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Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory   Essay Contest

Why Should the U.S. Remain a World Leader in High Energy Physics?

Glen Crawford, SLAC

First Place

Glen Crawford
Stanford Linear Accelerator Center

We watch with wonder the images beamed back to Earth by the Mars Sojourner probe: wonder at the fact that we are seeing pictures of a new, largely unexplored world. It is a great tribute to our space program that we can see these pictures and wonder, that these images lead us to ask important questions about our place in the cosmos. Yet we are also exploring strange new worlds right here on Earth, worlds just as wondrous, worlds that require new and exciting technologies just to visit, worlds that ask and answer even more questions about how our universe came to be. These are the worlds of inner space, as far inside the structure of matter as we can see. Deep inside the atom there exists a world of tiny, invisible particles that are the building blocks of the universe; this is the world of particle physics.

Mars, as viewed by the Sojourner Rover
Mars, as seen through the
eyes of the Sojourner Rover

Drift Chamber
Subatomic events shown in an enlarged drift chamber hit pattern.

If we could send back pictures from this world, it would look far stranger than Mars. We would see particles arise out of nothingness, fluttering into existence for a billionth of a billionth of a second, and then disappearing back into the void. We would see a world of amazing order and predictability, yet one whose fundamental patterns and symmetries are mysteriously broken. And we know that some day this world will give us answers to fundamental questions, such as: Why do things have mass? Why is there so much matter and so little antimatter? Any why are there so many of these tiny "elementary" particles, anyway?

When people ask why we should continue to do research about a world so removed, so different from our own, I say the reasons are just the same as in the exploration of space, or any other new frontier. The journey is in some ways an end to itself: you never really know what you're going to find until you go. From Lewis and Clark to Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins we have explored new territories because they were exciting, challenging, and because we learned so many new things just getting there.

1969 Moon Landing
First moon landing, 1969.

Varian Clinac
Medical accelerator used in cancer radiotherapy treatments.

No one would have promoted building particle  accelerators or detectors because it would save lives -- yet much of today's medical imaging is based on technology developed to detect invisible particles. No one would ever have claimed particle physics would change the way we communicate -- yet it was particle physicists and their need to share large amounts of information in that gave birth to the World Wide Web.
At the beginning of this century, few would have expected scientific research to fundamentally change the world. But continued and consistent investments in science by the United States have helped make it the economic, technological and research leader of the world at the close of the century. As we head into the new millennium, few would doubt that scientific research will remake our world yet again. It is our choice whether we want to help make this new world or retreat from it.

Second Place

Joe Lykken
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

Joe Lykken, Fermi Lab
There are few today who would question the critical importance of basic scientific research. America's leadership in basic science sows the seeds of our future prosperity, ennobles our society with a higher purpose, and provides a common ground for peaceful cooperation with other nations. We depend upon basic science as a resource, mined from an inexhaustible mother lode of knowledge. The federal government acts as the primary custodian of this resource, ensuring a balanced and refined supply, freely shared by all.

Elementary Particles Chart
The Standard Model

High-energy physics has qualities and value that make it unique among the branches of basic science. Only high-energy physics seeks to articulate the fundamental character of physical law, and to identify the primary agents and constituents of physical reality. Physical events play out upon an underlayment of interwoven fields of energy and matter. High-energy physicists tug at the microscopic knots of this cosmic weave. They divine the symmetries that give it order and elegance, and untangle the dense woof of its complex dynamics.
This is the science of extremes: the smallest, the largest, the hottest, the densest, the most energetic. Ghostlike neutrinos stream through the earth and leave no effect, but quarks are trapped in tiny prisons by powerful nuclear glue. Some particles, left undisturbed, will live forever, but others wink in and out of existence in the most fleeting of moments. Gravity reaches across the universe to corral whole galaxies, while the weak force cannot even reach across a proton to grab a quark.

High-energy physics, more than any other human enterprise, tests the limits of our imaginations and the rigors of our intellects. Its role in science is not only to probe the nature of matter, energy, space, and time, but also to inspire young people with the sweep and depth of scientific endeavor. As a leader in high energy physics, the United States can more easily remain preeminent in science as a whole.

The Nucleus
Inside the nucleus of an atom.

Cygnus Loop Nebula
A small portion of a nebula called the "Cygnus Loop."

Learning about Science at "Take our Children to Work"
Learning about science at "Take our Children to Work."

The spectacular progress in high-energy physics of the past half century has made this the most advanced and best tested of all scientific disciplines. This progress has also increased the expense and complexity of the U.S. program. But the money we spend is primarily an investment in people: thousands of highly-trained experimenters, theorists, students, accelerator physicists, computer scientists, technicians and engineers. U.S. high energy physicists add to the intellectual vigor of a hundred universities, while our high-energy physics laboratories are magnets for the best minds from around the world.
High-energy physicists, by definition, work at the most far-flung frontiers of human knowledge. For each frontier settled, two new ones open up. In this sense, high-energy physics is a challenge particularly suited to the American spirit. To give up our leadership on these frontiers is to deny the bold ambitions, restless energies, and nimble ingenuity that have brought us so much success. If we go forward, there is no limit to what we can learn, and no limit to how this knowledge may affect our future.

08 Jul 1998 04:08 PM