Nuclear Physics in the Time of Austerity

Posted by Michael on February 9, 2013

By Lizzie Wade

The Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider spends its days slamming tiny particles of gold together, helping physicists peer back in time to what the universe looked like a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. It’s also hanging on by a thread, abandoned by the department that’s supposed to be fighting on its behalf.

Granted, RHIC is used to making do with what it has. It’s never been the biggest or the most powerful. Its discoveries aren’t announced via global press conferences followed by all-night parties. It never even had a chance of finding the Higgs boson. Physicists who work with RHIC patch up its problem areas with packing tape and bring their own coffee cups to overnight shifts because the Department of Energy can’t afford to provide them.

Now the DOE says it can’t afford RHIC, either. It wants to build a new machine to study the rare elements streaming out of dying stars, and maybe figure out what we can do with them here on Earth. But money is tight. So the U.S.’s final collider has to go, a sacrificial victim at only 13 years old. The last accelerator to be shut down died at lively 28.

My TWP collaborator and I are writing about the Superconducting Super Collider, another particle accelerator the U.S. decided it couldn’t afford. Unlike RHIC, however, the SSC died when it was still just a hole in the ground, a good ten years before it could have started doing science. Expensive and constantly over-budget, the SSC imploded on the floor of the House in 1993. Contrary to the DOE’s current logic, we didn’t use the money we saved to build $11 billion worth of better, cheaper, newer physics projects. We just flooded the hole and handed our high energy physicists a ticket to CERN.

Considering the DOE panel follows its recommendation to close RHIC by painting a picture of a rosier future in which the U.S. gets to do all the nuclear physics it wants with the help of only “modest budget increases,” the threat to RHIC’s life might be a bluff—but it’s one Congress will probably call, if the SSC is any indication. And if it does, the money saved on RHIC will likely disappear. Shutting down one Big Science project doesn’t mean you get to use that money for another one. It means you don’t get that money at all.

RHIC might not be a shiny new toy, and the science it does might not be particularly sexy. But at least it’s up and running. We shouldn’t walk away under the delusional belief that something better will come along. The SSC proved the government can’t be expected to prioritize new physics experiments during times of economics stress. Twenty years later, we shouldn’t sacrifice RHIC for a dream that won’t come true.