I've been meaning to write about this for a while, and a post by Zenpundit finally got me going. I could not agree more with an article in Seed that argues the U.S. needs to make a strong bid in order to have the International Linear Collider (ILC) built in the states. A likely spot for construction could be at the current Stanford Linear Collider (SLAC) site.
The U.S. presently has the world's most energetic particle physics facility at Fermilab, but its days of world dominance are numbered. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will presumably be commissioned next year or early 2008 at the European facility CERN, in Geneva, and it will nearly double the energy of Fermilab. Of course, the most frequent question any particle physicist gets from students, family and friends, the general public (who would likely pay for a good portion of the ILC if the U.S. gets it), and politicians is, "Why on earth would we spend multiple billions of dollars on particle research?" That is a fundamental question to ask that must be answered in this age of record budget deficits.
Particle accelerators are the necessary tools to study the basic constituents of matter and the fundamental forces of Nature. This is what particle physics is all about. But what many people do not understand about science and technology is that there are generally two types of science, pure and applied. I've posted on these before, including the panel that was formed to determine the best course for particle physics as well as pure versus applied science. While I am the first to admit that determining the mass of a top quark means nothing to the average person, and top quarks are not going to have any direct applications to improve one's life, gaining knowledge has some worth. Human curiosity has no bounds, and we are a species that is driven to find answers to the questions we develop. How did the universe begin? What are we made of? What makes the universe tick the way it does? These are fundamental questions we all ask at some point, and partcle accelerators have been the tools used to start finding the answers to those questions. This is pure science, and we never know what some new discovery will lead to in the long-term. Scientists do not have crystal balls, and cannot know what applications will exist if the fundamental knowledge is not there.
But many still have a difficult time justifying the costs a machine like the ILC will have. So we can think of it this way: Fermilab has more than paid for itself over its lifetime. In fact, it has paid for itself many times over. Why would I say this, after saying a major discovery like the top quark has no direct applications? Because there are indirect benefits and applications that develop from the types of technology that are created to do this type of work. Building accelerators that are many miles long, and make antimatter and subatomic particles move at essentially the speed of light does not include going to Radio Shack and buying the hardware one needs. The technology did not exist when the blueprints were drawn up. Scientists and technicians had to work over a period of many years to build the machinery, write the software, and develop the electronics and computing power that eventually led to the accelerator and various experimental detectors at these major labs.
In the marketplace, these types of technologies were, at the time, nonexistent and meant nothing to society. As the technology developed, however, think of the following spin-offs: personal computers, the Internet, particle detection systems that now form the basis of detectors being developed by homeland security (to detect nuclear materials, for example), laser applications, fiber optic technology, superconductors and superconducting magnets that now allow MRIs to be available in hospitals, new levels of technological complexity (my old experiment, CDF at Fermilab, has to coordinate a couple hundred thousand individual lines of data to recreate an event, see if it is worth keeping, record it, and reset the detectors in about a microsecond..it is amazing it works), and even new experience in tunneling technology to dig the vast tunnels several stories below ground. Engineering breakthroughs were required to get one of the most complicated machines in history working. New cancer treatments have been discovered, such as the neutron therapy center at Fermilab that treats several thousand cancer patients each year. And yes, the military has been dabbling with particle beam weapons for years. A large lab employs several thousand people. And, something one cannot really put a pricetag on, these massive laboratories are training grounds for generations of American scientists, engineers, and technicians.
We live in a technology driven world. New technologies develop at places where new questions are asked and new solutions required. Creative solutions and problem-solving flourish. And new applications we do not dream of now will undoubtedly arise over time. The U.S. can either make the investment for the long-term health of its scientific and technological base that has led to its status as the world's only current superpower, or it won't, and some portion of the next generation of scientists will leave and go where the experimental facilities are located. We blew it with the SSC back in the early 1990's when Congress pulled the plug. Let us not repeat history and allow a major science facility go elsewhere.