George Brown

On July 15th, George Brown (D-CA), ranking minority member of the HouseScience Committee, died at the age of 79 from an infection following heart valve replacement surgery. RepresentativeBrown was one of the science community's greatest friends in Washington.He was trained as an industrial physicist before being elected to Congress and was in his 18th term. He served two terms as Chairman of the Science Committee, and has been the ranking Democrat for the past five years.

Representative Brown was a driving force behind the establishment of the Office of Technology Assessment, the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Environmental Protection Agency. He was a strong advocate of international scientific collaboration. In the words of FYI, "not only was Brown a strong advocate for federal R&D, he was also someone who attempted to look beyond the conventional wisdom and challenge traditional thinking about science and technology and their role in society....He was one of the first politicians to articulate the view that the path from scientific discovery to technological innovation to commercial product is complex and nonlinear, and to argue that this ought to be reflected in the nation's science policy".


In a 1993 speech to the AAAS Science and Technology Colloquium, Brown said, "For the past fifty years, this nation has focused its resources on building weapons of inconceivable destructive power, and we have viewed the rest of the world as a chessboard designed to play out our own ideological struggle. We propped up governments that murdered nuns, priests, nurses and children, and we provided high-technology weaponry to dictatorships. We destabilized governments that were democratically elected, in some instances to protect the profits of U.S. companies. We turned a blind eye while our tactical allies acquired the componenets necessary to build nuclear weapons, and we condoned authoritarian governments in the name of the free flow of oil. Our vision during the Cold War was cynical in the extreme: "Mutual assured destruction" was a U.S. philosophy of international relations; the "Peacekeeper" was a ballistic missile that carried nuclear warheads.

"Now the Cold War is over, and our excuse for this behavior is gone. We need a new and better vision. I'm exploring ways to define that vision. I would be satisfied with small but definite steps in a new direction, but what direction? Neither technology nor economics can answer questions of values. Is our path into the future to be defined by the literally mindless process of technological evolution and economic expansion or by a conscious adoption of guiding moral precepts? Progress is meaningless if we don't know where we are going. Unless we try to visualize what is beyond the horizon, we will always occupy the same shore." 

The Director of the National Science Foundation, Rita Colwell, commented that "George Brown was the 'wise man of science' in the Congress. In his long and distinguished tenure on the Science Committee he was the most articulate spokesperson for continuing investments in science and technology for the nation's long term well-being. Brown played a pivotal role in the development of a permanent structure for science and technology in the federal government....He championed the new territories of science long before they entered the mainstream. he was an early and outspoken advocate of environmental research, space science, biotechnology and the information sciences. Our greatest tribute to his wise legacy will be to remember and repeat the lessons he taught us".

Eamon Kelly, Chairman of the National Science Board, said that "Mr. Brown was more than a friend of science. In 34 years on the Science Committee, he became a fount of wisdom about how science and technology are transforming our lives....He once said, 'What I have always wanted to do is help shape ideas about the emerging human culture'. He did that and so much more. All policy advisory bodies and students of government have lost a role model and a colleague. The legacy of Congressman George Brown will light the way to a science and technology policy for the next millenium."

Research Data Availability and the Freedom of Information Act

An attempt to delay implementation of the legislation for one-year, in order to study the best way to approach the issue, was defeated 25-33 in the House Appropriations Committee. Various hearings are being held. Recently, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), NIH Director Harold Varmus, Nat'l. Acad. of Sciences President Bruce Alberts and others testified before the House Committee on Government Reform. This Committee is considering H.R. 88, a bill sponsored by the late George Brown, which would repeal the provision outright. 

The outcome of this bill should be known shortly and was uncertain at press time. For the latest, go to, and look at the 1999 archives. The original legislation goes into effect on October 1st.


DOE Reorganization of National Labs and the China Spy Scandal

The nation's nuclear weapons laboratories have been in turmoil for much of the past year. It all began when it was revealed (by Chinese intelligence officials) that a scientist at Los Alamos had passed classified information concerning nuclear weapons codes. There was an immediate outcry in Congress, leading to the introduction of a bill, discussed in this newsletter in July, to prohibit foreign nationals from a number of countries from "visiting the nuclear weapons laboratories" (the alleged spy was an American citizen). Although this bill has been modified in the interim, much, much more significant concerns have been raised. It is now clear that the DOE's weapons labs are going to be operating under some new structure, and this structure will be determined by Congress.

