The most universally known economic fact in the United States at present is the estimated cost of the recently concluded U.S. Government Shutdown: $24 billion.
In fact, the $24 billion price tag of the October Government Shutdown is such a well-known fact that I feel no compulsion to include a citation about it. However, I promise neither Rand Paul nor I lifted this information from a Wikipedia movie summary.
While the world ate its fingernails each night for dinner from October 1 to 17, waiting to see if Speaker Boehner and the Keystone Congress were going to send us over debt ceiling Niagara in a balsawood barrel, I couldn’t help but think about the repercussions of another government shutdown in the not-too-distant past—one with an incalculable price tag: Progress for Civilization.
Thanks to the antics of that anti-progress goblin, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, you may have missed the announcement of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics. On October 8, 2013, the Nobel Committee announced that this year’s award would be presented to British theoretical physicist Peter Higgs. Yes, he of the Higgs Boson Particle.
Of course, in 1964, when Higgs and a team of other physicists predicted the existence of this elemental particle—the “last piece of the Standard Model of physics”—no one called it the Higgs Boson. Some called it “the God particle,” but even that moniker wasn’t coined until the 1990s.
What exactly is the Higgs Boson? Here I’m going to defer to others much more capable than myself of explaining the building blocks of our physical universe. Here is a great video with sugar in a cooking pan and ping pong balls. And here is an L.A. Times article which includes a nifty, purplish cartoon animation.
Yeah, it kind of sucks to be on the ping-pong-purple-cartoon side of the understanding-science spectrum, doesn’t it? Trust me, I’m no Einstein. I feel your pain.
Maybe the best way to think of the Higgs Boson is in the following manner: without it, the universe would be without mass. Which is great if you’re trying to shed a few pounds before your upcoming Sunday brunch blind date. But bad if you want to lift your mouse to click this link.
The real tragedy here is that the Higgs Boson very easily could have been discovered on U.S. soil were it not for a 1993 “government shutdown” most of us have long forgotten. Learning why this event did not occur here requires a brief trip down Beltway Budgetary Memory Lane.
First, let’s head to Europe. From the above Reuters article: “Half a century after the scientists’ original prediction, the new building block of nature [the Higgs Boson] was finally detected in 2012 at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) centre’s giant, underground particle-smasher near Geneva.”
You’ve probably heard of CERN, or at least seen pictures of it. It’s a gigantic particle physics laboratory that straddles Swiss and French borders. The Large Hadron Collider itself covers the radius of a veritable city (27 kilometers) and has electromagnets that reach subzero temperatures colder than the vacuum of space. (My science friend read that last sentence and reminded me that technically there is no so thing as “subzero” temperature. So permit me a rephrase: the electromagnets get so cold that you’d rather spend the night exposed on the ice planet Hoth than touch them.)
Oh, and here is a fact that I did lift from Wikipedia: CERN employs “just under 2,400 full-time employees, 1,500 part-time employees, and hosts some 10,000 visiting scientists and engineers, representing 608 universities and research facilities and 113 nationalities.” And did I mention that more than 1,000 of these individuals are U.S. citizens?
Ah, the knowledge-based economic development factor. Remember how European and Russian scientists arrived to the United States in droves during the World War II era? Well, there’s now a reverse diaspora back to Europe in the field of physics.
And that’s a big deal. Because brain power equates to economic prosperity. And while particle physics might seem an obscure science, the net economic result is the energy industry.
Still, none of this explains why Europe has a stranglehold on global particle physics these days and why the United States could have had an essential part in the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics.
As with everything else that sucks in U.S. politics at present, the answer is Trouble with a Capital “T” and that stands for “Texas.” You know, Texas, where all the pussies are shaved, where you can’t catch AIDS, and where Arabs are beaten for sport. Sigh.
Remember the Superconducting Super Collider? No, I am not referring to what happens when you put Texas Governor Rick Perry and an anatomically-correct model of the female private parts in the same room. I mean the giant particle accelerator that once-upon-a-time was being built outside Dallas and which would have been four times the size of the CERN Large Hadron Collider. (This is Texas, after all.)
On October 21, 1993, the ultimate particle physics wet dream was scrubbed after an initial federal investment of $2 billion. Really, though, when you read the history, almost everyone in both major political parties, from municipal to federal levels, from Congress to Clinton, was to blame.
It’s as if the United States collectively said, “Physics? Fuck it.”
Of course, some would argue that the United States was forced to choose between funding the Superconducting Super Collider and the International Space Station (ISS), and opted for the latter. In the end, no one is going to argue that the ISS was a poor investment.
But seeing as the United States wasted nearly $360 billion on military spending in 1993, it’s hard to imagine that both critical projects couldn’t have been fully supported.
Anyway, a few years after the Superconducting Super Collider was tanked, more than 10,000 scientists and engineers from over 100 countries (including our very own) put shovel to dirt in Europe in pursuit of the final building block of the Standard Model. The CERN Collider went live in 2008. The Higgs Boson was “discovered” four years later. The rest is Nobel history.
As for the flushing of the Superconducting Super Collider: the Dallas-Ft. Worth area suffered an economic recession following its closure, and the abandoned facility eventually became “a prime spot for thieves and drug parties.” Actually, the complex has now been transformed into a major chemical facility. Still, it could have been the heart-shaped bed of particle physics rock stars.
Now, two decades later, the United States has all but conceded home field to the rest of the globe with respect to particle physics.
But at least we have a Creation Museum.
Out of curiosity, just how much would the Superconducting Super Collider have cost Uncle Sam?
Answer: The estimated cost ultimately rose to nearly $12 billion.
For some perspective, then, the United States could have built 2 Superconducting Super Colliders with the cost of the recent October U.S. Government Shutdown. And instead of expatriating our brainiest physicists across the Pond, we could have remained Quark-Lepton Grand Central Station.
These are the impacts of political collisions & shutdowns.
If theoretical physics isn’t really your thing, just note that particle colliders aren’t the only knowledge-based budgetary martyrs these days. Funding levels for science and engineering-related agencies are anything but hunky dory at present.
By the way, the annual budget for the National Science Foundation is about $7 billion; about $31 billion for the National Institutes of Health. Yet another way to think about the October Government Shutdown is that it pissed away three-years-plus of NSF research investment, and just under one full year of NIH research investment.
But if you really want to sink into a comatose depression, consider the fact that the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have a price tag in the vicinity of $4 trillion to $6 trillion.
Hell, for $6 trillion, we probably could have built the U.S.S. Enterprise and all its technological trappings.
(Dammit. And to think that I could be telling my computer to make me a Sazerac while I type this.)
Anyway, these are things to contemplate as we head into the November 2014 Elections. Which, by the way, are only this many days away.
Do we want to be the country that invests heavily in knowledge and discovery, that boldly goes where no society has gone before?
Or are we willing to let investment in innovation slip while the rest of the world beats us to the particle punch and simultaneously steals our brightest minds?
The choice is ours. And one doesn’t have to be a Nobel Laureate to realize that a vote for one party leads us back in the direction of Cro-Magnons, while a vote for the other party points us to the discovery of the universe big and small, from photons to pulsars. And maybe someday that star ship with the ability to “replicate” Sazeracs.
Postscript: To read a few other articles about the impact of the October Government Shutdown on U.S. scientific endeavors, head on over to National Geographic and Science. Then give Speaker Boehner and the Keystone Congress a rousing, mocking round of applause.
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