In today’s New York Times, Dennis Overbye writes that a National Academy of Sciences panel recommends that the United States spends up to a half a billion dollars in the next five years to ensure that the International Linear Collider (ILC) is built on American soil. They’re study says that American physics will lose its leadership in particle physics which “would erode the base of science and technology that has fueled innovation, provided intellectual and cultural inspiration and bolstered national security over the last century.” I must confess that I became interested in physics primarily because of the exciting developments in particle physics in the early seventies. It lead me to a degree in physics which ultimately, through a very circuitous route, into theoretical biology. Although I had a lot of catching up to do in biology, I think my physics training was excellent preparation for what I do day to day.
That being said, in our current financial climate where the science budget is being cut in real terms, I doubt that if I had a half a billion dollars to spend, I would put it into particle physics. I think I would rather spend it on a technological push towards alternative energy sources, such as the International Test Fusion Reactor (ITER) or a really big telescope. The European Southern Observatory organization currently has a proposal for building a 100 m diameter Overwhelmingly Large Telescope (OWL). This telescope could detect images 1000 times fainter than the Hubble Space Telescope.
I’m all for promoting projects that may inspire the next generation of physics students but I’m also for spending money on something that I know will guarantee interesting results. My knowledge of the current status of high energy physics is admittedly low but I think the ILC will still be orders of magnitude away from testing string theory for example. Wasn’t the scuttled Superconducting Super Collider dubbed the Desertron because it may not find anything at all? Maybe the ILC could shed light on the nature of dark matter and dark energy, which I believe is a pressing problem, but I think a better telescope has a higher chance of providing us with more insights in those areas. The pictures will also be a lot cooler!