The fuel was added to the fire with the release of the Rudman report. This was a special investigative panel of the President's Foreign Intelligence Board. One panel member was Sid Drell, former APS President. The title of the report is self-explanatory: "Science at its Best, Security at its Worst: A Report on Security Problems at the US Dept. of Energy". The report called DOE's performance "intolerable" and "Pollyannaish" and said that "DOE represents the best of America's scientific talent and achievement, but has also been responsible for the worst security record on secrecy that the members of the panel have ever encountered", and that "DOE has had a dysfunctional management structure and culture that only occasionally gave proper credence to the need for rigorous security and counterintelligence programs at the weapons labs". All of the past six Administrations are faulted.

A recurring topic in the report is the dual management of the classified nuclear weapons programs and other non-classified scientific research. The report says: "The Foreign Visitors' and Assignments Program has been and should continue to be a valuable contribution to the scientific and technological progress of the nation. Foreign nationals working under the auspices of U.S. weapons labs have achieved remarkable scientific advances and contributed immensely to a wide array of America's national security interests, including nonproliferation....The value of these contacts to the nation should not be lost amid the attempt to address deep, well-founded concerns about security lapses. That said, DOE clearly requires measures to ensure that legitimate use of the research laboratories for scientific collaboration is not an open door to foreign espionage agents. Losing national security secrets should never be accepted as an inevitable cost of obtaining scientific knowledge.

"Inherent in the work of the weapons laboratories, of course, is the basic tension between scientific inquiry, which thrives on freewheeling searches for and wide dissemination of information, and government secrecy, which requires just the opposite.....True to the tradition of international partnership molded by the experiences of the Manhattan Project, the weapons labs have remained a reservoir of the best international scientific talent.... Do not forget the primary mission. Preserve and strengthen those agency attributes that will attract the finest talent in the nation.....While maintaining its autonomy, the agency should nonetheless emphasize continued close scientific interaction with the DOE research labs not engaged in weapons-related endeavors. In the semi-autonomous alternative, DOE should also be responsible for ensuring that good relations are maintained between the non-weapons labs and the weapons labs". The full 62 page report can be found on a link on the APS home page.

Following the release of this report, many proposals on reorganizing the DOE's management structure were introduced. In addition, the nuclear weapons labs were thrown into turmoil. Computer systems were shut down for a day or two, laboratory staff were required to attend long security briefings, etc. In the words of the journal "Nature", "It is difficult to imagine that any enemy action could have deliberately paralyzed the U.S. nuclear weapons complex as effectively as this domestically driven scandal has done.... Experienced laboratory staff, who have lived and breathed national security for much of their working lives, have been instructed to "stand down" for days at a time, like errant schoolchildren, to listen to politician's speeches or read security memoranda. The laboratories' extensive international connections have been thrown into chaos. Polygraph machines---a kind of embodiment of anti-science---are arriving to keep tabs on some 5,000 laboratory employees.

At press time, the final reorganization of the DOE management structure had not been determined. In the Senate, an amendment was proposed by Republican Senators Domenici (NM), Kyl (AZ) and Murkowski (AK) which would put DOE's sprawling weapons complex, which employs more than 30,000 people, under the control of a new, largely independent Agency for Nuclear Stewardship led by a high ranking DOE official. Initially, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson vehemently objected to the plan, charging that it would create "a fiefdom within a fiefdom" and undermine his authority over nuclear weapons research and production. However, on July 8th, Richardson, apparently encouraged by a revised draft of the bill which made it clear that he retained ultimate control over the agency, said that he could support such legislation. Finally, on July 21st, the Senate overwhelmingly (98-1) approved the Domenici-Kyl-Murkowski Amendment. Included was a provision that the Director of the new semi-autonomous agency could bypass the Secretary and report to the President and Congress on any national security lapses.

