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?"

The evolution of health technology. See full coverage

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."

Wilson could have made a case for investments in high-energy physics transferring directly to national security. And in the decades since 1969, they have. Detectors developed in searches for dark matter, believed to make up 23 percent of the content of the universe, could notice a dirty bomb crossing our borders. Beams of particles can scan cargo containers without opening them, or even scan people and their luggage at airports, as is now commonplace all over the world. Beyond security and shrink wrap, we have also seen advances in medicine, computing, and data mining. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, tens of millions of patients receive accelerator-based diagnosis or therapy each year.

In the decades since 1970, high-energy physics has made stunning progress in the archeology of the early moments of the Big Bang. In the same timeframe the fraction of the U.S. gross domestic product dedicated to research in the physical sciences has been cut in half. We are currently in a situation where the next machine, either taking us to higher energy or allowing us to probe this potential Higgs boson in greater detail, might be out of reach of our finances and political will.

When I fell in love with research that summer in an underground lab, I had no inkling of the amount of time I would spend thinking about funding as a physicist. Of course, who isn't worrying about money right now? As particle physicists we need to be good stewards of the resources we have. We need to connect the dots regarding how our research feeds back into the economy and we need to communicate our discoveries back to the taxpayers who foot the bill. There is a solid case for increasing the percent of the GDP devoted to research in the physical sciences, that can translate into advances in massive industries like health care.

Wilson's main point stands, even in our new world with accelerators around every corner: there are no Higgs boson bombs on the horizon. But there will almost certainly be benefits to society that come from pushing the frontiers of knowledge in high-energy physics forward.