Dreams – Deferred or Lost?

Strangulation of technical achievement indicates a more general social crisis.

Not to ignore SpaceX successes, May was a difficult month to be positive about American future technical and social directions.  These comments indicated problems:

2012-0506   Edward Conard  was in the news (see our post, The Conard justification) because he is about to publish a book justifying the income grab by the very highest earners in our society.

2012-0510   Steven Weinberg (University Texas – Austin) one of our top physicists, published an essay, The Crisis of Big Science,  in the New York Review of Books.  Though Dr. Weinberg originally spoke to physicists, it is a good read for the general public, too.

2012-0522   Dennis Overbye , one of the New York Times’ outstanding technical reporters, wrote Physics Dreams Deferred, the lede article in the Science Times section.  Mr. Overbye describes recent cancellations and postponements of many programs and quotes Dr. Weinberg in the process.

The Weinberg and Overbye comments reinforce the thinking behind the LastTechAge efforts:

(1)  After WW-II, America led the world and painted the dreams of generations of young people, everywhere.

(2)  America is withdrawing from scientific endeavors.  Conard’s book advocates support for the Income Pump whose sudden appearance changed the nature of our society.

We discuss examples from both Dr. Weinberg and Mr. Overbye.  Click to jump to topic:  TevatronLHCSSCDUSEL,   WFIRST.    Click to jump to our Afterview.


1: The U.S. Tevatron. 2 beams each at 1 TeV cycle about the large ring, in opposite directions.

High energy accelerators  crash protons together to probe how matter is built at sizes much smaller than an atom’s nucleus.  The Tevatron facility, (1983-2011) was near Chicago.  It was the highest power accelerator in the US, providing collisions with combined energies of 1 TeV.

The facility has a large ring (Fig 1) that holds two beams of protons moving in opposite directions, nearly at the speed of light.  The small ring brings protons up to speed then shifts them into the large ring.  A walk around the main ring would cover 4 miles (6.3 km).  From one side, through the center and to the other would be a  hike of 1¼ miles.


2:  The larger LHC has a big ring where counter rotating protons periodically collide at maximum energy

The LHC, (2009-…) is the big European accelerator at the Swiss/French border. The LHC will ultimately provide 7 TeV protons for its collisions, when it is finally operating at full power.  The large ring seen in this aerial photo holds counter rotating proton beams that periodically collide with each other.  The large ring is 27 km (17 mi) around its circumference, corresponding to a 8½ km (5½ mi) hike across the ring. Someday,  LHC will probe matter at 7 times higher energy, important if you follow high energy physics issues.  A reason to decommission the Tevatron was that the LHC is more powerful.

Colliders_tblAmerica does not compete in this arena because it turned off its big-experiment program back in 1993, when congress overrode Pres Clinton and removed funding from the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) which was under construction in Texas.  Compares the 3 machines with this table.

Per Weinberg, the SSC would have started up about 2000 and would have yielded much better understanding than anything in the world.  The SSC was shut off due to fascinating politics, part of the “deferred” thing Overbye examines.

Overbye discussed other recent scientific frustrations.  His focus was on astronomy programs, as well as high energy physics ones


3. DUSEL lab diagram

DUSEL (Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory) to be located in the deep chambers of the abandoned Homestake gold mine near Lead, South Dakota.  NSF declined to support the lab in 2011; the DOE had no reserves in 2012 to shift to it because government agencies work in 2 to 5 year cycles and are helpless in emergencies.

The diagram of Fig 3 shows the proposed facility with the shaft(s) from the surface to the working tunnels at different levels. Yellow chambers schematically indicate labs.  “7400L” refers to the level of horizontal tunnels 7400 feet below surface, also shown in  kilometers.  Homestake has the deepest levels available in the world.  The actual mine is spatially complicated, more like the root structure of a bush than this tidy diagram.

Play a game – The answer is:  background noise protection … what is the question?  Solution:  Why is deep important?   Every data-taking effort constantly worries about noise, signals that look like the real thing but are not.  Suppose the crime scene technicians on a CSI show look for a fingerprint to identify the bad-guy, but must work in a busy shopping mall where strangers wander around and touch everything in sight.   This background “noise” of unrelated fingerprints would drive any CSI tech crazy.

CSI folks can put up yellow crime-scene tape to block curious people.  But dense material (the more the better) is the only barrier to sky-shine, cosmic rays from the sky that would flood data signals with meaningless noise.

DUSEL’s extreme depth blocks out cosmic rays; it is the best place in the world for ultra sensitive measurements.  The surface and 300L facilities  are for administration and education.  The 8000L labs are much deeper than any of the other “deep labs” anywhere.

Four keystone programs were to hold the laboratory together:  (1) A neutrino study needing the now-closed Tevatron  (2) a study of a poorly understood nuclear decay process  (3) a dark matter cosmology study  (4) a physics study of potential self decay of elementary protons.  All needed extreme isolation.

Nearly 20 programs that would have actually started up with the lab, including CO2 sequestration and geothermal power extraction. DUSEL would have been an historically significant facility.