With such an overwhelming vote, it might seem that this semi-autonomous agency would be approved. However, leading Congressman of both parties in the House are fighting the plan. They say that it is insufficiently radical to address the security concerns. Some wish to take the nuclear weapons laboratories completely out of the Department of Energy. The House Appropriations Committee, in a draft committee report to a bill which withholds $1 billion from DOE pending the restructuring, said that "The Committee has watched while many have developed elaborate legislation to create a new semi-autonomous agency within the Department. But, the Committee does not believe this fully addresses the problems. This solution would not free the weapons programs from systemic problems. The same people staffing this new organization would be those who have created the problems.....Starting with a fresh slate is the only chance for solving many of the problems. Eliminating the cumbersome and redundant field structure will lead to cost savings and management efficiencies. Creating an independent agency at the sub-Cabinet level will free the agency from political influence and encourage the appointment of technically qualified managers. Direct lines of responsibility and authority will be established. Those interested primarily in maintaining the status quo will be thwarted". Democratic Congressman John Dingell (MI) described the proposal for a semi-autonomous agency as "using gasoline to fight a fire". Nonetheless, the lopsided vote in the Senate, as well as the fact that Domenici is a senior member of several committees that oversee the labs, indicates that he is in a strong position to defend his legislation from radical changes.

In the meantime, the APS Council, in May, passed the following statement: "The Council of the American Physical Society emphasizes the critical connection between U.S. national security and scientific research activities. Effective national security requires the highest standards of vigilance and circumspection, and the science on which it is based must meet the highest standard of excellence However, national security will ultimately be damaged if the underlying science suffers as a result of government practices that indiscriminately discourage or limit the open exchange of ideas.

"The Council of the American Physical Society recognizes the great importance of protecting classified information. We urge Congress and the Executive agencies, in carrying out this responsibility, to employ measures and practices that will maintain the strength and effectiveness of the scientific activities on which national defense relies.

"Over the course of many years, immigrant scientists as well as foreign visitors and students have contributed enormously to the American scientific enterprise. They have enriched our knowledge and culture, promoted the growth of our economy, and improved the quality of our lives. Any negative characterization of scientists on the basis of ethnic or national origins is destructive to science and American values".


Will the Heavy Ion Collider Destroy the Earth?

There are many challenges and obstacles to starting up a new accelerator. Yet seldom does the Director have to explain why the accelerator will not destroy the Earth. This has happened to the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven.


Fifteen years ago, it was pointed out that bulk "three-flavor" quark matter, i.e. quark matter made up of up, down and strange quarks, would be lower in energy per baryon than "two-flavor" quark matter, made up of up and down quarks. This is in spite of the fact that the strange quark is more massive, since two-flavor quark matter has twice as many down quarks as up quarks, and the additional Fermi energy exceeds the mass-energy of the strange quarks. It is also an experimental fact that two-flavor nuclear matter, made of protons and neutrons, is lower in energy per baryon than two-flavor quark matter, since large nuclei do exist. However, it is not clear which is lower in energy: two-flavor nuclear matter or three-flavor quark matter. They are close, and it is quite possible that three-flavor quark matter is more stable.

There is no fear that an iron nucleus will suddenly decay into three-flavor quark matter---one would need to have 28 down quarks suddenly turn into strange quarks, and this 28th-order weak interaction would be so rare that it would never have occurred in the history of the universe. However, if quark matter is produced at RHIC, it is quite possible that bulk three-flavor matter, dubbed strangelets, could be created. This would be very interesting for physicists.


The concern arose over discussions of what would happen if a strangelet came into contact with ordinary matter. In principle, a 28th-order weak interaction would be unnecessary, since the strangelet could grow one nucleon at a time. Then, like Kurt Vonnegut's ice-nine, it would continue to grow until it had consumed all the matter around it.


Following mention of this possibility in a reply to a letter to Science, many questioned whether there really is a chance that RHIC, by making bulk quark matter (there is a minimum strangelet size of O(100-400) atomic number), could lead to a catastrophic conversion of the Earth into strange matter. Thus, a white paper has been prepared explaining why this can't happen.

There are two reasons why we are safe. First, since strange quarks are heavier (and negatively charged), there will be fewer of them than of up and down quarks. The resulting strangelet will be positively charged, and will thus repel ordinary nuclei. The Coulomb barrier makes strangelets as safe as helium. Secondly, the experiment has already been done. Cosmic rays have been colliding with celestial objects (including each other) for billions of years, at energies well above RHIC energies, and yet we have not been affected (even though celestial objects collide with Earth regularly). In the words of BNL Director John Marburger, "The earth and its companion objects in our solar system have survived billions of years of cosmic ray collisions with no evidence of the instabilities that have been the subject of speculation in connection with RHIC…Our universe would have to be extremely unstable in order for such a small amount of energy (that in a single pair of nuclei) to cause such a large effect. On the contrary, the universe appears to be quite stable against the release of much larger amounts of energy that occur in astrophysical processes".

