Is the future of physics small science?

ALICE TPC 1Of course I cannot predict the future and so have no more idea what the future of physics will be than you do. But I have been reading some interesting blog posts and newspaper articles. I will give links and some comments, and you can make up your mind about the future of physics.

It may be different from a lot of the high profile physics in the period since the Second-World-War, due to what Steve Weinberg calls The Crisis of Big Science. Steve Weinberg is a Nobel-laureate particle physicist. Big Science is stuff like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerlent, and the really big space projects.

A point he makes is kind-of obvious, a successor to the LHC will need to be even bigger to go to higher energies than the LHC, and bigger means more costly. I guess the maths is simple: Given that the LHC cost maybe £5 billion then if you want to go to energies 10 times larger and assume cost scales linearly with energy then that’s a £50 billion machine.

Ouch. Physicists are not going to be popular in the current climate if they ask for that much for one experiment. As Weinberg notes (several times) in his article, the American equivalent of the LHC, the Superconducting SuperCollider (SSC) was canned 20 years ago.

This could at least be a PR problem for physics. Physics’s PR problem: Moving beyond string theory and multiple universes is the title of a post by Ash Jogalekar that I enjoyed. He points out that physics popular science books are dominated by the part of physics that looks for stuff like the ultimate theory of everything. Stuff like the LHC’s search for the God particle AKA the Higgs Boson.

If particle physicists find the God particle, what do they do for an encore, particularly if this costs tens of billions?  And if teenagers are being inspired to do physics by these big projects addressing big ideas, then once the Higgs boson has been found, will smart teenagers want to do biology instead?

But as Jogalekar points out, most physics is small not big science. For example, there are many more physicists working in the field of condensed-matter physics than there are in particle physics. Condensed matter physics is a big broad field, ranging from lasers, to superconductors, to ice cream.

So if there is no successor to the LHC, 99% of physics research will carry on, largely unaffected. But maybe physicists will need new ideas, to communicate new challenges, if the recent increase in interest in physics degrees is to continue.

There are plenty of big exciting challenges out there that physicists are working on: climate change, diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s, nuclear fusion, … But in many cases the research is not just done by physicists, but by teams of biologists, chemists, engineers, physicists, mathematicians, … It may be hard to communicate to the general public that a physics degree is exciting and distinctive when so much of the forefront of physics is in areas like Alzheimer’s, which people perceive as medicine, or climate change that people see as part of Earth science or chemistry. But in the absence of an encore to the God particle, we will have to.