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Science in 2006

A former IBM chief scientist looks ahead from 1986 into the twenty-first century

Lewis Branscomb

Originally published in the November-December 1986 issue of American Scientist.

When the National Science Board met in the spring of 2006 to discuss the budget for 2007, there was a debate about the competition between "big" and "little" science. There had not been such a debate for a long time, because all areas of science were now supported by instrumentation of a power undreamed of back in 1986. Intelligent instruments were not only capable of extraordinary resolution and sensitivity; they had attained a degree of control and a complexity of synthesis beyond the reach of science twenty years before. All science had become capital intensive.

What triggered the debate was the Board's responsibility for overseeing all U.S. scientific operations in Antarctica, where amazing discoveries in the biological adaptation of microorganisms had been made, and where the record of terrestrial climate variations had been found to be completely preserved in the ice cores. As a result, both environmental and climatological research had been greatly expanded.

The debate concerned a discipline new to the frozen continent: high-energy physics. It seems that the Superconducting Super-Collider (SSC) had been finished in late 1999, just in time to celebrate the arrival of the twenty-first century. The presidential campaign of 2000 was about to begin, and recapturing the U.S. position in basic science was a major issue. Since the Japanese had been outspending the Americans in science for a decade, as had the Europeans collectively, the US presidential candidates were pushing for the internationalization of "big science" projects.

High-energy experimentalists (and accelerator designers) were dissatisfied with the SSC almost before it was built, and had proposed an even bigger machine: a ring 5,000 km. in circumference, which would lend itself in unique ways to cheap tunneling costs and to international sponsorship and operation. The scheme was to build the toroidal tunnel 1,000 m. under the surface of central Antarctica, where the ice is over 2 km. thick for millions of square kilometers. An unmanned robot tunneling tool navigated by inertial guidance would melt the ice as it went with steam supplied by a small fission reactor. (All reactor wastes were to be removed, in accordance with the Antarctic treaty, and burned in a fusion waste converter being built at Oak Ridge.) The treaty provided the framework for the project, and the National Academy of Sciences had suggested an International Cosmological Year (the "ICY") to mobilize the international community behind the accelerator project.

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