Big Science Shrinks?
By Staff News & Analysis - September 24, 2010

Boffins riot as Hadron Collider upgrade is delayed … So far no threat to destroy world if demands not met … Budget cuts are forcing international science alliance CERN to postpone upgrades to the most potent particle-punisher currently operated by the human race – the subterranean Large Hadron Collider (LHC) outside Geneva. CERN has also been compelled to temporarily shut down other accelerators, and has seen "protests" from boffins and support staff threatened by the cuts. "The plan… is firmly science-driven," said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer in a statement issued on Friday. "It reduces spending on research and consolidation through careful and responsible adjustment of the pace originally foreseen in a way that does not compromise the future research programme unduly. The reductions will be painful, but in the current financial environment, they are fair." … The LHC – following lengthy startup troubles – is now up and running with beam energies of 3.5 tera-electron- volts (TeV), half the design maximum of 7TeV. Following an unfortunate electric burnout blast incident and related, devastating helium superfluid explosion mishap which crippled the mighty collider for months after its initial startup, engineers have decided that it would be unsafe to turn up the Big Knob past 3.5TeV until massive upgrades can be carried out. – UK Register

Dominant Social Theme: What a tragedy for the world of knowledge …

Free-Market Analysis: While we have written numerous articles on the bureaucracy of big science and its varying incompetences, we have neglected to point out the impact that the unrolling financial crisis is having on what the UK Register (see above article excerpt) calls "boffins." A sub dominant social theme: "Money is the mother's milk of scientific endeavor and in today's complex scientific world nothing can be accomplished without billions to spend and large land acquisitions for its dispersal."

Pardon our cynicism, but the best way to bring pressure on those who might consider a budget cut is to trumpet one's successes. Sure enough, we find the following:

Atom smasher on verge of breakthrough … The $10 billion atom smasher underground on the Swiss-French border seems to have recreated a bit of the matter that existed in the initial moments of the universe and it might be on the threshold of its first big break, say scientists. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 17-mile looped tunnel which creates mini- Big Bangs by smashing together particles, is currently colliding particles at around half its maximum energy level — 7 million electron volts or 7 TeV.

It plans to increase this to 14 TeV from 2013, coming closer to the conditions in which the universe was created 13.7 billion years ago. A paper published this week by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research describes how high-energy proton collisions produced unusual readings that could replicate the 'hot dense matter' existing microseconds after the Big Bang. The Hadron Collider's CMS detector is reported to have seen 'new and interesting effects' which show the paths that particles take after impact.

We are not sure that "unusual readings" will be enough to derail further budget cuts, but it seems obvious that the "boffins" are trying. Atom smashers are not the only things feeling the pinch. Here's another report from the UK Register:

Fusion reactor eats Euro science budgets … Small catastrophe predicted … More than a billion euros will be channeled to the astronomically over-budget ITER fusion reactor rather than to a broad range of needy European research projects. "This will not make us friends," one senior fusion boffin, who declined to be identified, confessed to Nature, which reported the research-funding switcheroo.

The ITER project, which has the goal of (someday) fusing hydrogen isotopes to create (possibly affordable) energy, has been beset by budget horrors since its inception in 2006. According to Nature, the south-of- France reactor was originally projected to cost €5bn (£4.2bn, $6.3bn), a figure that seems laughably understated today. Nature cites "unoffical estimates" that put the true projected cost to be in the neighborhood of €15bn (£12.6bn, $18.9bn).

The most pressing financial need is $1.4bn (£800m, $1.8bn) needed for the 2012-2013 construction budget. That money has to come from somewhere, in the opinion of Achilleas Mitsos, former EC director-general for research. "Europe cannot afford not to go forward with the project," he told Nature, citing heavy political and financial ramifications if ITER is cancelled. And the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) will come to the rescue, even though the EC has said that diverting FP7 funds would have "a significantly negative effect on a range of policies and programmes".

These are fairly astronomical costs (pardon the pun) and we question how long governments laboring under "austerity" will be willing or able to foot the bill. From our modest point of view, these projects are a kind of expensive propaganda. Their purpose may be scientific, but the end result is to impress on average people that scientific investigation in the modern era has simply become too expensive and complicated to pursue without multi-billion dollar government investments.

It is the Western power elite that wants to project this concept. Western elites, for at least the past 100 years, have labored mightily to produce the effect that nothing in life can be accomplished individually or in small groups. It takes an EU or a US or a Chinese communist republic to produce truly worthwhile results. It is, in fact, a way of de-motivating entrepreneurs and reducing scientific animal spirits. Here's another one:

Fermilab moving ahead with new accelerator project … Fermilab has started work on a new facility that scientists there believe is critical to the next generation of particle accelerators. "Our future is going to involve accelerators that use superconducting radio-frequency technology," said Jay Theilacker of Fermilab's Accelerator Division.

"Building this new SRF test facility is an important step forward." Fermilab officials gave media tours of the facility that is expected to be done by the fall of 2011. The laboratory has started phase II of the new facility, which will occupy three buildings and host a 460-foot-long test accelerator.

Fermilab is using $52.7 million in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the project. The project is also one of the bigger construction projects in the area, employing about 200 Chicago-area tradespeople from companies in Batavia, St. Charles, Aurora, Naperville [Illinois] and elsewhere. -Daily Chronicle

This latest accelerator is being built with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – so it would seem that one of the purposes of the accelerator is to provide jobs. But we would venture, in fact, that's probably what Big Science in the 21st century is generally all about: job creation.

After Thoughts

The demise of Big Science in this era of austerity (if it occurs) would have an impact on the scientific community, but in our view not on science itself. We have made this bet this before and will restate it now: one of the next big scientific breakthroughs will come from a raggedy, socially maladjusted college drop out living in a rundown, rural shack somewhere. Or maybe working out of a garage or maybe in a basement.

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