The Dark-Matter Ages

The U.S. may be losing its place as the world leader in frontier physics research.

Technicians put the finishing touches on the Davis Campus, 4,850 feet underground at the Sanford Underground Research Facility.
Technicians put the finishing touches on the Davis Campus, 4,850 feet underground at the Sanford Underground Research Facility.

Photo courtesy of Roy Kaltschmidt/Lawrence Berkeley Lab.

Read more from Slate’s special issue on science education and give us your best ideas for raising the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Early this month, a new, deep underground laboratory officially opened in the former Homestake Gold Mine in Lead, S.D. The Sanford Underground Lab’s main aim: to discover the nature of the mysterious “dark matter” that accounts for almost 90 percent of mass in the universe. Dark matter is thought to be made up of an exotic, as of yet undefined type of elementary particle left over from the Big Bang and different in nature than those that make up visible matter.

Similar deep underground laboratories exist in Canada and Europe. But there is one notable difference between the South Dakota laboratory and its competitors: The bulk of the funds for building the South Dakota laboratory were provided by a private individual, billionaire philanthropist Denny Sanford (though the U.S. Department of Energy has now taken over funding the lab’s operation and ongoing experiments).

The opening of a new laboratory should be cause for celebration, but there is an unpleasant subtext here. The Homestake site was supposed to house a far more ambitious new National Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, which would provide the deepest site on earth, allowing for scientific investigations into topics from dark matter to evolutionary biology. In 2010, however, the National Science Foundation—which had commissioned several R and D studies for such a laboratory and which had picked Homestake as one of two possible sites—decided to drop out of the project. Thus ended the prospect of a new national laboratory, and South Dakota, Sanford, and the DOE were forced to scramble to keep the smaller scale operation afloat. The deepest underground laboratory will remain in Sudbury, Canada—meaning that the United States has again ceded leadership in this aspect of laboratory infrastructure supporting frontier physics and astronomy.

With the closing last year of the Tevatron accelerator at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., the center of gravity in experimental particle physics shifted to Geneva. The Large Hadron Collider is now not only the highest energy accelerator in the world; it is essentially the only game in (terrestrial) town for directly exploring the subatomic world on the scale necessary to answer at least some of the key questions that have been driving theoretical speculations for the past half-century, ranging from the origin of mass to the existence of a possible Grand Unified Theory of all forces, and even the possible existence of extra dimensions in nature.

Many of these questions could have been answered almost 20 years ago, had the United States not canceled funding for the Superconducting SuperCollider, a device far larger and more ambitious than the LHC. Furthermore, the SSC’s proposed design was determined by the underlying physics goals rather than the need to fit it into an existing tunnel, which constrained the magnitude of the LHC project.

The United States has also long led the world in the research associated with so-called “dark energy.” Just last year, three U.S. scientists won the Nobel Prize for their work in the discovery that the expansion of the universe is speeding up and not slowing down. But in this territory, too, momentum seems to be moving to Europe. The next major space mission designed to explore the nature of this dark energy will be launched by the European Space Agency in 2019, with the United States playing only a minor role. A U.S.-led satellite project designed to explore dark energy is called Wfirst, but it may as well be named Wsecond, because funding for that mission has been cut to almost zero until at least 2018, when the budget-strapped NASA plans to launch the James Webb Space Telescope.

Our graduate programs at U.S. universities remain among the best in the world, and individual experiments at several international laboratories are led by U.S. collaborations. But the developments I have described above don’t bode well for future U.S. leadership in the forefront of physics research. Current budget woes only make it more likely that we’ll see even less federal support for fundamental science in the next decade—and raising taxes to support big science probably isn’t going to be viewed as a vote-getter in the current presidential race. It may be decades before we feel the impact of R and D money not spent now—but the negative economic and intellectual impact is inevitable.

From a purely intellectual perspective and in terms of human progress, perhaps it doesn’t matter where discoveries are made. But inevitably the best and brightest young minds move with their feet to be where the action is. Our graduate programs will suffer as the best students from around the world choose to study elsewhere. And if we lose the best young minds intent on pursuing fundamental curiosity-driven research, we will also lose those capable of producing the discoveries and inventions and startups that can power our economy a generation from now.

So, even as we celebrate the opening of an exciting new research facility in Lead, we need to remember, in the back of our minds, that with continued lack of funding for experimental infrastructures for fundamental research in the physical sciences in this country, we risk losing both the intellectual and practical benefits that come with remaining a world leader in forefront science throughout this century.

Also in Slate’s special issue on science education: Fred Kaplan explains why another “Sputnik moment” would be impossible; Philip Plait explains why he became the “Bad Astronomer”; Paul Plotz describes how almost blowing up his parents’ basement made him a scientist; and Dana Goldstein explains why you should make your daughter play video games. Also, share your ideas for fixing science education in the Hive. This article arises from Future Tense, a joint partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.