America’s Science Decline: Part 4, Where did we lose our Way and how do we get back on Track.

This is the forth and final in a series of posts discussing what I see as the decline of Science in the United States. In part three of this series I discussed how the United States not only invented the particle accelerator as an instrument of science but how by building ever larger and more powerful machines American scientists made discovery after discovery in sub-atomic physics from the 1930s right to the end of the century. Today the standard model of how the universe works at its most fundamental level is primarily ‘Made in the U.S.A’.

But no longer, with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN Europe has discovered the Higgs Boson and is pressing on with experiments to make other discoveries. Also, unlike the United States Europe is already making plans for an even more powerful accelerator leaving America falling behind for decades to come.

How did it come to this? The United States became the richest and most powerful nation on Earth precisely by making certain that our nation had the best scientists and the best scientists must have the best equipment. Our founding fathers knew this and each generation of Americans that followed was willing to support the advance of science knowing that is the way nations advance. Today however, America’s attitude toward science, toward basic research is more antagonistic than supportive.

Of course such a major change in a country’s behavior takes a long time. I think America’s view of science began to change a little over a century ago when a large number of States began to pass laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in their public schools. The idea that in a democracy the people decide what is right and what is wrong seems natural and reasonable. But no matter how people vote, no matter how many pieces of legislation are passed 2+2=4, fact are facts and democracy really only works when the people are wise enough, and educated enough to recognize the truth of that statement.

Then in the 1950s there was the controversy over the use of pesticides such as DDT. Scientists such as Rachel Carson (See my post of 25January17) had found a enormous amount of evidence that the long term effects of DDT were very harmful to both animals and humans. The chemical companies, who were making a lot of money off of DDT, argued with their evidence that DDT was both safe and effective. Both sides had their facts and finding the truth between short term and long term effects is not an easy thing to do. Now I am very much on the side of the environmentalists but it is worth remembering that DDT is both safe and effective; if you only use it once!

Then, in the battle over smoking the fighting became much more bitter, much dirtier. The difference this time was that there was never any evidence that smoking was safe, no one could argue that smoking had any benefit of any kind. It was simply a drug that people got hooked on, a poison that eventually killed them.

Therefore the tobacco companies had to argue that the evidence against smoking wasn’t sufficient, that statistics aren’t really facts. They asserted that the scientists studying the long term effects of smoking didn’t understand their own data. The lawyers working for the tobacco companies had no facts to support their case so they argued against factual evidence itself. In a sense they argued that facts aren’t the truth!

Now we come to global warming and there is now so much money involved that assertions and arguments disguised as facts have so overwhelmed the actual evidence that even very intelligent people don’t know which end is up.

And this portrayal of assertion and opinions as truth has completely infected our media and political systems. Thanks to the internet (yes I’m biting the hand that feeds me) there are so many lies being told and retold and elaborated upon that reality itself has become virtual and many people believe we pick and choose our truths as we please.

No wonder that our congress, more concerned with fighting amongst themselves than doing their job of running our government, has little enthusiasm for supporting scientific research. One specific problem is that the federal government has so much trouble passing a budget each year that they keep the government working by passing ‘continuing resolutions’. But you can’t fund new projects by a continuing resolution.

So what can we do about this? How can we get America back on track? Well it won’t be easy and I think progress will be slow but we must start by simply respecting science again. We must learn to distinguish between opinions and fact, between assertions and actual evidence. We must become critical thinkers so that we are not fooled by the false facts being continuously hurled at us.

We can also promote the idea of science as something valuable, first of all by valuing it ourselves. There are plenty of science museums to go to, I’ve writing several posts about ones here in Philly. Of course the internet has a mountain of information about science but do be cautious, a sand dune on Mars that from a certain angle looks like a face isn’t solid science.

We can promote education, not just science but good education of all subjects. Again, education is an issue that our governments seems to endlessly argue over without accomplishing anything.

As I said at the start of this series of posts I’ve become very concerned about the health of scientific research in this country. I hope these posts may help a little in finding a cure. I will continue to speak about the need to find a solution from time to time and I thank you for being kind enough to listen.


America’s Science Decline: Part 3, Our Forgotten Atom Smashers

This is the third in a series of posts discussing what I see as the decline of Science in the United States. In part two of this series I talked about how for more than a century the United States built ever larger and larger telescopes, the largest in the World. I spoke of how those instruments made some of the most important discoveries in the history of science. I ended that post by pointing out that America no longer possessed the World’s largest telescope. I described how our largest scopes now had been built back in the 1990s and that while Europe and the rest of the World were planning to build the next generation of telescopes the United States was not.

This week I’m going to tell a very similar story about the scientific instruments that allow scientists to see the smallest objects in the Universe. I’m talking about the particle accelerators, the Atom Smashers with which we study the fundamental building blocks of creation.

The first scientist to smash one kind of particle into another was the Englishman Ernest Rutherford, who aimed the alpha particles from radioactive Uranium at a thin film of gold atoms. The scattering pattern from those alpha particles revealed the basic structure of the atom as a dense nucleus surrounded by a cloud of electrons.

