APS News

Letters to the Editor

More Planning Needed to Prepare for Underground Physics Program

In the Letters section of the April, 2011 issue of APS News, I wrote in an open letter to then APS President Barry Barish expressing my contention that excellence of ideas was a more important factor than research funding levels in addressing the most pressing problems facing the physics community at this time.

In his response to my letter, Barish implied that the examples that I had cited as supporting my point of view were chosen in hindsight. He further stated that the lack of US research funding was resulting in American scientists becoming dependent on conducting their research at premier facilities located abroad.

The November, 2011 issue of APS News and the December, 2011 issue of Physics Today contained a number of articles related to these issues, including the redirection of the Fermilab research program from one that was Tevatron based to one based upon a study of neutrino properties utilizing accelerator facilities. In other related articles, the outlook and prospects for future US federal support for basic research in the related fields of astrophysics and elementary particle physics were discussed.

The proposed US programs are based upon the studies of neutrinos produced at accelerator facilities such as Fermilab. The history of US efforts in this area during the past 25 years has been disappointing. They have yielded inconclusive or negative results and have done essentially little in advancing scientific understanding. Those programs have been costly and entailed the primary efforts of hundreds of physicists from dozens of institutions.

In assessing the future prospects for the proposed underground laboratory program, it is my opinion that serious problems and limitations for the Soudan and proposed Homestake laboratories remain. Despite the fact that major expenditures will be required to overcome these problems, the experiments will still retain only a limited scientific capability. I do not feel that I am alone in this assessment and that these factors have been the basis for a decision by the National Science Board to withdraw a commitment for financial support for the DUSEL project. That decision has now been followed by an action by the DOE to reduce its commitment to that project and to ask for a reconsideration of the scope of the program. A two-day scientific review at Fermilab in late April of this year recommended substituting a plan that would rely upon surface-based detectors instead. It was widely recognized that this new plan would require a seriously reduced scientific capability.

There are alternative possibilities that retain scientific potential at lower costs, but they have not been addressed by the scientific community. I have sent a letter to William Brinkman, the DOE’s Director of the Office of Science, in which I criticize the decision reached at the Fermilab workshop to abandon research at underground laboratories. I further point out that there are underground facilities which already exist and which could be optimally modified at low cost. This was something that the workshop attendees were advised not to consider in deciding upon a new course of action.

I call for a change in direction and focus. It is time to return to extended studies such as those conducted at Woods Hole in the 1970s and the month-long Snowmass workshops of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Hopefully, these studies will act to stimulate thinking and to provide new ideas and insights into a broad range of subjects including accelerator design, detector design, laboratory design, and speculative physics and astrophysics ideas which together can culminate in a long range program lasting many years. In the long run, such an approach will be the most productive and least costly to carry out. Scientists in these areas need now to exhibit the imagination and ingenuity that at one time had been theirs and now has been lost, and to begin to exhibit the attributes of the internet community where a few people with outstanding ideas initiate revolutions which transform the society.

Alexander Abashian
Ruckersville, VA

Ed. Note: The APS Division of Particles and Fields has initiated a long-term  planning assessment of High Energy Physics, which will include a Community Summer Study taking place in 2013.

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Editor: Alan Chodos