The God Particle And The End Of American Excellence

Then the LORD awaked as one out of sleep, and like a mighty man that shouteth by reason of wine. And he smote his enemies in the hinder parts: he put them to a perpetual reproach.”

—Psalm 78:65,66

f all places, the God particle may have been discovered in increasingly godless Europe, rather than here in God-obsessed America.

God is funny that way, I guess.

Oh, American physicists seemed to be getting close, but it was the Large Hadron Collider that sits on the border of Switzerland and France that gave the Europeans the edge.

Here at home, small-minded, short-sighted legislators, bent on deficit reduction in the 1990s, killed our own Superconducting Supercollider—all 54 miles of it—which was located south of Dallas, in God’s country. Here’s the way The New York Times reported the death of the collider, and maybe the death of America’s preeminence in high-end science:

Critics did not argue today that the Supercollider was bad science or even a waste of money. What killed the program was their assertion that the taxpayers could no longer afford it.

And that was in 1993! Just think how endangered is American science in the Age of the Tea Party.  Our largest collider, located at Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Illinois, was killed last year, and here’s the way the Department of Energy explained why the government could not keep it running:

Unfortunately, the current budgetary climate is very challenging and additional funding has not been identified.

That is America these days. We are just too damned poor to bother with things like discovering the secrets of the universe. By God, we’ve got millionaires and billionaires to take care of!  Tax cuts for the rich, not unlocking the secrets of nature, is what drives our politics at the moment.

For those out there who still care about science and, more important, who still care about America being a place that attracts world-class scientists to live and love, I present an extensive excerpt from Nobel-totin’ physicist and University of Texas professor Steven Weinberg, whose excellent essay, The Crisis of Big Science, can also be read as The Crisis of American Excellence:

Big science is in competition for government funds, not only with manned space flight, and with various programs of real science, but also with many other things that we need government to do. We don’t spend enough on education to make becoming a teacher an attractive career choice for our best college graduates. Our passenger rail lines and Internet services look increasingly poor compared with what one finds in Europe and East Asia. We don’t have enough patent inspectors to process new patent applications without endless delays. The overcrowding and understaffing in some of our prisons amount to cruel and unusual punishment. We have a shortage of judges, so that civil suits take years to be heard.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, moreover, doesn’t have enough staff to win cases against the corporations it is charged to regulate. There aren’t enough drug rehabilitation centers to treat addicts who want to be treated. We have fewer policemen and firemen than before September 11. Many people in America cannot count on adequate medical care. And so on. In fact, many of these other responsibilities of government have been treated worse in the present Congress than science. All these problems will become more severe if current legislation forces an 8 percent sequestration—or reduction, in effect—of nonmilitary spending after this year.

We had better not try to defend science by attacking spending on these other needs. We would lose, and would deserve to lose. Some years ago I found myself at dinner with a member of the Appropriations Committee of the Texas House of Representatives. I was impressed when she spoke eloquently about the need to spend money to improve higher education in Texas. What professor at a state university wouldn’t want to hear that? I naively asked what new source of revenue she would propose to tap. She answered, “Oh, no, I don’t want to raise taxes. We can take the money from health care.” This is not a position we should be in.

It seems to me that what is really needed is not more special pleading for one or another particular public good, but for all the people who care about these things to unite in restoring higher and more progressive tax rates, especially on investment income. I am not an economist, but I talk to economists, and I gather that dollar for dollar, government spending stimulates the economy more than tax cuts. It is simply a fallacy to say that we cannot afford increased government spending. But given the anti-tax mania that seems to be gripping the public, views like these are political poison. This is the real crisis, and not just for science.

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13 Comments

  1. ansonburlingame

     /  July 5, 2012

    To all,

    I assume you noted that the CERN collider was built in 1954!!!! I believe we have one of similar size around Chicago today. I would also assume that of the 5,000 or so working in Europe are Americans and many others as well are American trained in high end physics!!

    This blog could also bemoan our lack of funding for SPACE exploration as well, I suppose. As the folks on the “Space Coast” in Fl how they might feel about those budget cuts. “Houston” may be taking some hits as well.

    It is all a matter or prioritization. I doubt there is any federal spending that you progressives don’t like unless it is for the DOD.