Now Rutherford only aimed his alpha particles, collimated is the technical term. He couldn’t increase their energy in any way but other scientists soon began looking for techniques to do just that. Attempting to build instruments that would accelerate sub-atomic particles and use those particles to probe deeper and deeper into the atom.

The first really practical such atom smasher was the cyclotron, developed by Ernest Lawrence at the University of California at Berkeley in 1932. To understand the operation of the cyclotron, and particle accelerators in general, refer to the picture below.

Workings of a Cyclotron (Public Domain)

In a cyclotron charged particles, usually protons, are confined to move in circular orbits by a large external magnetic field. The size of the orbit is determined by the velocity / energy of the charged particle. The particles orbit inside two metal “D”s that are connected to a high voltage oscillator that gives one of the “D”s a positive voltage and the other a negative voltage with the voltages flipping back and forth at very high frequency.

The positively charged protons are repelled by the positive “D” and attracted to the negative “D”, but by the time they get to the correct side the voltage has flipped causing the protons to fly back and forth, gaining energy with each orbit. The increasing energy increases the size of the orbit until the protons reach the outer edge of the “D”s where they are extracted and fired at a target being studied.

The “D”s in Lawrence’s first instrument measured only 11 inches (28cm) across and could only accelerate the protons to an energy of 1.2MeV. (An eV is an electron volt, it stands for the amount of energy that an electron will gain as it crosses a potential of 1 Volt. an MeV is a million eVs, GeV is a billion eVs and TeV is a trillion)

In the years that followed Lawrence built progressively more powerful instruments including a 184 inch (467cm) device that was used during the development of the atomic bomb to study the separation of uranium isotopes.

In the 1950s a new design of accelerators was developed where the strength of the confining magnetic field was synchronized to the energy of the accelerated particles. These accelerators were christened synchrotrons and they continued to grow in size and energy. The Bevatron, still at UC Berkeley succeeded in producing the first the anti-protons and anti-neutrons while the Cosmotron at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island discovered the Delta particle and produced the first artificial mesons. The picture below shows the Bevatron at Berkeley.

The Bevatron Particle Accelerator (Public Domain)

The rest of the world just couldn’t keep up. The US just kept building the most powerful instruments and making all the discoveries. In 1960 Brookhaven got a new 33Gev machine called the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron, which is still making important discoveries today. In 1983 a brand new facility was opened outside Chicago called Fermilab with an accelerator ring over one and a third mile (2.2km) in diameter. The instrument named the Tevatron because it not only accelerated protons to over a TeV but it also accelerated anti-protons in the opposite direction and studied the collisions between them. The discoveries made by American Atom Smashers formed the basis of what physicists call ‘The Standard Model’. In 1995 the Top quark was discovered at Fermilab, the last elementary particle to be discovered at an American facility.

At almost the same time the US congress cancelled the next great American accelerator, the Superconducting Super Collider or SSC, whose ring would have been over 17 miles (27.7km) in diameter and whose total energy would have reached 40TeV.

Instead the Europeans have taken the lead with their Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. This is the instrument that finally discovered the Higgs boson in 2013 with its 8.6 km ring (5.4miles) and energy of 13Tev. It is worth keeping in mind that America’s SSC would have been completed earlier than Europe’s LHC and still been more powerful if the politicians had not fought over a deficit that they’ve pretty much ignored since then anyway. And now even the Tevatron at Fermilab has been shut down over budget concerns.

Europe meanwhile is pressing on. There are plans under development at CERN for an even bigger, more powerful machine. Called the Future Circular Collider it will have a ring 32 km (20 miles) in diameter and a top energy of 100Tev. So therefore it will be Europe that in the next decades will lead the search for physics beyond the standard model.

In my next post I’ll conclude my discussion of how the United States is losing its once predominant position in Science.

Post Script: Even as I was writing this post the Physicists at CERN have announced the discovery of a new particle! Now this is not a new fundamental particle but rather the first composite particle with two heavy quarks. Worse yet, Fermilab had published data over ten years ago indicating the possible existence of this particle but the Tevatron was not quite powerful enough to meet the tight requirements needed to officially announce a discovery.

America’s Science Decline: Part 2, Optical Telescopes

In my last post I began a series discussing what I see as the decline of Science in the United States. Part one of this series consisted of a little history lesson on the importance of Science in both the founding and the growth of the USA and ended in the middle 20th century when American Science was dominant.

Today I’m going to discuss the impact of America on astronomy and our knowledge of the Universe by the construction of a series of ever larger and more powerful optical telescopes. Then I will show how, after more than a century in the lead in astronomy, the United States has lost that lead and presently has no plans to even remain in the pack.

As I mentioned last time colonial America already had a famous astronomer in David Rittenhouse whose observations of the transit of Venus in 1769 helped to make the first accurate measurement of the distance to that planet. However the man who took American astronomy to levels of achievement that most scientists had considered to be impossible was George E. Hale.

