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Higgsteria: We Didn’t Need No U.S. Supercollider

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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“Europe Overtakes U.S. in Physics Pursuing God Particle,” the headline blared.

The Bloomberg News story declared that the home of Galileo and Newton has recaptured the lead in physics with its pursuit of the Higgs boson, a place in the scientific firmament that was once indisputably owned by the birthplace of Benjamin Franklin. The story goes on to quote an American physicist who works at CERN as saying the nation has given up on pushing the boundaries of science.

The idea that America is losing its mojo as the world’s leading scientific and technical powerhouse has recurred ceaselessly since World War II. When one threat abates, the next one emerges: First, Sputnik and the Soviets. Next, Japan in the 1980s and, in more recent years, the menace of the new Asian behemoths and now European physics wizards.

Is there anything wrong with this picture? Are we really losing it, or is this, to liberally paraphrase historian Richard Hofstader, an example of the paranoid style in American science policy? A book that appeared last monthIs American Science in Decline?—takes a stab at answering this question.

The sociologist authors—Yu Xie of the University of Michigan and Alexandra Killewald of HarvardUniversity—stick assiduously to the facts without advancing any preconceived political agenda. After milling through massive data sets, the researchers find that the alarmists are basically Chicken Littles. American science is in pretty good shape, even if it isn’t the overpumped beast that it once was.

Just a few vital statistics from the book on where the U.S. stands on the world scene in science and technology:

—40 percent of total research and development spending

—38 percent of patented new technology among industrial countries

—45 percent of the world’s Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine through 2009

—63 percent of the world’s highly cited scientific publications

—85 percent of the world’s top 20 universities and 54 percent of the world’s top 100 universities

The authors conclude that the U.S. retains its position as “the continuing, unchallenged world leader in science, technology and innovation.” At the same time, they recognize that things are in a state of flux and that U.S. science is no longer the only game in town. The scientific enterprise has, of course, become global. One example: growth rates for new scientific publications are generally growing faster outside the U.S. Not a surprise, nor a threat.

After a 90-year run as unparalleled world leader, the U.S. has competition. But its sci-techno empire has yet to shrivel into irrelevance. A chapter on American science and globalization sums it up with this essential nugget: “Loss of dominance … is not the same thing as decline.”

Viewing science as a battle of the gladiators goes back, of course, to the cold war obsession with the physical sciences as a means for the U.S. and the Soviets to puff their geopolitical pecs. Those Mad Men–era attitudes—No. 2 is not an option, mon—have not vanished entirely.

The Higgs announcement was a case in point, an opportunity for Sputnik-era scientists to lament how the U.S. could have reasserted global hegemony if only the country had gone ahead with the Superconducting Super Collider, scrapped by Congress in 1993 because of an enormous $11-billion-plus price tag. “The SSC had a big head-start on the CERN machine,” Steven Weinberg, the Nobelist in physics and one-time SSC proponent, informed the Texas Tribune. “It would have been completed a decade earlier, and since it had three times the energy things would have gone faster.”

Left out of that was the reality that Large Hadron Collider did not cost as much and what was the rush, really? It wasn’t as if the U.S. needed to catch up with the latest generation of Soviet multiple independent targetable reentry-vehicle technology to avoid global thermonuclear annihilation. The SSC may also have been overkill. The CERN scientists appear to have found the Higgs and are promising more to come (Higgs 2, 3, etc., supersymmetric particles, you name it). But it’s all a little hazy, a high-energy Brigadoon. “There’s absolutely no guarantee,” Weinberg told Science. “My nightmare, and it’s not just me, but a lot of us [in particle physics], is that the LHC discovers the Higgs boson and nothing else. That would be like closing a door.” The more powerful SSC wouldn’t necessarily have done any better. (Also, see John Horgan’s wonderful blog, which really gives better critical analysis on this Higgs stuff than I do.)

In the end, CERN and the LHC represent the best face of what Big Science should be. Over 10,000 scientists from more than 100 countries pitched in, including nearly 2,000 from the U.S. (Are Nobel Prizes, awarded to at most three scientists, becoming obsolete?)

The SSC was different—and, in the planning, lacked comparable international cooperation. “The U.S. is very nationalistic in its outlook, and it takes some realization that to do big things you have to partner in ways where you are not the dominant force,” Barry Barish, a Caltech scientist, recounted to Bloomberg. Anyway, a machine that traverses the Franco-Swiss border, run by an organization from which the World Wide Web burst forth, seems somehow more appropriate as a symbol for the ultimate Big Science project than one in  a suburb of Dallas, territory that has always had an ambivalent relationship with certain basic tenets of science.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy/Wikimedia Commons

A belated footnote: Christi Keller, Scientific American’s copy capo, and the nearest thing the publication has to a god particle—she lends mass to all of our stories—discovered this essential factoid: “Higgledy-piggledy is the entry before Higgs boson in Merriam-Webster.”

Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. outsidethebox 3:16 pm 07/6/2012

    I recall that when scientists were begging money for the Texas facility one of the arguments was that nothing smaller would be able to find/prove the Higg’s Boson. Were we being lied to then? (Or perhaps now?)
    Then we have the more important point: is this country profiting less financially from basic research than we used to? Something is discovered and it goes to East Asia to be manufactured. On a national basis our investment was wasted.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Spiritbro77 4:00 pm 07/6/2012

    Of course we are falling behind, and have given up in many areas. Don’t think so? At present Russia and China have manned space capability. If we want to reach the ISS or anywhere else in space we have to hitch a ride with the Russians. We’re too busy butting our noses into other peoples business and handing out billions to our enemies in some lame attempt to BUY friends, instead of fully funding NASA, JPL, or any other scientific endeavor. The SSC is just one small area the US has fallen behind. We no longer are relevant when it comes to ground breaking science. We leave that to others. Glad I only have 20 or so years left. I hate the thought of living in a lesser America. It’s coming. Our school systems are bankrupt and failing…..but as long as we can give 1.5 billion to Egypt and 2 billion to Pakistan everything is beautiful. *snicker*

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  3. 3. Gregory CH 4:09 pm 07/6/2012

    That’s right, wave the flag and declare we don’t need no stink’n science.

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  4. 4. Forsythkid 5:02 pm 07/6/2012

    In the end, we are a people living on a planet that is blind to borders. That said, it’s still another low point in the history of this 236 year Republic for us Americans.

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  5. 5. Torbjörn Larsson, OM 7:14 pm 07/6/2012

    What is the rush? To make science more efficient (faster), an investment that is estimated to give high ROI. And it isn’t as we invest a lot in it compared to some other investments.

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  6. 6. geojellyroll 1:18 pm 07/7/2012

    Excellent analysis and spot on.

    I’m not American but whenever I hear folks moan about the poor state of U.S. scientific education, I think…huh? what counts are results. US society fosters idividual initiative and creativity in the sciences.

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  7. 7. rshoff 7:54 pm 07/7/2012

    “Europe Overtakes U.S. in Physics Pursuing God Particle,” the headline blared.

    Fine, let them pay for science for awhile.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Chryses 8:32 pm 07/7/2012

    Yo! the link at “John Horgan’s wonderful blog” Is broken!

    Link to this
  9. 9. Metridia 4:46 am 07/8/2012

    Um, 11 billion total is chump change as far as big science is concerned. We spend 50 times that each year on defense, plus we were just coming out of the Cold War and could afford to shift some money around. Particle physics is one of the preeminent areas of basic research and it’s too bad the US relinquished the lead there, not just because it’s the US’s loss but it’s a loss to science as well- the SSC was a significantly more powerful machine than LHC. I’m not a physicist but given the number of mathematical theories about why neutrinos could go faster than light that came out in the interim between the faulty CERN neutrino detector measurements and the discovery that they were faulty leads me to want to wait and see what the experimental data brings before we get too carried away with explanations about why it’ll never work etc etc.

    Sorry, but the SSC goes down as one of the biggest missed opportunities of US science.

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  10. 10. Metridia 4:55 am 07/8/2012

    And, as far as “what’s the hurry”: in the long run, we’re all dead, is one answer. Another is that by pushing the boundaries of existing technology and science, we create impetus to get to places that we wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to. For example, if only we had waited 15 years to sequence the human genome and done it today, we could have done it for a fraction of the price. Except, we probably wouldn’t have developed the technology to do so without the research market for DNA sequencing technology, not to mention all the important insights that came about in the meantime, across all areas of biology, from the availability of genome sequences.

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  11. 11. LarryW 4:16 pm 07/8/2012

    What might have been the downside to not building the SSC? From what I’ve read, many young physicists who would have worked at SSC, perhaps unnamed and unheralded but nonetheless important contributors, found themselves not gainfully employed. What happened to them?

    They got hired for their mathematically and modeling skills by the big financial institutions and did their modeling for the financial industry, which gave us credit swaps, the housing bubble, and bad risk assessments. Other’s also mathematically sophisticated also found their skills would be more profitably paid in the investment scams than using their skills for scientific research.

    What did we and Europe lose? Well, one was the silly idea that just because the mathematical models are beautiful and sophisticated does not mean they are correct. Second, the $11B price tag for SSC looks awfully small compared to the at least $4T in losses on US-based assets alone.

