‘National Greatness’ versus real national greatness by Frank Wilczek

From the October 11, 2008 issue of Science News

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In 1993, the U.S. Congress cut off funds for the Superconducting Super Collider, or SSC. After years of planning, two years of major construction and $2 billion spent, the most enduring achievement of the stillborn project was a tunnel from nothing to nowhere near Waxahachie, Texas.

FRANK WILCZEK The LHC is modern civilization’s answer to the pyramids of Egypt.

The SSC would have enabled us to explore nature in more extreme conditions — higher concentrations of energy — than ever before. It would have yielded fundamental new insights into the origin of the universe and the nature of matter, space and time. Thousands of scientists devoted big parts of their careers to the SSC project.

From the ashes of that debacle, a phoenix now rises. The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, a roughly equivalent instrument, has begun to operate at Europe’s CERN laboratory. Within the LHC’s 27-kilometer underground circular tunnel, two beams of protons will circulate in opposite directions at 99.999999 percent the speed of light. At a few points the beams will cross; there protons will collide with unprecedented violence. Detectors the size of jumbo jets, crammed with sensitive, agile electronics, will monitor those nano-microexplosions and feed observations into the Grid, an Internet on steroids ready to analyze petabytes of information as they gush forth.

Bigger, faster, smarter than anything previously attempted, the LHC is modern civilization’s answer to the pyramids of Egypt, but better: a monument to curiosity, not superstition, whose scale reflects function, not vainglory.

A consortium of European countries will have spent something in the neighborhood of $10 billion to build the LHC. (The U.S. contributed about $500 million, mainly to help build detectors.)

As the LHC surveys the territory that the SSC abandoned, the same discoveries will be made, albeit a decade delayed and datelined Geneva rather than Waxahachie. American scientists will share in the knowledge gained, and some will even participate in the experiments, while American taxpayers will be spared the bill.

Should Americans take pride in their cleverness, at getting others to do the work and foot the bill? I don’t think so.

Even from a hard-nosed economic perspective, the picture is far from clear. Most LHC construction work was subcontracted locally, putting the money right back in circulation. Companies and workers in civil engineering, cryogenics, magnetism and electronics acquired cutting-edge expertise and experience. Over the medium-to-long term, building the LHC was probably a wise investment.

But suppose the LHC really was a net expense for Europe and the SSC would have been a net expense for America. We still should have done it.

By failing to follow through, we missed a rare opportunity to make a lasting statement about the sort of people we are (or used to be?) — a statement that people would continue to hear for as long as people remain curious about the physical world.

Explorers and immigrants populated America. Inventors and builders transformed a wilderness into a modern industrial civilization, opened it to the world and exported its fruits. The frontier defined our national character. Today our geographic frontiers have been tamed, but the uncharted frontiers of science are bigger than ever.

Before long, very likely, we’ll see headlines announcing that a great discovery — the cosmic molasses that is the origin of mass, evidence for unified field theories, the quantum dimensions of supersymmetry, the material that makes the astronomers’ missing matter, superstrings, braneworlds … or some wonder that escaped the fertile imaginations of theoreticians — has occurred in Europe, at CERN. All humankind will share in the discoveries, and all should take pride in them; but Europeans will have earned glory.

Today there’s much talk about “national greatness,” usually defined in terms of winning wars and imposing our will on foreigners around the world. I think we’d do better to emphasize a different kind of greatness: a greatness that takes us back to our roots, emphasizing exploration, openness and (yes) generosity.

William James spoke of the moral equivalent of war: intense effort for large goals that can inspire, but need not involve conflict or destruction. We should aspire to be entrepreneurs in the business of advancing human knowledge, not free riders; producers, not parasites. We missed a chance for this sort of national greatness when the SSC became the LHC.

Let’s learn from that mistake. Other opportunities beckon: We could survey our part of the galaxy for Earthlike planets and see if their atmospheres display signs of life, or we could mount a full-scale scientific assault on the aging process, for example. Are we game for some real greatness?

Frank Wilczek of MIT is a Nobel laureate in physics and an incoming member of the Board of Trustees of Society for Science & the Public. frankwilczek.com

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