    Now back to the “highest and most regressive TAX every before applied to American citizens……..”!!!! Why don’t you complain about that one?

    Anson

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    • Because your “highest and most regressive TAX every [sic] before applied to American citizens” is a goddamned lie, Anson. That’s why I’m not complaining about it.

      And by the way, if you had bothered to read the post carefully, you would see that the one near Chicago is no longer operating, thanks to a lack of funding.

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      • ansonburlingame

         /  July 9, 2012

        The Chicago super collider was shutdown in Sept 2011 on you know who’s “watch”. The CERN became to “collider of choice” for the world and I am sure many at Chicago are now working at CERN. As well plans are in place to use many of the things in Chicago for other experiments according to Wikipedia.

        I also now acknowledge that ACA was the the “highest” tax hike every placed on Americans, but considering who is going to pay for HC insurance now by government decree, the regressiveness of ACA sure seems like a good point. As well “one of the highest” seems approriate as well.

        Anson

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  2. Jane Reaction

     /  July 5, 2012

    No surprise to Jane that Cpl. Anson gets it wrong, again. How easy to check out the facts, how hidebound the ignorant.

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  3. Duane,

    I join with you in sending kudos to the Scientists in Europe for finally confirming the “God Particle,” or the “Goddam Particle” as say they used to call it because it was so hard to detect. Anyway, the discovery now proves beyond any reasonable doubt that the only true religion is Pantheism. Bible Belt proselytizers take note.

    It should not be surprising that science education, along with education itself, is a low priority in the current Congress. They seem to be more interested in prosecuting ballplayers and Attorneys General these days.

    Herb

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  4. I not only agree with Professor Weinberg’s assessment of the state of science, but I have long had similar opinions, going back to the 1970’s at which time a number of policy makers reflected on the end of the Apollo missions. The public of course, then and now, has been enthralled with the adventurous aspect of manned space flight, and high drama it surely was. And, there’s no question that the Moon missions benefitted engineering, communications and materials sciences through inventions and spin-offs. But all that was fundamentally the effect of government investment in hundreds of companies and thousands of engineers and scientists. The Apollo missions were basically a large jobs program for scientists and engineers. It would have been more efficient to do that investment directly, but there would never have been public support for that kind of spending merely for inventions and technology – it was only the public elan for manned space and for competing with the Soviets, that garnered public support.

    Today some seem to consider criticism of the manned space program to verge on unpatriotic, and yet when you try to list its accomplishments, they amount to little more than having learned about the deleterious effects of weightlessness and confinement on human physiology, plus the vehicles themselves of course. Except for its spectacular view the ISS is little more than the world’s most expensive Motel 6. And the verdict on living in space is profoundly depressing. It is quite limited, dangerous, and very bad for health. Yet, today the public is generally supportive of manned space while the nation’s infrastructure crumbles and science, real science of all kinds as denoted in this post, suffers.

    I’m really not sure what to think about this “discovery” of the Higgs boson. The study of fundamental particles has gotten so esoteric and arcane that I can’t relate it to my own real world. I have an understanding of nuclear fission and nuclear fusion, or at least I can make models in my mind that seem to track what happens, but quarks and the other particles with their strange names, up, down, beauty and so forth, don’t relate to anything I know. The only reason I have faith in these physicists is in reading that they can predict the results of experiments and that they can achieve consensus among their international selves. I will always believe that human curiosity is one of the most worthy attributes of our species.

    One thing the Higgs boson story does highlight is that our two principal political parties have never been farther apart relative to the support of science and technology. The Democratic Party strongly supports it, the other, not so much (exception: weapons systems). As chance would have it, my Dilbert day calendar for today had this exchange between “Dogbert the CEO” and the Pointy-haired Boss:

    Dogbert: “We’ll build a factory in every state. Politicians will vote to throw huge pork projects our way to benefit their home states.”

    Pointy-haired Boss: “You’re turning capitalism against democracy.”

    Dogbert: “You say weiner, I say winner.”

