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science 2008-2009: 4: global science’s meltdown

Jon EAgar26 September 2009

While CERN started as a European project, the sheer expense of the Large Hadron Collider, alongside the cancellation of its American rival, the Superconducting Supercollider, made it, notes Geoff Brumfiel, ‘the first truly global experimental undertaking’. n 1994, Britain and Germany had considered pulling out of the project. To rescue it, some of CERN’sleading scientist, including accelerator designer, Lyn Evans and the Director General Christopher Llewellyn Smith had persuaded CERN’s European council to accept a reduced design, and, in 1995, had persuaded Japan and Russia to fill the gap. India and the United States joined too.

So “beam day”, the first time protons had been coaxed around the full LHC ring, 10 September 2008, was a global news event. The Times of India reported on how scientists had gathered in great excitement at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (before a data link crashed leaving them in darkness), while the Economic Times of Indianoted with pride how 200 Indian scientists were involved, as well as a lucrative concrete contract. Israeli press reported the words of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert:”I’m very proud of the contribution made by the Israeli scientists and Israeli technology to an experiment of such magnitude, one that has the power to impact all of humanity”. ‘Scottish firm expands on Cern successes’ was a headline in The Scotsman. And so on.  

So there was a measure of global embarassment when, nine days later, a cable linking two of the LHC’s magnets lost superconductivity, melting almost instantaneously. Liquid helium then leaked into the LHC tunnels. The whole $4 billion project was suspended for a year while the fault was fixed. Racks of computers, poised to store petabytes of information, sat unused. With no data, scientists across the world, including students waiting to finish PhDs, had no choice but to wait.

The LHC was designed to collide protons with antiprotons at energies seven times that of its nearest comeptitor, Fermilab’s Tevatron, and to search among the remnants for clues of physics beyond the standard model. With the the LHC out of action, scientists with alternative schemes of generating such physics suddenly had a window of opportunity.  The Tevatron was cranked up as high as it would go, with each new collision added to a slowly building statistical picture, hinting at anomalies (such as in the decay of the strange B meson) that might not be explained by the standard model.

A second approach was to investigate the ghostly neutrino particles. In 1998, Japanese scientists using the Super-Kamiokande experiment in Hida, had shown that neutrinos switched between different types. This switching was only possible in neutrinos possessed mass, albeit a tiny one. (This finding had also resolved a long-standing and increasingly worrisome observation of a shortage of solar neutrinos.) Massive neutrinos were not part of the standard model. New, even bigger neutrino experiments, such as IceCube, an array of detectors under the Antarctic ice, it was hoped in 2008, might reveal new phenomena.

Finally, while the standard model is a theory of the fundamental forces of the universe, and usually probed at the microphysics level, it is also central to cosmological theory. Cosmologists had already noted a deficit between the observable matter in the universe and the deduced mass necessary for cosmologicaltheory to work. This deficit, labelled dark matter, was of an unknown nature in the first decade of the twentieth century.  Neither had a candidate material been observed nor did the standard model have room for it. Yet dark matter was necessary to make sense of the speed of rotation of galaxies, and make up some 85% of matter in the universe.

Dark matter was the target of several large-scale scientific projects. In 2008, scientists working with data from a satellite called PAMELA (Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics, an Italian-Russian-German-Swedish collaboration) reported an unexpected amount of antielectrons of certain energies. Did they come from colliding exotic dark matter particles, such as the “neutralino”? Also in 2008, an underground dark matter detector at the Italian Gran Sasso National Laboratory also reported a signal. Yet other detectors, including ironically another one under the same Italian mountain, have seen nothing.

These non-particle accelerator routes to new physics may well become typical. The LHC is expected to last twenty years – if it works. The machine that the global fundamental physics community regards as the successor to the LHC – an electron-positron collider called the International Linear Collider – barely limped on as design money was cut and partner countries, such as the United Kingdom in 2008, pulled out.

In contrast to stalling and uncertain experiments, theory scored an impressive goal in 2008 in a highly-precise demonstration, published by Stephan Dürr et al in Science, that the predictions of mass made by the theory of quantum chromodynamics (QCD) matched observed masses of hadrons very closely. Frank Wilczek in Nature praised the achievement, both for its practical implications (understanding for example, supernovae) and as a triumphant vindication of the Pythagorean credo that “all things are number”. ‘The accurate, controlled calculation of hadron masses is a notable milestone’, the theoretical physicist wrote, ‘But the fact that it has taken decades to reach this milestone, and that even today it marks the frontier of ingenuity and computer power, emphasizes the limitations of existing methodology and challenges us to develop more powerful techniques’. An alternative way of putting this would be that theory, too, had trouble scaling up.

science 2008-2009: 3: post-Cold War tensions?

