High-Energy Physics Is Still a Worthwhile Investment

Since the 1970s, the fraction of the U.S. gross domestic product dedicated to research in the physical sciences has been cut in half. Beyond bombs and indulgence of scientific curiosity, there are practical uses for particle physics in advancing health care and everyday life.

Denis Balibouse/Reuters

What do shrink wrap on turkeys, fast-drying ink on cereal boxes, and the targeted radiation of tumors have in common? They come from technology first developed by physicists for a far less practical purpose. High-energy physicists use beams of accelerated particles to hunt for what might sound like science fiction -- Higgs bosons, extra dimensions, dark matter, and other exotic particles -- but these days, accelerated beams are strengthening shrink wrap too.

I became aware of accelerators as a sophomore physics student at Harvard. A job opening appeared in a high-energy physics lab. I felt like a fish out of water in physics, though I was fascinated by it, and figured a research-related position would decide things one way or the other.

My interview in Professor Melissa Franklin's office was brief. She didn't really look up at me from changing her son's diaper. She pointed out to him that I wasn't wearing any socks before asking me, "Do you drop things?"

Before I could answer, she added, "Are you nice?"

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I mumbled something about dropping things about as much as most people and, recovering a bit, claimed to be nicer than average. The job was mine. (Over a decade later, changing my son's diaper while giving a presentation to colleagues over audio on my laptop, it occurred to me how prescient that interview really was -- just a day in the life of a physicist.)

Professor Franklin was instrumental in the 1995 top quark discovery at Fermilab's TeVatron. An hour's drive west of Chicago, the highest energy accelerator in the world was being prepped to run at even higher energy. It would crank out thousands of these bizarrely massive top quarks so that physicists could study the strange beasts. There was also hope that the Fermilab's teams could find the elusive Higgs boson.

My job was cleaning, gluing, and some heavily supervised machining, working on the upgrade of one of the experiments that would study the proton, anti-proton collisions that the TeVatron would provide. I spent a summer in the underground high-energy physics lab at Harvard and the following summer at Fermilab. Hardware and electronics from the 60s and 70s that were incomprehensible and intimidating at first, eventually morphed into the mental equivalent of old pillows on squishy couches. I started to feel at home in those cavernous assembly halls, and got totally hooked on particle physics.

The decision to build the TeVatron was hotly debated in Congress in 1969. The field that was still associated with the development of the atomic bomb and nuclear energy was turning back to less practical work and losing its obvious priority in the budget. Robert R. Wilson, physicist and founding Fermilab director, was asked what this new technology to probe fundamental forces of nature had to do with the nation's security. He said, "It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending."

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Sarah Demers is an assistant professor of physics at Yale University.

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