Wind Power

The Clinton administration has initiated the Wind Powering America program, which has a goal of increasing the proportion of electricity produced by wind turbines from its current 0.1% to 5% by the year 2010. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said that "Wind energy has been the fastest growing source of energy in the world during the past decade and now represents a major economic opportunity for the United States.....[it] will help combat global climate change by reducing carbon emissions and could lead the charge to the transition to renewable energy". Currently, wind turbines produce electricity at about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, an eight-fold drop since 1980. More efficient, reliable and larger turbines have led to the cost reduction. This is still more expensive than the cheapest fossil fuel source. Richardson called for increased research and development to halve this cost. The DOE will sponsor several studies, including an analysis of wind resources throughout the country, assessment of power transmission capacity, and set up training programs for wind-turbine engineers and technicians. Dan Reicher, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the DOE, said that wind turbines could provide major economic benefits to farmers, and could serve as a new "cash crop". Eventually, he said, the U.S. can go well beyond capturing 5% of its electricity from wind.

Big Science Under Siege

The ghost of the Superconducting Supercollider is still with us. Last year, the U.S. fusion program was badly shaken by the American withdrawal from the multi-billion dollar International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) program. Earlier this year, the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) was almost killed. The initial request for the SNS was $196 million. The House Science Committee, in late May, considered an amendment by Rep. Costello (D-IL) to provide $150 million in SNS construction funding. Costello warned that failure to provide this funding would kill the project. The Committee Chair, Robert Sensenbrenner (R-WI), said that he supported the SNS, but then went on to heavily criticize the DOE, citing the Superconducting Supercollider, "I don't want to see history repeat itself", and saying that it would be irresponsible to authorize construction without better budget projections. After a heated discussion, in which Costello was asked to withdraw his amendment and consider the SNS funding later, Costello replied "if we zero today, we kill the project". Finally, a vote was held on the Costello amendment. It received 17 yes votes and 17 no votes-- and a tie vote kills the Costello amendment. The Committee then went to lunch, and over the next hour, the staff put together a new SNS amendment, at a lower figure of $100 million. Tougher management requirements would be imposed. Sensenbrenner then announce his support for the new amendment, and it passed by a vote of 28-0.

More recently, the U.S. Senate appears to be abandoning the Next Linear Collider (NLC), a 30 mile long accelerator intending to the next big high-energy physics accelerator to complement the European Large Hadron Collider. ("Complement" is more appropriate than "duplicate", since the European machine is a proton collider, and the NLC is an electron-positron collider. The latter are much cleaner, precise, and can be used for high- precision studies.) The Senate energy and water appropriations subcommittee has called for NLC research costs to be cut from $14 million to $6 million next year, and Senate staff say that the intent is to eliminate the funding altogether within two years. The Senate move is based on the belief that the machine will not be affordable in the foreseeable future, and thus research and development costs are pointless. One Senate staffer said that, even with large contributions from abroad, the NLC would cost the U.S. $5 billion dollars--"I cannot envisage any scenario in which the U.S. will make that contribution". In the House of Representatives, the analogous subcommittee supports continued NLC research. A conference committee will determine the funding levels.

The assistant secretary of energy, Martha Krebs, supported continued R&D. She did say that it would be "premature" to proceed with the conceptual design report, but supported continued R&D--"If you wait for a year or two, you might actually have a chance to convince people that this is a good project". SLAC Director Burt Richter noted that the cost estimate for the NLC is highly conservative, to ensure that it will not drift up later. "The arguments now are not very different from the ones over the SSC. Every place in the world agrees that the next machine needs to be a big linear collider". Fermilab Director Mike Witherell said that "what's needed is for the research to continue, so that we can work on things that will bring the cost down". Scientists at KEK in Japan and DESY in Germany are also researching linear colliders. Physicists hope for a global collaboration to build one machine, with the host bearing two-thirds of the cost.