Jon EAgar26 September 2009

‘The Arctic is Russian’, explained Artur Chilingarov, leader of an expedition that planted a Russian flag on the sea floor at the North Pole in August 2007, ‘We must prove the North Pole is an extension of the Russian coastal shelf’. As Daniel Cressey explains, under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries could lay claim to areas beyond the standard 200 nautical mile limit, so long as there was a “natural prolongation” of its continental shelf. The Russians argued that the Lomonosov shelf, which stretches undersea across the polar region connected to the motherland. Canada and Denmark (Greenland) disputed the claim. The dispute would revolve wround interpretations of geophysical and geological data, snatched during explorations in the brief Arctic summer. At stake was unknown oil, gas and mineral wealth.

While reminiscent of Antarctic politics, in which scientific activity was a marker for future possible claims (discussed in my chapter of Cold War sciences) and despite the Russian presence, this episode is not best understood as a re-emergence of older Cold War tensions. Rather it is a vigorous expression of nationalistic interests. There are comparable clashes between Western nations – between France, Spain, Britain and Ireland over the Bay of Biscay for example.

Nevertheless, the two decades since the end of the Cold War have seen some of the organisations most associated, even defined, by the conflict, struggle for new rationales and identities. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, the renamed ARPA in 1972) provides a good example.

Recall that ARPA was designed as a lean, fast-moving agency to fund defence research projects to enable the United States to overtake the Soviet Union following Sputnik. Its successes included the ARPANET, Project Vela (detecting nuclear detonations), the anti-ballistic missile system Defender, and stealth aircraft (first flying in 1977).

On the one hand DARPA in the post-Cold War years attracted criticism. Sharon Weinberger notes insider views that DARPA conferences were now “light in substance” and too close to Hollywood gimmickry. Furthermore, in the conflict in Iraq when innovative military solutions were needed, the Pentagon turned to agencies such as the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, and not DARPA.

On the other hand, the old DARPA was regarded as a model of an innovative organisation, and a model to copy. Examples include IARPA (for Intelligence), HSARPA (for Homeland Security), and ARPA-E (for energy, with a particular emphasis on energy security and latterly climate change).

science 2008-2009: 2: the big picture

Jon EAgar24 September 2009

Nature in January 2008 published a world map of How the World Invests in R&D. It drew on data from the United States National Science Board and gives a big picture of the global funding of science around 2004-2005.

It’s a familiar North-South picture.

The big spenders, as a proportion of GDP, are in North America, Europe, the Far East, plus Australia and, at the top of the league, Israel (4.71%). The United States has dropped slightly in proportion to other countries: compared to 2006 ‘both South Korea and Switzerland have leaped ahead’ in terms of proportion of GDP.

But size matters: the United States was still comfortably the biggest spender ($340 billion invested), while China now came third in overall funding ($115 billion), not far behind Japan.

science 2008-2009: 1: on the blog

Jon EAgar24 September 2009

I’ve spent the the last few years writing a book called Science in the Twentieth Century – and Beyond. It’s being published by Polity Press. Oddly it’s already available from amazon, so I had better finish it.

I want to end the book with a survey of science in 2008 and 2009. I’ve chosen to do this survey in the form of a blog, collecting together comments on stories. I’m using Nature and Science as my main sources. This and the blog posts that follow are the first draft of the survey. Let me know if I miss anything stupid.

And science blogs were part of the story in 2009. Geoff Brumfiel in Nature reported that, while the downturn in newspaper revenue was driving out traditional science journalism, the trend was being matched by surge in the number of researcher-written blogs. The journalists that are left are much more likely to source stories from blogs as well as write their own.

The other science and blog story of 2009 was social media applications – blogs, twitter and the rest – were undermining conferences. Data captured by digital camera was being published immediately, often without the presenter’s knowledge. A Nature editorial called for a sharp distinction to be drawn between open and closed conferences, and for bloggers to respect it. The alternative would be secrecy and suspicion.