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Searching for Great Adventures

There are an infinite number of inspirational scientific journeys awaiting out there, and not all of them require looking up.

Tony Rothman

Who defines a Great Adventure? If to a scientist, science itself is the adventure, one need only cast an eye back on the ill-fated Superconducting Super Collider—the giant particle accelerator that would have discovered the Higgs boson a decade ago had it been built in Texas as planned—to recall that such an attitude is far from universally shared. The Super Collider had many detractors within the scientific community, but none doubted that its mission was scientific. Not so for the politicians.

Physicist Steven Weinberg recollects that at one House of Representatives hearing, a congressman confessed that he could understand how the International Space Station would help us learn about the universe, but he couldn’t understand how the same applied to the Super Collider. When the question “What will it find?” met no response other than “Higgs boson,” the $8 billion Super Collider was canceled in favor of the largely science-free Space Station, which has ended up costing an order of magnitude more. (Earlier that year, physicist Leon Lederman branded the Higgs boson as the “God particle,” but too late.) That the Super Collider lacked government contractors beholden to it in every state was certainly not incidental to the outcome.

In any case, high scientific return is apparently not sufficient to help Congress pinpoint a Great Adventure. The United States also declined to become a major player in the European Union’s Large Hadron Collider, which did discover the Higgs boson and revealed something fundamental about the universe. Lawmakers have failed as well to find inspiration in another project that is potentially as practical as the Super Collider was not: ITER. Currently under construction by the EU and a half-dozen other countries in Cadarache, France, ITER is a giant experimental device whose aim is to create the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear fusion reaction. ITER is over budget and behind schedule, and there is no guarantee that fusion will ever prove to be economically viable. For all that, one might think that the idea of creating a star on Earth, and the prospect of limitless energy, should fire the world’s imagination. 

Yet when ITER was proposed, America’s first action was to pull out of the project. The country eventually rejoined, as a minor player, and Congress continues to make noises about zeroing the U.S. ITER budget. Energy sustainability in general has inspired scientists and engineers far more than it has politicians and the public, both of whom—whether because of fear of fracking or the influence of Big Oil—regard energy as less romantic than necessary. China and South Korea have both intimated that they will go the fusion path alone should ITER fail, but in the United States, a sustainable energy future has not attained the mantle of Great Adventure.

Among the sciences, cosmology has perhaps come closest to attaining Great Adventure status. It sells magazines, editors assure me, and some billions have been spent on cosmological probes like WMAP and Planck. To many cosmologists, myself included, there is deep romance in the adventure. On a psychological level, the field may even serve as a substitute religion for doubters and nonbelievers—witness the many “faces of God” metaphors cosmologists routinely trot out. The public’s interest (and, according to legend, certain lawmakers who want to find the Creator) in cosmology is undeniably stimulated by the God question.

But cosmology is first and foremost a science, one which requires higher mathematics, exact observations, and sophisticated data reduction. At the same time, though, it is not space exploration: One of the triumphs of 20th-century science is that we managed to learn so much about the universe without going anywhere. Thus, what cosmology has gained over the years as a science, it has lost in intelligibility to the public, and it does seem that if Congress and the public view cosmology as a Great Adventure, they do so largely for the wrong reasons.

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