Hale was a solar astronomer whose own discoveries included the first detection of the presence of carbon in the Sun. Today however Hale is best remembered for organizing and directing the construction of a series of progressively larger telescopes. The 40-inch (1meter) Yerkes, the 60-inch (1.5meter) Carnegie, 100-inch (2.54meter) Hooker and 200-inch (5.1 meter) Hale telescopes were each in turn the world’s largest scientific instrument, until Hale built the next one. (For those who aren’t familiar with telescopes the size given, 100 inch for example, refers to the diameter of the lens or mirror that gathers the light. The larger the optics the more powerful the telescope.)

The 100-inch telescope is probably the most famous. That is because it is the instrument that Carl Hubble employed to show that Andromeda and other ‘nebula’ were in fact Galaxies like the Milky Way and that the entire Universe was expanding. It was these observations that led to the big bang theory. The picture below shows the 100-inch telescope in its dome at Mount Wilson observatory.

100inch Telescope on Mount Wilson (Credit: Public Domain)

From 1948 into the late 1970s the 200-inch telescope remained the World’s largest. Since then there has been flurry of new telescope construction with even larger sizes made possible by a ‘segmented mirror’ design approach. The picture below shows the segmented mirror design as used in Gran Telescopio on the Canary Islands.

Segmented Mirror of Gran Telescopio (Credit: Miguel Briganti)

At the present time the US is in second place with our 10meter (396-inch) Keck telescope in Hawaii being only slightly behind Europe’s 10.4meter (412-inch) Gran Telescopio. The problem as I see it however, is not so much that the rest of the World has caught up with us but that the US is no longer even trying to keep up.

While Europe has several new telescope projects under construction, including the 39.3meter (That’s 1556-inches!!!) European Extremely Large Telescope, the US has yet to begun construction on its 30meter (1188-inches) Telescope due to delays in permits and funding. It seems as if funding and just a general enthusiasm for developing the new equipment necessary to continue exploring the Universe has declined in the US. A decline that started in the middle to late 1990s, the time when the Keck telescopes were completed.

Telescopes allow us to study the largest and furthest objects in the Universe, including the Universe itself. Next time we’ll discuss the scientific instruments that allow us to study the smallest objects that exist, these are the particle accelerators, the atom-smashers that enable us to investigate the very nature of space itself.

America’s Science Decline: Part 1

In several previous posts I have commented on the current anti-Intellectual, anti-Science sentiment presently growing here in America. As I’ve thought about it and done a little investigating I’ve only grown more concerned for the future of Science in the USA. I’ve therefore decided to spend three or four posts going into greater detail on what I see as the decline of American Science.

First a little bit of background history. Most people are aware that Science has been a part of the United States from the very beginning. Everybody’s heard about Ben Franklin and electricity, we all know about Thomas Jefferson’s passions for Science and invention. But there were many others, men such as David Rittenhouse, America’s first astronomer whose observations of the transit of Venus in 1769 were important in the first accurate measurement of the distance to that planet. The picture below shows the diagram Rittenhouse made of his observations of the transit.

Diagram of the 1769 Transit of Venus (Credit: David Rittenhouse)

Other colonial scientists include Benjamin Rush the physician, Charles Wilson Peale the naturalist and John Bartrum the botanist.

And we mustn’t forget George Washington himself, the father of the nation whose first occupation was that of a surveyor and who in his later years spent much of his time working to improve farm implements while at the same time introducing the mule to American agriculture.

All these men were members of the American Philosophic Society, which was founded in 1743, more than 30 years before our revolution. The picture below shows the headquarters of the APS in Philadelphia.

The American Philosophical Society (Credit: APS)

You get the point. Indeed it could be argued that the very possibility of a new nation on this continent could only have been conceived by men with considerable intellectual and scientific minds.

Then as America grew it was her scientists and engineers who gave her strength. There were the practical men like Robert Fulton, Samuel Morse, John Ericsson, Thomas Edison along with hundreds of others. Then there were also the pure scientists, like Henry Rowland who developed diffraction gratings to study the Sun’s spectra, Albert A. Michelson whose famous experiment led to Einstein’s theory of relativity, and Isabelle Stone the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in physics in the USA. And we can’t forget Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh whose ‘dinosaur wars’ changed forever the way we view Earth’s history.

I realize that I’m saying nothing new here. Any textbook on American history will devote a chapter or so on the scientists and engineers, the people who gave us the tools needed to build the richest and strongest nation in the world.

And we haven’t even gotten to the 20th century yet! By the middle of that century the United States dominated science to a degree that no other nation ever had. Name a scientific instrument or laboratory and America had the biggest and the best.

The largest telescope in the world was the 200-inch telescope at mount Palomar in California.

The largest radio telescope was the 300-foot dish at Green Bank in Virginia.

The first Neutrino Telescope was at the Homestake Mine in Lead, Colorado.

The most powerful atom smasher was either the Bevatron at the California Institute of Technology or the Cosmotron at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York depended on the year.

The first nuclear reactor was at the University of Chicago.

The first transistor was fabricated at Bell Labs in Holmdel New Jersey.

You get the point. Twenty years ago the United States had the largest, or the most sensitive or simply the best of every kind of scientific instrument. America was dominant in the World because American Science was dominant.

Next time we’ll begin to examine how that is no longer true.