Physicists Fear Civil War

Particle physicists battle solid-state physicists over slice of a shrinking pie BALTIMORE--Inside the gleaming vaults of the Baltimore Convention Center last month, 1,900 researchers were giving 1,200 talks, seminars, and press conferences, all part of the usually festive spring meeting of the American Physical Society. But in the corridors, much of the talk was anything but festive. The APS is torn by a bitter internal squabble pitting the society’s largest constituency, 9,000 solid-s

By | May 16, 1988

Particle physicists battle solid-state physicists over slice of a shrinking pie

BALTIMORE--Inside the gleaming vaults of the Baltimore Convention Center last month, 1,900 researchers were giving 1,200 talks, seminars, and press conferences, all part of the usually festive spring meeting of the American Physical Society. But in the corridors, much of the talk was anything but festive. The APS is torn by a bitter internal squabble pitting the society’s largest constituency, 9,000 solid-state physicists, against its smaller but better-known group of 4,700 high-energy physicists. Reduced to its most basic level, this is a battle between advocates of Big and Little Science, or, given the actual size of the funding requests involved, between Big and Not-So-Big Science. It comes in the era of the Great Deficit, so money is tight. Condensed-matter physicists want a big infusion of funds to explore high-temperature superconductors. Particle physicists want to build the super-conducting supercollider, a $4 billion, 52-mile particle accelerator that would be the most expensive single research project in history. The APS has been a powerful advocate for all branches of the physics community. But condensed-matter physicists have long felt that the society has tended to favor the interests of their more glamorous colleagues in particle physics, and they now fear that the supercollider budget will come out of solid-state hides. At the same time, particle physicists fear that their colleagues in condensed matter will say things that could kill the huge machine--and with it the main chance for particle physicists to do fundamental research in the foreseeable future. Passions have risen so high that both sides fear civil war could break out in the American Physical Society. Three top ALPS officials, two on the Society’s Governing Council, have told The Scientist that the ALPS could fission, said one well-placed APS staff member, "There is a real possibility that the APS will split [apart] over this issue...What we’re doing is circling the wagons, and then shooting inward," says Alvin W Trivelpiece, the executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science,who was until last year the official at the Department of Energy most responsible for promoting the supercollider. "It’s causing a lot of wagon-to-wagon damage, but it’s not getting anybody ahead."

A focus of anxiety for both communities of physicists is the supercollider’s 1989 budget, which was crawling through the maze of authorization and appropriation subcommittees on Capitol Hill even as the physicists were sipping beer and gossiping on Baltimore’s restored waterfront. According to Department of Energy spokesman Jeff Sherwood, the president’s original request for 1989 funding of the machine was $363 million, an 11-fold jump from the likely 1988 expenditures of $33 million.

Few scientists, however, believe that anything like that figure will eventually be approved. "I don’t think there’s a soul in the high-energy community that expects the president’s request will come through," says Robert Park, executive director of the APS office of public affairs. "They may get $150 million. But it may even be that the supercollider is dead." Even $150 million—"an op- timistic number," Park says— might not be enough. At that level of funding, some particle physicists say, construction could stretch out for so long that the machine would be half-built forever, and an entire generation of researchers would have to sit on its hands for decades. Few, if any, sold-state physicists question the desirability of the supercollider. Their ire stems from the belief that the Reagan administration has failed to keep its promise that funds for the huge machine would not come from other people’s pockets.

In theory, funds from the Department of Energy, which backs high-energy physics, are treated separately from those of the National Science Foundation, the principal supporter of condensed matter research. But in practice, APS officials say, the two are combined with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration into a single category, and are pitted against each other throughout the appropriations process.

The high emotions have so exacerbated the division between big-science and small-science researchers within the APS that representatives of both tbe Division of Particle and Fields and the Condensed Matter Division have threatened to secede from the society. "I’m one of the people who have said things like, well, maybe condensed matter physics should split off and start its own society," says a member of the APS governing council, insisting on anonymity. "Although I did it mostly to wake up my high-energy colleagues, who are a little thick-headed about noticing anybody but themselves, other people have been more serious."

Such extreme measures are being considered because the stakes are terribly high for both sides. A large portion of the particle physics community believes that without big new accelerator there will be no place for experimenters to do fun. damental research,and high-energy physics will stagnate. No important discoveries in the field have been made since the W and Z particles, the quanta of the weak force, were found at CERN in 1983 And there have not been any major unexpected discoveries since the mid- 1970s, when the J/psi particle turned up at Brookhaven and the Stanford Linear Accelerator.

"Physics is an experimental science," Nobelist Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas at Austin, has said. "And without a big new accelerator, the field as a science will begin to wither."

