The Dramatic Turn in Physics After the End of the Cold War

Roundup: Talking About History

Dennis Overbye, in the NYT (July 27, 2004):

When I was a young man, no two dates could have seemed more distant and unconnected than July 16, 1945, and July 20, 1969.

The first, marking the day the initial atomic explosion shattered the dawn at Alamogordo, N.M., belonged to World War II, a conflict so ancient that it might as well have been fought by a previous race. The second date, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin put their bootprints on the fine gray lunar soil, belonged to the future, to the bright destiny of humanity. Modern history had started somewhere in between, in 1957, say, when Russia launched Sputnik, or in 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected president.

But when I was turning the calendar near my cubicle the other day -- one of my more crucial, if unsung, duties around here -- I was struck by how close together and how similar those disparate events suddenly appeared.

Both the bomb and the moon landings were triumphs of physical science, all-out assaults on the frontier of what was possible, waged with military-style organization and huge amounts of government money. They hark back to a time when physics touched people's lives as never before. The building of the bomb showed that we could destroy the world; it changed war and the relations between nations. The moon landing showed that we could conquer the universe. We could do anything we put our minds to.

Like many another star-struck youth, swept along by Sputnik and science fiction, I enrolled at M.I.T. in the 1960's to study physics, only to soon forget, in the process of trying to ''drink from a fire hose'' -- as institute habitues charmingly refer to the educational process there -- why I had ever been interested in science.

On the night of the moon landing I recall going upstairs and staring at the grainy images on a small television with my neighbors, feeling vaguely disillusioned by the robotic and rehearsed quality of what was supposed to be a transcendent moment.

I don't think I was alone in my reactions. By the late 1960's, when the rockets were approaching the moon, the whole world was beginning to seem too much like a doomsday machine. To some, the Apollo program was just a rich man's toy. ''A rat just bit my sister, and Whitey's on the moon,'' sang the poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron.

As for the bomb, it made physicists heroes -- but tragic ones. They helped win the war but also gave the rest of us the means by which we could end civilization, if not humanity itself. The illusion of physical mastery was subsequently shredded in the popular imagination at places like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Cape Canaveral, where the space shuttle Challenger painted the sky with a Y-shaped cloud in 1986.

The low point for physics came in 1993 when Congress canceled the Superconducting Supercollider, a giant racetrack for protons being built in Texas. If it had survived, the supercollider would now be crashing protons together at energies of 40 trillion electron volts, in search of new forms of matter. Instead, it succumbed to a combination of cost overruns and skepticism about Big Science projects. It is the Large Hadron Collider, an accelerator being built at CERN in Switzerland, that in 2007 will start to illuminate that frontier.

But does anyone care?

Dr. Peter Galison, a historian of science at Harvard, agreed there was a dramatic turn in the fortunes of physics at the end of the cold war in 1989. The fall of communism collapsed a sort of horrible order that had prevailed for 50 years -- a period he called the ''the long war'' -- and undermined the privileged status of physics and particularly particle physics, as ''part of the larger investment of the state in national security.''

For most of the 20th century there had been a general agreement that at the core of physics was what Dr. Galison called ''the march inward,'' the use of larger and more energetic particle accelerators to bore deeper and deeper into the heart of matter, looking for its most basic constituents and the rules they lived by. But by the 1990's, physicists themselves had begun to squabble over priorities, with some arguing that the reductive approach of particle physics, of breaking things into smaller and smaller pieces, left a lot of nature unexplored.

''A kind of strength it had was wounded,'' Dr. Galison said of the physics community.

Dr. Michael Turner, a cosmologist at the University of Chicago and head of physics and mathematics at the National Science Foundation, said the end of the cold war leveled the playing field between physics and biology. It is telling, he said, that Dr. David Baltimore, a Nobel-prize winning biologist, is now president of the California Institute of Technology, a school historically run by physicists.

Lately, the news from Los Alamos, the home of the legendary bomb builders, has been mostly about scandals and allegations of mismanagement and lost data.

Can physics ever scare us or inspire us as much as it did 40 years ago?

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