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  12. 12. Owl905 1:20 am 07/9/2012

    The clouds on the horizon are much thicker than the article presents. The pipeline money has slowed; anti-science syndrome has scored major victories for stupidity; and some of the metrics do not reflect the loss of leadership. Scientists are badgered, hounded, and repudiated by politicians and blog-spinners. Science is beaten and hounded by … BS beats brains.

    It’s a very very unhealthy environment, and there’s no signal the trend is about to reverse.

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  13. 13. Medicorates 2:45 am 07/9/2012

    America is losing its mojo. And not just in science.

    Link to this
  14. 14. gmartfin 7:29 pm 07/9/2012

    Statistics like
    “—40 percent of total research and development spending”
    are useless without knowing the trends. Was it 80% last year?

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  15. 15. Metridia 9:29 pm 07/9/2012

    And now we see that the particle may not actually be the Higgs. It was noteworthy that they only discovered *a signature within the predicted energy range of the Higgs*, not unique evidence for the Higgs; and that’s why they only said “consistent with.” More data is needed, indeed. There is no replacement for high data throughput, quality and quantity when confirming theoretical predictions via statistical analysis. It’s absurd to think that even if we did confirm only the Higgs with the LHC’s energy level that it would be sufficient, given the major incompatibilities between aspects of the Standard Model.

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  16. 16. socratus 11:11 am 08/29/2012

    The mad CERN ’s project.

    === .

    In 1906, Rutherford studied internal structure of atoms,

    bombarding them with high energy a- particles.

    This idea helped him understand the structure of atom.

    But the clever Devil interfered and gave advice to physicists

    to enlarge the target. Bomb them!

    And physicist created huge cannon-accelerators of particles.

    And they began to bomb micro particles in the vacuum, in hoping

    to understand their inner structure. And they were surprised with

    the results of this bombing. Several hundreds of completely new

    strange particles appeared. They lived a very little time and do not

    relate to our world. Our Earth needs its real constants of nature.

    But this was forgotten.

    What God carefully created, is destroyed in accelerators.

    And they are proud of that. They say: we study the inner structure

    of the particles. The clever and artful Devil is glad. He again has deceived man.

    Physicist think, that an accelerator – is first of all the presence of huge energy.

    And the Devil laughs. He knows, that an accelerator – first of all is Vacuum.

    But this, he has withheld from man.

    He has not explained that the Vacuum is infinite and inexhaustible.

    And in infinity there is contained an infinite variety of particles.

    And by bombing the vacuum, one can find centaurs and sphinxes.

    But my God, save us from their presence on Earth.

    ========= .. ========.

    Rutherford was right.

    His followers are mistaken.


    Imagine, that I want to plant a small apple- tree.

    For this purpose I shall dig out a hole of 1 meter width and 1,20 m depth.

    It is normal.

    But if to plant a small apple- tree, I shall begin to dig

    a base for a huge building (skyscraper),

    or if to begin drill ground with 10 km. depth,

    will you call me a normal man?

    ========== .. ===============.

    Imagine a man who breaks watches on the wall.

    And then he tries to understand the mechanism of the watches

    by thrown cogwheels, springs and small screws.

    Does he have many chances to succeed?

    As many as the scientists have who aspire to understand

    the inner structure of electron by breaking them into accelerators.

    If not take into account the initial conditions of Genesis,

    the fantasies of the scientists may be unlimited.

    ========== . ======== .

    The Nature works very economical.

    For example, biologists know 100 ( hundred ) kinds of

    amino acids. But only 20 ( twenty) kinds of amino acids

    are suitable to produce molecules of protein, from which all

    different cells created on our planet. What are about another

    80 % of amino acids? They are dead end of evolution.

    The physicists found many ( 1000 ) new elementary particles in

    accelerators. But we need only one ( 1) electron and one (1 )

    proton to create first atom, to begin to create the Nature.

    All another elementary particles (mesons, muons , bosons, taus,

    all their girlfriends – antiparticles, all quarks and antiquarks…etc)

    are dead end of evolution.


    What was before – “ the big bang” or the vacuum ?
    The physicists created “ Europe’s Large Hadron Colider “

    Please, look at how our physicists made this accelerator.

    They made the vacuum and after they generated a big reaction

    between two colliding particles in some small imitation of the

    “big bang”. They didn’t make this process in the reverse.

    So, what was prior in the Universe: “ big bang” or vacuum?


    The Universe as a whole is Vacuum, first of all.

    === .

    Best wishes.

    Israel Sadovnik Socratus.


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