4, WFIRST in 2010 proposal

WFIRST is an American probe that ranked highest by the latest Decadal Study team.  It would have had 3 tasks: (1) study the acceleration of the Hubble expansion of the universe hence dark energy  (2) use microlensing to find exoplanets (objects that do not orbit our own sun)  (3) perform wide field imaging surveys using light from deep red to the near IR. The early 2012 budget decisions leave WFIRST unfunded, which is why it is discussed among Overbye’s frustrating lost programs.

The European Space Agency (ESA) plans to launch its own Euclid probe in 2019, maybe later.  This has a similar mission to WFIRST’s task 2, above. Euclid would serve as an excellent independent data source.  NASA has not been able to contribute much to Euclid, so we will have some cooperative presence – but not much.

WFIRST’s story has not yet necessarily ended.  The budget that would kill the program has not yet been finalized.


Mr. Overbye’s Dreams Deferred  also lists LISA and the James Webb Space Telescope, as other programs terminated or in trouble. (JWST survived recent budget threats, but will funding remain through to launch?)  LastTechAge has added the uncertain U.S. manned space program, and the loss of Fusion power options (here and here).

Dr. Weinberg’s Crisis ends with a tough discussion.  Cut any budget: reduce funds to programs, reduce food to rats, reduce support for social programs … with decreasing resources, the group in question will start to tear itself apart.   In 1993, a leader of a physics society argued against the SSC because the money would be better spent in his own personal field of study.  Weinberg expresses horror at current attempts to fund one worthy cause by grabbing away from another. He quotes a Texas legislator who proposed to increase school funding by taking funds from health care.  Weinberg’s resolution is to increase the total funding pool by re-instituting progressive taxation.

Taxes?  No one likes taxes, but LastTechAge applauds Weinberg’s courage because his solution ties into our parallel  theme of income inequality.  Productivity and income has grown over the last 3 decades, but that growth shifted income to the highest earners at the expense of the vast majority of lower earners.  (See our page, the The American Income Pump where we define baseline years, elites, ultras and what the income pump has accomplished.)

Increasing taxes is a hot issue – it sounds like yanking income from the people who are barely hanging on to their livelihood.  Because these are the ones who lost the most income fraction to the biggest earners, they should not be the target of new taxes.

In detail: The lower 50% of all earners (those with total household incomes below $50,000) have faced the many “cannots” that have emerged while the pump operates.  They cannot afford new cars, they cannot afford electronic toys, many cannot afford to higher education for their children.  And they cannot avoid watching the upper earners indulge themselves.  This is not a temporary inconvenience due to a current economic downturn.  During the last 30 years this has grown from an annoyance into real disenfranchisement.

Progressive rate schedules.  Progressive indicates a tax rate that increases with received income.  We need to return to the progressive tax ladder of the baseline years between WW-II and 1980.  The cause of the income pump may not be known, but it turned on the same time the ultras had their tax rates reduced.  Nowadays, Mitt Romney pays less tax than his secretary.

  • Long ago a special toy was sold.  Flip a switch ON and a box door opened.  A hand reached out, pulled the switch to OFF, then quickly withdrew as the toy shut down.
  • With decreasing income, the Government must reduce funded programs.

In both, we see a kind of self actuating destruction.  Congress began closing its funding pool about the time the income pump started. This means those cries – that we have ever less each year to do innovative things – are sort of like the box complaining it can do nothing else because it loses power.  For example – How can we afford low cost student loans when the money to do it is just not available, especially since tuition rises at about three times CPI inflation or ten times Federal Reserve Bank interest?  And why are American youth not going to college even though  Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama have preached that this is the new & only path to success in the “new economy”?  So… if these kids refuse to get that education, they are moochers! Why sympathize with their future misfortunes? Sort of a self-generated vortex downwards.

click for our discussions of technology policy

Poisonous Atmospheres.  Those hurting are not just sad scientists with dashed dreams. Most households below the top 10% of earners feel the issues.  LastTechAge uses science labs as the canaries in our social coal mine. The canaries have been dying  for decades; something is poisoning our social atmosphere.

UPDATE:  2012-05-30   DUSEL may be dead but at least one experimental study will still be performed.  The solar neutrino paradox (why is there too few of the easily detected type found from the sun?) was solved in the early 2000 by a physicist named Davis in lab built at 4850L.  This is above the level that required water removal as done in the last 3 years for the really deep DUSEL program.  Professor Rick Gaitskell from Brown University obtained a $300 M grant to run is LUX (Large Underground Xenon experiment) for the next several years.  This is a major attempt to identify dark matter, the stuff that makes up more than 6 times the content of our universe than the “normal matter” which we are made of.  Although huge, we have never before detected this “stuff,” and this is a very significant test.  Dr. Gaitskell is to be congratulated on this success in getting if funded.  It will be supported by grants from the state of South Dakota, HUD, and the philanthropist T. Denny Sanford.  Nowadays, science programs cannot expect Government support, they need support by patrons (called philanthropists) who have the same über rich status as the princeling patron of Mozart.  In this age of Ultras, we must be grateful that such people exist.


Charles J. Armentrout, Ann Arbor
2012 May 28
Listed under   Technology
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About LastTechAge

I am a physicist with years of work in fusion labs, industry labs, and teaching (physics and math). I have watched the tech scene, watched societal trends and am alarmed. My interest is to help us all improve or maintain that which we worked so hard to achieve.
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