Talking back

Talking back

A science blog, sans blague

Higgsteria: We Didn t Need No U.S. Supercollider


SSC site

“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."

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

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