Get over it, man!

So, Nate, the truth is that yes, of course, I’m very excited about CERN and the LHC.  Part of my lament for the Tevatron is the same sort of lament one might have for a beautiful old building that’s being torn down.  Yes, the steel and glass one being built across town is much more efficient, but it just seems a shame to see this one go down.  This really has nothing to do with science at all.  This is just do to the fact that I like old stuff.  You should see my house.  My dining room table was pulled out of the basement of a house I lived in years ago.  I love it.

So it’s really not a case of being an American Booster, or pride, or feeling that good ol’ American science shouldn’t be shipped overseas.  Science is an internationally collaborative thing, and as you say, only good can come of discoveries being made.  I completely agree.

The tone of regret and alarm you sensed in The Atom Smashers was due to something larger than the closing down of the Tevatron.  It’s something of which the Tevatron’s demise is a symptom.  Since you’ve just seen The Atom Smashers I’ll reference two places: remember when Joel Butler, one of the BTeV co-chairs (BTeV was the big project that got canceled, shutting down the Tevatron) said how surprised he was that people seemed to think that basic research was too hard, or too expensive?  That there was a time when science was just seen as a positive thing and no one really debated about whether it was worth pursuing?  Also, remember when Natalie Angier (the New York Times writer) said that starting at about the fourth grade people stopped thinking about science, and thought they couldn’t think about it, and became afraid of it?

We have a strange relationship with science in this country.  Many people believe that if it’s not about saving lives (medicine, cancer research) or about useful technology (cell phones, nano-tech) then why should we be wasting money on it?  So what I really lament is not necessarily that the science is going to be done at CERN.  As you say, good science is good science, and we’ll all benefit no matter where it’s done.  That misses the underlying point though, that the US is not clamoring for the science to be done here.  As John Conway says in the airport as he picks up Robin Erbacher, his wife, what does it say about us and our priorities that we are going to let the other countries in the world do this work?  That’s the key question.  What does it say about us?  What does it mean about us, and what does it portend for us in the future?

Here’s an analogy: what if we decided to close all our art schools and museums because other countries were doing art, and we could benefit from the work they did without having to get our hands dirty?  While it might be easy to say “get over it, man,” because great art was still happening in Europe, or Japan, or Russia, what about the effect of removing direct contact with art on an everyday level from a nation’s kids and students?  It drastically affects how they grow and learn, and directly shapes their worldview.  By closing the Tevatron, (and all the other accelerator labs in the US that have closed in recent years) we remove any exposure to that kind of science for tens of thousands of students.  Not only that, but grad students, post-docs, faculty, and scientists who might have come to the U.S. now … won’t.  As Sheldon Stone, the other BTeV co-chair says, “they’ll go to other places in the world.  Places that invest in science.”  We’ll be losing something — the influence of thousands of minds that would have been coming to this country, but won’t.  That’s far more important than any particular scientific discovery.

So really the closing of the Tevatron is (to use a tired cliche) the tip of the iceberg.  The long-lasting effects of a system of priorities can shape the zeitgeist of a country for years and years, generations even.  Consider: in the 20s and 30s, the US government paid artists to spread out across the country to document our nation.  As a result, incredible works of art, tens of thousands of paintings and murals, were created (I saw many of them on display in Washington DC last summer).  No one questioned the appropriateness of spending government money on art.  Look today at the national mood about art: NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) money is nearly non-existent, PBS has to fight annually to keep its meager government stipend, and congresspeople become furious at the notion that public money should be spent on artistic risk-taking.  As a result, the public participation in the arts has been in steep decline for many years (see this recent survey from the NEA).

Closing the Tevatron is a big step in the same direction for sciences.  If Natalie Angier is already lamenting the fact that many Americans are out of touch with science, removing even more of the potential exposure to advanced science can only make things worse.  You say you might want to go back and get a graduate degree in particle physics — that’s great!  But, my friend, you won’t be able to see a particle accelerator in use now unless you are able to go to CERN.  That’s very expensive.  And in the meantime, the thousands of schoolkids who every year toured Fermilab won’t get to see one either.  How many of those kids would have grown up to become particle physicists?

Before this turns into a long-winded rant (too late!) I’ll just wrap up by saying again that this really has nothing to do with pride, or a sense of America First, but is a claim that in fact it really does matter where the science comes from.  If all the great science comes from “over there,” Americans will get used to the idea that good science happens somewhere else, and therefore the good scientists live somewhere else.  And the rest of the world will get used to that too.

Now, as a final thought, much has changed since the end of The Atom Smashers. We have a new president who has firmly stated he’s going to put science back where it belongs in the national consciousness.  He even appointed Steven Chu, a nobel-prize-winning-physicist, as the Secretary of Energy.  A lot of funding has been restored to Fermilab.  These are all great things, so in fact I’m feeling much more positive about the state of affairs than I was at the end of the last administration.

PS to your question about the SSC, there is a “dvd extra” about that turn of events.  It was in an earlier cut of the film, but didn’t quite fit with the story.

Thanks, Nate!

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~ by claytonbrown2 on January 2, 2010.

One Response to “Get over it, man!”

  1. What’s wrong with you Americans of today?! Of course you need good science and great scientists! You have those fantastic research centers and equipments and why do you ever want to waste them? You’ve made it this far and most countries are still dreaming about it! If you guys close the Tevatron, why don’t you donate it to us and we will have our scientists working on it. See? Of course no right? So stop lamenting and keep it on like your older generations!

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