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Big ideas. Steven Weinberg addressed a sold-out crowd at the World Science Festival in New York City last weekend

Nobelist Steven Weinberg Calls for Bigger Science, More Taxes

NEW YORK—Steven Weinberg, who won the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics, called on Americans to support research and big science instead of consumer electronics and gadgets. Speaking on Saturday to a sold-out crowd at the World Science Festival, a 5-day series of science-related events and panels, the professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Texas, Austin, argued that a new particle accelerator is necessary for society to "better understand the laws of nature." And to pay for it, Weinberg said that—rather than shift money from other important projects, such as maintaining infrastructure, securing the country's ports, and improving Internet access, health care, and conditions in prisons—the United States should raise taxes.

His speech, titled "The Future of Big Science," was the first of a series of special addresses the festival plans about the history of science, called "On the Shoulders of Giants."

Weinberg reviewed the history of particle physics, starting with Ernest Rutherford's discovery of the atomic nucleus a century ago, and quickly progressed to the need for a new, large linear accelerator, a machine that shoots subatomic particles through a tube using pulses from electromagnetic fields. If built, the next one would probably accelerate electrons and positrons in a straight line so that they collide. It would be capable of precise experiments that cannot be done with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest and highest-energy particle accelerator, at CERN, the European particle physics lab in Geneva, Switzerland, Weinberg said. The LHC accelerates beams of protons, particles that are much more massive than electrons and positrons and that give different types of information when they collide.

"The purpose is not to set records for the number of new particles or energy the accelerator can generate," Weinberg said. "It's to learn about the laws of nature. We know that five-sixths of the universe is dark matter," he said. "we ought to know more about that." He worries, however, "that this heroic period of breaking into the nucleus and creating new forms of matter and developing a standard model will come to an end in our lifetime," a prospect he said he finds "tragic."

Weinberg said his pessimism is based on the House of Representative's 1993 decision to cancel the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), which was under construction in Waxahachie, Texas, after $1 billion was spent. He said he realized then that no scientific experiment is "remotely as important to a legislator as the economic interests of his or her constituents." This is how democracy is supposed to work, he acknowledged, but all too often, short-term interests prevail. Still, he complained that legislators "don't provide enough wisdom and guidance so that their constituents respond to the long-term needs not only of their district, but of society in general. Building an accelerator is a public works project," Weinberg said, "that creates jobs."

Legislators may be initially enthusiastic about such "big science," but if they don't get the contract for their constituents, they no longer back the project. One senator who supported the SSC told Weinberg, "A hundred senators will [initially] favor it, but once the site is chosen, the number decreases to two." The press also influenced the fate of the SCC, calling it "Texas pork," Weinberg said.

Another legislator tried to block funds for physicists to collaborate internationally with colleagues at the LHC, Weinberg said. Fortunately, that effort failed, Weinberg said, but he noted that even national collaboration is hard. Meanwhile, if hypothetical massive elementary particles such as the Higgs boson and technipions exist, they will be found at CERN, he said. The LHC "will settle the question of how particles get masses." But Weinberg does not expect experiments at CERN to yield a "set of fundamental principles of great simplicity and compelling quality that tell us why the world is the way it is."

Other obstacles include the decline in U.S. National Science Foundation funding, which a decade ago supported 30% of proposals and today grants 20%, fostering more competition within the scientific community, Weinberg said. For example, solid-state physicists oppose an accelerator because they, too, are vying for funds. In contrast, particle physicists are "hampered" because they cannot point to practical technologies as outcomes in the short run of such research. Astronomers and NASA also compete for dollars by selling human-occupied space flight as if it were scientific research, even though "it's nothing of the sort," Weinberg said. As for unoccupied space projects, the international space station was sold as a scientific research laboratory and has produced nothing of scientific value, he said. It had an advantage over the SSC, though, because even though it cost $100 billion, NASA probably spread contracts over many states so many representatives supported it, he said. In contrast, the SSC budget was $10 billion and would have benefited only one state.

Weinberg urged concerned citizens to help shift the balance of the economy away from private goods, such as consumer electronics, to education and scientific research. This means higher taxes, a "hard sell when antitax mania affects the American public," he said. But he cautioned that "a society that decides it will only support applied science and not waste money on pure science is likely to wind up with neither."

Posted in Physics, Scientific Community, Policy