As Mark has recently discussed, Science magazine has just reported on what it regards the science breakthroughs of 2005 – Evolution in action was the winner. Tacked onto the end of that article describing the top exciting revelations that science provided in 2005, was a sidebar of a more somber note:
It’s a painful read, yet very true. Let me quote the first couple paragraphs:
Particle Physicists in the United States would probably like to forget 2005. Budget woes forced the cancellation of two major experiments just as researchers were about to start construction. That leaves none in the works to replace those currently studying particles called quarks. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) asked physicists to consider which of two existing particle colliders they would rather shut down early to save money.
Researchers around the globe fear that if U.S. particle physics withers, so will the entire field….
The article then continues to describe the two major experiments that were cut. Fact check: actually it was three major experiments. BTeV at the Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory, and MECO and KOPIO at Brookhaven National Laboratory. BTeV would have studied CP violation and rare processes in the B meson system in a way that is different from that being explored in the current B-Factories at SLAC and KEK in Japan. MECO would have probed electron to muon conversion to a level 3 orders of magnitude further than current limits, and KOPIO would have observed an extremely rare, yet information ladden, rare decay of the K meson. The folks at DOE cancelled BTeV without any input from the scientific community. The folks at the National Science Foundation set up two committees for the Brookhaven experiments, one to evaluate the technical feasiability (these were extremely intricate and complicated experiments!) and one to evaluate the scientific merit. I was on the second committee, and Congress in its infinite wisdom cancelled both MECO and KOPIO before our report was even circulated.
Next the article describes the ongoing process of studying the possibility of an early shutdown of the B-Factory at SLAC or the Tevatron collider at Fermilab. The DOE has farmed this decision out to a committee, and I’m on that one too. Fact check: the Science article pits one experiment against the other and that’s simply not true. We are charged with evaluating the early shut down of neither, one, or both experiments. Our first round of deliberations are not yet public, but I will say that I found the discussions in our meetings to be downright scary at times.
The article did bring one important point home: after the planned shutdown of the Tevatron at Fermilab in 2009, there will only be one particle physics experiment running in the United States. That will cease operations in 2010 and at that point, there will be no, zero, zilch, nada experiments on-line in the USA. Luckily, Europe and Japan (and now even China might be getting into the action) have invested heavily in particle physics and the field is not only alive but thriving in these regions. As excited as we are about these overseas experiments coming on-line, the future of particle physics in the USA is depressing, discouraging, and downright worrisome.