Steven Weinberg on The Crisis of Big Science

Last year physicists commemorated the centennial of the discovery of the atomic nucleus. In experiments carried out in Ernest Rutherford’s laboratory at Manchester in 1911, a beam of electrically charged particles from the radioactive decay of radium was directed at a thin gold foil. It was generally believed at the time that the mass of an atom was spread out evenly, like a pudding. In that case, the heavy charged particles from radium should have passed through the gold foil, with very little deflection. To Rutherford’s surprise, some of these particles bounced nearly straight back from the foil, showing that they were being repelled by something small and heavy within gold atoms. Rutherford identified this as the nucleus of the atom, around which electrons revolve like planets around the sun.

This was great science, but not what one would call big science. Rutherford’s experimental team consisted of one postdoc and one undergraduate. Their work was supported by a grant of just £70 from the Royal Society of London...Nuclear physics soon got bigger. The electrically charged particles from radium in Rutherford’s experiment did not have enough energy to penetrate the electrical repulsion of the gold nucleus and get into the nucleus itself. To break into nuclei and learn what they are, physicists in the 1930s invented cyclotrons and other machines that would accelerate charged particles to higher energies...

After World War II, new accelerators were built, but now with a different purpose. In observations of cosmic rays, physicists had found a few varieties of elementary particles different from any that exist in ordinary atoms. To study this new kind of matter, it was necessary to create these particles artificially in large numbers. For this physicists had to accelerate beams of ordinary particles like protons—the nuclei of hydrogen atoms—to higher energy, so that when the protons hit atoms in a stationary target their energy could be transmuted into the masses of particles of new types. It was not a matter of setting records for the highest-energy accelerators, or even of collecting more and more exotic species of particles, like orchids. The point of building these accelerators was, by creating new kinds of matter, to learn the laws of nature that govern all forms of matter. Though many physicists preferred small-scale experiments in the style of Rutherford, the logic of discovery forced physics to become big.

In 1959 I joined the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley as a postdoc. Berkeley then had the world’s most powerful accelerator, the Bevatron, which occupied the whole of a large building in the hills above the campus. The Bevatron had been built specifically to accelerate protons to energies high enough to create antiprotons, and to no one’s surprise antiprotons were created. What was surprising was that hundreds of types of new, highly unstable particles were also created. There were so many of these new types of particles that they could hardly all be elementary, and we began to doubt whether we even knew what was meant by a particle being elementary. It was all very confusing, and exciting... Read more:

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