At the same time, the recent finding of high-temperature superconductors, high Tc materials, has triggered a frenzy of elated research. The new discoveries promise to provide knowledge and applications every bit as important to daily existence as those provided by an earlier gift of condensed-matter physics, the semiconductor. The burst of publicity generated by superconductivity occurred in a field whose practitioners have often felt treated with an unfair lack of recognition by particle physicists. Condensed matter-people tend to refer to particle physics by words like "flashy" and "glamorous," and are irritated by the way the particle people have borrowed theoretical ideas from condensed-matter physics without giving much credit.

"You have people in solid state working year after year with essentially level funding," says one top APS staffer. "Then superconductivity happens, and everybody thinks their funding will increase because of its importance to international competition. Reagan comes in and makes big promises [to increase financial support. Then what happens? Nothing! And then people look over at the high-energy [particle] division and see them asking for $4 billion for the supercollider. And they worry that any increase it gets would preclude a commensurate increase for condensed matter physics."

An early signal of distress was sounded last year by the president-elect of the APS, James Krumhansl, a condensed-matter physicist from Cornell University, who testified before Congress that the supercollider should not be built if the money is to come out of superconductivity research. Although Krumhansl did not speak for the APS and was doing little more than repeating the original fiscal understanding on which the supercollider was premised, his forceful language and his position magnified the import of his words.

"He was summoned before the Division of Particles and Fields like the penitent bishops who have to go to Rome," one prominent particle physicist said. "He promised he would keep his mouth shut." (Indeed, Krumhansl politely declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Further discord was sown by the February 8, 1988, issue of the New York Times, which contained an Op-Ed piece by the outspoken Princeton University Nobelist Philip Anderson, whose authority within the condensed-matter community is bolstered by his important contributions to particle physics. Anderson suggested that the supercollider could be postponed until the new superconductors were ready to be used in the all-important magnets that will guide the particles around its immense circumference. Such magnets might even be so strong, Anderson speculated, that the machine could be built in an existing facility instead of chewing up well over a hundred square miles of countryside.

Coming from a man who has made little secret of his scorn for the glamor of particle physics, Anderson's words created a small furor. "Some of the discussions became pretty irrational," Trivelpiece recalls of a March APS meeting at which he debated the question with some solid-state physicists. "My thinking is, ‘Why spend billions on a crash effort to develop something that will save millions?’ Two generations of accelerators down the road, the [condensed-matter] community may develop big dumb magnets that would be useful. But if we wait one year or two, the savings would be eaten up by inflation."

To futher complicate the debate, particle physicists are less than unified themselves about the big machine. The strongest backers of the project are those 40-year-old physicists who simply will not get to work on fundamental research for the rest of their careers if something like the supercollider is not built.

But some of their colleagues regard the design unfavorably. "There’s so much money riding on it," says one Harvard experimenter, echoing others’ complaints. "Possibly due to this, it’s proceeded in a way that’s technologically not very exciting. It’s a great challenge, but it’s also a boring machine. In the past, big advances occurred on innovative machines."

To Park and some other physicists, a principal root of the present funding problem is that the once-strong lines of communication between the physics community and the government have broken down. In the past, presidential science advisers such as George Kistiakowsky, Wolfgang ("Pief") Panofsky, and Jerome Wiesner had direct access to Congress and the President.

In the Reagan years, Trivelpiece, a plasma physicist, and Energy Secretary John S. Hemington represented physicists’ interests. But since Trivelpiece took over the helm of the AAAS in April 1987, many physicists feel the field has been almost unrepresented.

"There’s no strong scientific discussion among physicists, the Department of Energy, and the White House," says Martin Perl of Stanford, a member of the central design group for the supercollider. "The older machines always had some prominent person to represent them. There’s no big name out front on the collider."

"There is absolutely no disagreement that wouldn’t go away tomorrow if there were adequate funding," Park says, "When you’ve got a starving community, they’re going to fight over crusts of bread."

The outcome will be determined by the appropriations process. If NSF grants go up and the supercollider proceeds at a speed allowing it to be ready before the year 2000, the two branches of the APS will be able to work together in relative harmony. If only one is given a raise, say APS officials, the prognosis for physics unity is not optimistic; if neither group is helped, they say, the prognosis for physics itself is dire.

Charles C. Mann, with
Robert Crease, wrote the book
The Second Creation
(Macmillan, 1986; Collier, 1987),
a history of particle physics.


Popular Now

  1. Can Young Stem Cells Make Older People Stronger?
  2. Thousands of Mutations Accumulate in the Human Brain Over a Lifetime
  3. Two Dozen House Republicans Do an About-Face on Tuition Tax
  4. CRISPR to Debut in Clinical Trials