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    • Jim,

      I don’t know of the dollar value of the benefits from our space program, but some say there is a 7 dollar return for every dollar spent on NASA. For a partial list of the benefits, here’s an excerpt from the NASA site: http://www.nasa.gov/50th/50th_magazine/benefits.html:

      “The areas in which NASA-developed technologies benefit society can broadly be defined as: health and medicine, transportation, public safety, consumer goods, environmental and agricultural resources, computer technology and industrial productivity. Since 1976, the annual NASA publication Spinoff has detailed the influence and impact on society of agency activities. More detail on these and other programs, technologies and spinoffs can be accessed through NASA’s Spinoff data base or accessed on NASA’s Web site, http://www.nasa.gov. Also, since 1990, NASA has recognized its “Government and Commercial Invention of the Year” and, since 1994, the “Software of the Year.” The following examples, shown by the year they were published in Spinoff, are merely indicative of NASA’s positive societal impact over the years.

      1978: Teflon-coated fiberglass developed in the 1970s as a new fabric for astronaut spacesuits has been used as a permanent roofing material for buildings and stadiums worldwide. (By the way, contrary to urban myth, NASA did not invent Teflon.)

      1982: Astronauts working on the lunar surface wore liquid-cooled garments under their space suits to protect them from temperatures approaching 250 degrees Fahrenheit. These garments, further developed and refined by NASA’s Johnson Space Center, are among the agency’s most widely used spinoffs, with adaptations for portable cooling systems for treatment of medical ailments such as burning limb syndrome, multiple sclerosis, spinal injuries and sports injuries.

      1986: A joint National Bureau of Standards/NASA project directed at the Johnson Space Center resulted in a lightweight breathing system for firefighters. Now widely used in breathing apparatuses, the NASA technology is credited with significant reductions in inhalation injuries to the people who protect us.

      1991: Tapping three separate NASA-developed technologies in the design and testing of its school bus chassis, a Chicago-based company was able to create a safer, more reliable, advanced chassis, which now has a large market share for this form of transportation.

      1994: Relying on technologies created for servicing spacecraft, a Santa Barbara-based company developed a mechanical arm that allows surgeons to operate three instruments simultaneously, while performing laparoscopic surgery. In 2001, the first complete robotic surgical operation proved successful, when a team of doctors in New York removed the gallbladder of a woman in France using the Computer Motion equipment.

      1995: Dr. Michael DeBakey of the Baylor College of Medicine teamed up with Johnson Space Center engineer David Saucier to develop an artificial heart pump – based on the design of NASA’s space shuttle main engine fuel pumps – that supplements the heart’s pumping capacity in the left ventricle. Later, a team at Ames Research Center modeled the blood flow, and improved the design to avoid harm to blood cells. The DeBakey Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) can maintain the heart in a stable condition in patients requiring a transplant until a donor is found, which can range from one month to a year. Sometimes, permanent implantation of the LVAD can negate the need for a transplant. Bernard Rosenbaum, a Johnson Space Center propulsion engineer who worked with the DeBakey-Saucier group said, “I came to NASA in the early 1960s as we worked to land men on the moon, and I never dreamed I would also become part of an effort that could help people’s lives. We were energized and excited to do whatever it took to make it work.”

      2000: NASA’s “Software of the Year” award went to Internet-based Global Differential GPS (IGDG), a C-language package that provides an end-to-end system capability for GPS-based real-time positioning and orbit determination. Developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the software is being used to operate and control real-time GPS data streaming from NASA’s Global GPS Network. The Federal Aviation Administration has adopted the software’s use into the Wide Area Augmentation System program that provides pilots in U.S. airspace with real-time, meter-level accurate knowledge of their positions.

      2000: Three Small Business Innovation Research contracts with NASA’s Langley Research Center resulted in a new, low cost ballistic parachute system that lowers an entire aircraft to the ground in the event of an emergency. These parachutes, now in use for civilian and military aircraft, can provide a safe landing for pilots and passengers in the event of engine failure, midair collision, pilot disorientation or incapacitation, unrecovered spin, extreme icing and fuel exhaustion. To date, the parachute system is credited with saving more than 200 lives.

