Particle Physicists in U.S. Worry About Being Left Behind

Published: March 4, 2013

Are the glory days of American physics over?

On a Sunday morning early in January, about two dozen prominent physicists gathered behind closed doors at the California Institute of Technology to ponder the state of their craft.

American physicists were not exactly sitting on the sidelines last July when CERN announced the probable discovery of the long-sought Higgs boson, the key to understanding the origin of mass and life in the universe.

The United States contributed $531 million to building and equipping the Large Hadron Collider, the multibillion-dollar European machine with which the discovery was made. About 1,200 Americans work at CERN, including Joe Incandela from the University of California, Santa Barbara, who led one of the two teams making the July announcement.

But as science goes forward, American particle physicists are wondering what role, if any, they will play in the future in high-energy physics — the search for the fundamental particles and forces of nature — a field they once dominated.

“There is enormous angst in the field,” said Michael S. Turner, a physicist and cosmologist at the University of Chicago, who attended the Caltech meeting.

After canceling the Superconducting Super Collider, which would have been the world’s most powerful physics machine, in 1993, and shutting down Fermilab’s Tevatron in 2011, the United States no longer owns the tool of choice in physics, a particle collider.

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