2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

[ print ]

Professor of Journalism, New York University; former journalist, Science Magazine; Author, Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception
Professor of Journalism, New York University; formerly journalist, Science magazine; Author, Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea

Pessimistic In Its Optimism

It's easy to be a pessimist. These are dark times for physics in the United States. One by one, national laboratories are shuttering their high-energy physics experiments; within a few years there won't be a single U.S. accelerator exploring the energy frontier. As NASA squanders billions and billions of dollars on the International Space Station and on lunar exploration, it is tearing the guts out of its other programs—the ones that provide actual scientific discoveries.

Physics is a transplant to the U.S. Before 1900, you could count the number of great American physicists on one hand. A few decades later, the U.S. had become the premier power in theoretical and experimental physics, thanks to refugees from Hungary, from Austria, from Germany, from Italy, from Denmark, and from all across Europe. The transplant took root and flourished.

Even though the future is dimming for American physics, there is room for optimism—the prospects for major discoveries are the brightest they've been in years. We are in the midst of a cosmological revolution; we are beginning to understand the physical laws that governed the early universe. Before the end of the decade, European experiments, such as the Planck satellite and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN will allow physicists to delve deeper than ever before into the story of the infant cosmos. While physics in the United States is withering, there will be fertile soil where a transplant can take root once again.