and how I was “whining” to dare criticize my knotheaded neighbors.)”

    DRL, you got me completely wrong. I am a registered democratic voter. My whole family is. I have never voted once for any republican candidate in my whole life. I have openly criticized Dana Rorabach, a republican congressman that I think chairs the science committee. But that does not stop me from supporting his view, as well as Lubos, another die hard republican, on the global warming thing. It’s none partisan.


  11. D R Lunsford says:

    DMS –

    It’s peculiar because we were born as an intellectual experiment. Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, even Washington, most of these folks were intellectual titans. The great divide for us came with Jacksonian populism. Like a gas expanding into a vacuum, the type of person needed to settle everything we bought or stole or inherited through Indian genocide was the “man of action”, not the man of sober reflection. And right there, the intellectual experiment ended. A free republic can’t exist with dolts at the levers. I submit that we’ve been in mental and moral decline since the first generation died out.

    Now, we’re just as natively smart as everyone else, but the populist/collectivist stain prevents us from individually enjoying knowledge for its own sake, for the most part. Knowledge and culture is for “sisses”. Math is for “nerds”. Science is for psychos.

    Maybe someone with charisma will manage to get across to the hammer-headed people here that we’re getting our ass handed to us by China. Mabye. It’s possible.



    (PS: Did you notice how Q made my point for me? He instantly began a good old Republican harangue on power, and how I was “whining” to dare criticize my knotheaded neighbors.)

  12. DMS says:

    I have to agree 100% with what DRL wrote.

    As a foreigner, who studied in the US, I was struck (and surprised) by the sharp intellectual divide in the US. In fact, a significant fraction of the US population is vehemently anti-intellectual (larger, I think than anywhere in Europe or emerging economies in Asia like India and China).

    Of course, in every country popstars and sports people are always very popular. But at least in Asia, people with mathematical and scientific talent (like, say a Nevanlinna prize winner;) ), are practically revered. History and tradition of learning plays an important role.

    A couple of years back, BBC World did a worldwide poll on who the world thought was the greatest Briton. Thanks to the large population of India, the clear winner was Issac Newton. Interestingly, Charles Darwin also got the most votes from ‘backward’ India. (I suspect that if Germans were to hold a similar poll in India, Gauss would be on top.)

    I think it is a safe bet to say that neither of the two Britons would be the top Briton in such a poll in the US.

  13. Quantoken says:


    Quit whining. Frankly I think the American taxpayers have been pretty generous in funding science research. The problem is the return is disproportional to the investment. What we get for funding super string theory research for a quarter century? Nothing. You need to work out something useful to be worthy the public’s money.

    What is the name of the department you get most of your funding from. It’s not DOE as you would call it, but “Department of ENERGY“. The key word is energy. We are facing an energy crisis! Oil reserves are being depleted! The top funding priority for the department of energy should be to find a solution to the energy crisis. Particle physicists should be spending their time figuring out better ways of utilizing nuclear energy. That’s where they can make some contribution!

    But on second thought, forget about it. The research of controlable thermal nuclear fusion has been going on for four decades with little success. Even if it can be success it is probably too late to save us from the oil crisis.

    Even if controled nuclear fusion can be put into industry production, I heard that one liter of sea water contains enough deuterium to produce the energy equivalent of 1.5 liter gasoline. The problem is extracting the deuterium would probably cost a couple thousand liters of gasoline in terms of dollar cost, and a few hundred liters of gasoline in terms of energy cost. So it’s just not feasible.

    I just realized that scientists have been singing the praise of one liter seawater equivalent to 1.5 liter gasoline, and talks about going to the moon to mine Helium 3 and bring back. But no one ever meantioned the possible prohibitive cost, which is orders of magnitude higher than the potential benefits. Why are scientists so dishonest?

    The department of energy should shift the bulk of their fundings to researches of biodegration that may generate the replenisheable replacements of gasoline. Which is the only feasible solution to the energy crisis certain to come pretty soon.


  14. D R Lunsford says:

    Why is anyone surprised? Party conversation:

    “What do you do for fun?”

    “I work on my physics problems.”

    “OH! I’m just terrible at math!”

    Americans loudly and proudly proclaim how bad they are at math. They pay lip service to science, but really they are afraid of everything, and particularly math. When we need to “whup the Russkies” we poured money into weapons research by the trillions, and this gave the surface appearence of interest in science. But in fact Americans have always seemed to actively hate science, “mad scientists”, and the spirit of inquiry. Knowledge is the wrong palliative for their overarching fear.

    American science is not about knowledge – it’s about power. We care about science only insofar as it makes us seem powerful. We want to feel powerful because in fact we are trembling little children, afraid of each other, afraid of ourselves, our fellow inhabitant on this world, afraid of everything.


  15. Peter Shor says:

    The budget for fundamental science in other areas in the U.S. isn’t good either. Despite the fact that theoreticians cost next to nothing, compared with experimentalists, the projected funding levels for theoretical computer science at NSF in the next few years look dismal. And I believe that NASA is being forced to cancel a number of its planned expeditions.

  16. Steven S says:

    Hi, Peter

    Lower energies are not doing so well either. Recently the proposed Rare Isotope Accelerator was cut from the next federal budget with only $4 million remaining for research and development. It has officially been delayed but looking at future federal budget projections to me it looks effectively dead.

  17. a says:

    Since 20 years US colliders have not been competitive with SppS, LEP and hopefully LHC.
    TeVatron is a poor substitute for SSC, and ILC will not reach an energy much above LEP. A likely scenario is that US will build TESLA (which is the original German name of ILC) in order to avoid the collapse of its hep experimental community.

  18. Peter Woit says:

    Hmmm, actually if theorists could confidently tell us what such a machine would see, that would be a really good reason not to waste the taxpayer’s money on building it. But we don’t know a fundamental fact about how the world works (how electroweak symmetry is broken) and such a machine might tell us. I don’t think it is hard to argue that finding that out is worth the very small fraction of the US budget that would be required.

  19. Quantoken says:

    I think it is a good thing for the US government to stop throwing money, which is a linear term, towards orders of magnitude, which is an exponential term. It makes no sense especially when the current theoretical models clearly can NOT tell us what we will expect to find at certain specific reachable energy levels. When scientists can tell us without ambiguity, but with an adequate confidence, that we shall find particle X at energy level Y if we do experiment Z, then maybe we can give it a try. Before that happens I do not see why we need to do a multi billion dollar gamble regarding what we could or could not find, especially when the national debts are piling up.

    Scientists are also members of the society and they need to respect the tax payer’s money a little bit more, especially since they are supported by that money, frankly, I think. There are better usages of the money.


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