      2005: Two NASA Kennedy Space Center scientists and three faculty members from the University of Central Florida teamed up to develop NASA’s Government and Commercial Invention of the Year for 2005, the Emulsified Zero-Valent Iron (EZVI) Technology. Designed to address the need to clean up the ground of the historic Launch Complex 34 at KSC that was polluted with chlorinated solvents used to clean Apollo rocket parts, the EZVI technology provides a cost-effective and efficient cleanup solution to underground pollution that poses a contamination threat to fresh water sources in the area. This technology has potential use for the cleanup of environmental contamination at thousands of Department of Energy, Department of Defense, NASA and private industry facilities throughout the country.”

      Most of these advances were serendipitous of course. But to state the obvious — no programs, no serendipity.

      Herb

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      • All good examples, Herb, but I’m a little disappointed that you don’t acknowledge the underlying truth, that producing these advances by funding the race to the Moon was an expensive way of doing it. Some of these advances would surely have happened without NASA and who knows how many might have been produced, and more, by a government-funded and competitive series of programs at a fraction of the cost? The mere exploding of atomic bombs at the end of WWII gave science and engineering a big boost.

        I was an enthusiast of NASA’s program when it was going, and was actually part of it, if you can call submarine missiles part of space, and one positive thing is clear about the Space Rae, like a war, it brought the varying parts of the body politic together. Maybe that’s the only practical way it can work in a democratic society.

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        • Jim,

          I would just remind you that, while the Space Program was administered by NASA, virtually all of the hardware and most of the software was provided by private sector contractors and subcontractors, which numbered at least in the hundreds and probably in the thousands. For example, parts of the wing sections for the space shuttles were manufactured right here in Tulsa by McDonald Douglas. So, if you subtract the part of NASA’s budget that was contracted out to the private sector, the net cost to the taxpayers for NASA’s operation would be relatively small, IMHO.

          Further, by saying that the benefits listed by NASA would have happened anyway and would have been cheaper, you have used the fallacy of “Retrospective Determinism.” It’s like saying that even if George Washington hadn’t been the commander-in-chief, we stll would have won the revolutionary war. This fallacy basically denies cause and effect. Point here being that NASA did in fact exist and did in fact contribute to the identified benefits. And GW was in fact commander-in-chief and was in fact credited with winning the Revolutionary war. Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda are false premises that can only lead to false conclusions. Remember what they say about, “never assume?”

          Herb

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          • Sure, Herb, I understand what you mean about “retrospective determinism”, but that’s a straw man argument because I already admitted that NASA’s role in popularizing the whole effort was critical because there would have been little public support without it.

            Similarly, I still contend that my point about cost is valid, but only because of my admittedly unrealistic wish that it could have been done otherwise. A pure research program as I picture it would also have farmed out the work to many contractors, probably with award incentives for varying degrees of success.

            When it comes to wishful thinking, I usually lead the charge. 😀

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  5. I have degrees. My masters in in molecular biology. I know, from being in school so long, what 13th graders are. When a grade is based on a curve, we slide right into mediocrity. I hated doing it, but I busted every curve that mattered. I felt sorry for a few nursing students who didn’t get their degrees, but I just took the tests man.

    After being around budding doctors and dentists I only have one thing to say. I DO NOT want a “C” student working on me. “C” no longer means average. It means someone scraped by.We should have the right to see our practitioner’s grades. All of them.. up front. I have found that many docs, etc get all huffy when asked about their grades. Some will happily tell you. I wonder why? Hmmm…

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  6. ansonburlingame

     /  July 9, 2012

    David,

    Sunday’s Wash Post lead online article was about the large decrease in “high end” jobs, people with PhDs and wanting to work in “science”. I wrote a blog on the subject as well.

    There is little doubt in my mind that U.S. government funding for basic research as been a huge economic engine for our country, at least since the Mahatten Project, then to NASA, DARPA, and the list goes on.

    As pointed out in the Post, that money is drying up, drastically and has been doing so for well over ten years as we struggle to feed the maw of defense and entitlement spending.

    But you will NEVER read concerns in this blog about the loss of jobs for “scientists” making $200K or more per year.

    As well, based on having interacted with some “PhDs” in my professional life, well let me just say that a more squirrley bunch” by and large, I have never seen in other venues. I also have a sense or belief that a PhD today means a lot less than in times past.

    We have cheapen education in terms of real knowledge and the ability to use it for decades now.

    Anson

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