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America's Future Role in Physics

At this year's April Meeting, scientists have been discussing the U.S.'s future role in the physics community in light of a recent burst in physics collaborations around the world.

Some are particularly worried about the U.S.'s role in particle physics after Fermilab's Tevatron was shut down last year and eclipsed by the early physics research at the LHC. But, at the same time, other experts contend that we've achieved just what we wanted all along -- a stronger international scientific community.

An image of Fermilab with the Tevatron in the background. Image courtesy DOE.

In one of the press conference here, a panel of experts spoke on this topic, and the panel included a Nobel Laureate and officials from the Department of Energy. Everyone wanted to ensure that physics research maintained a prominent role in the U.S. The panel was somewhat divided, however, on how optimistic they were about future funding of large physics projects in the U.S.

Frank Wilczek, a 2004 Nobel Laureate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that we shouldn't expect the next large particle accelerator to be built here in the near future. Instead, he suggested that we need to look either up toward the sky or down into the Earth for particle physics research.

Scientists have been doing just that. But funding has also been drying up for some of these projects. A large dark matter experiment at the Homestake Mine in South Dakota, for instance, lost much of its funding in 2010.

Outside of the United State, research in these areas has been flourishing. Here at the meeting, researchers working on the China-based Daya Bay Neutrino Detector released their first results. While the project featured collaborators from around the world, China has played one of the largest roles -- if not the largest -- in this experiment.

Two anti-neutrino detectors at the Daya Bay Neutrino Experiment in China. Image courtesy of Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

But international collaborations based in other countries may not be a bad thing for physics here at home. Instead, panelist Jim Siegrist from the Department of Energy said that we've been trying to promote these kinds of projects for decades. And we're succeeding.

In my own experience covering scientific discoveries, international competition has largely been beneficial. My most recent story on silicene, the silicon equivalent of graphene, focused on an international race to synthesize sheets of the material first. If there wasn't any competition, the research may not have progressed nearly as fast.

Nonetheless, U.S. science budgets face difficult battles ahead, and we need to find ways to keep funding homegrown projects. The panel didn't seem to present a clear, specific plan for accomplishing this in the long term, but they acknowledged that communication was key. If people don't understand how physics impacts their lives, then why should they care?

Many people are looking at how to most effectively communicate this message, but we have plenty of work to do.


  1. It may surprise most people to realize that during the 10 years of war the US was been waging on Iraq and Afghanistan, we spent enough money to build one LHC every 11 days.

    Imagine, just imagine, if that money squandered killing people and generating hatred toward us had instead been spent building the Superconducting Supercollider in the US for the cost of 11 days of war. Then the LHC for the cost of another 14 days of war. Then the James Webb Telescope (Hubble's replacement) for the cost of 9 days of war.

    And so on for 10 years! Just imagine the advancements humankind might have achieved instead of two ruined countries and a generation of ill will toward us.

    Our leaders have doomed us.


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