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Physics to the end of the century.

Physics to the end of the century

Every decade or so the National Research Council issues a report on the state of the science of physics in the United States. These reports contain surveys of recent progress in the science, assessments of prospects for the immediate future and advice to the government on how to foster that future. Since World War 11 the federal government has been the largest patron of basic scientific research in the country, and although some astronomers have recently returned to the older custom of seeking large private gifts for capital equipment (SN: 1/12/85, p. 21), the government is likely to remain the builder and owner of the accelators and similar equipment that physicists need.

"Physics Through the 1990s," the latest in this series of reports, authored by the council's Physics Survey Committee under the chairmanship of William F. Brinkman of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., was published last week. It is intended to cover physics to the end of the century. In its prognosticating and advisory aspects, the eight-volume report contains a few things that are not surprising and some that are mildly surprising.

One of the latter is a plea for better support of small research groups. "Research carried out by small groups... is responsible for over 70 percent of the physics doctorates that are awarded in this country," says the summary distributed to the press. The image of physics is that of a science where it can take upward of 1,000 people to mount a single experiment (SN: 1/19/85, p. 45). Dozens, even more than a hundred, routinely sign a single research paper. Yet there's another side. As the report points out, "(S)mall group research is the dominant mode for professional education in the universities...." The committee recommends greater support, particularly in matters of equipment, for these groups.

The committee also foresees a possible shortage of physicists in coming years unless more young people can be recruited. In the 1960s there was a shortage of physicists, in the 1970s an oversupply, in fact something of an employment crisis. Now the pendulum seems to be swinging back. Momentarily supply and demand are in approximate balance, but a shortage could develop in the future.

The list of capital equipment desired is shorter than the ones presented in previous decades. For particle physics the committee recommends the Superconducting Super Collider (SN: 9/22/84, p. 181), the most powerful accelerator that ever was or is likely to be. For nuclear physics it recommends the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility, which is planned for construction in Newport News, Va., and an apparatus to collide atomic nuclei with each other at relativistic speeds. All three of these already have significant support in government agencies and Congress, as does the recommendation for condensedmatter physics, new synchrotron-radiation facilities and neutron scattering facilities.

In plasma physics the committee recommends continued efforts toward controlled thermonuclear fusion, both magnetic confinement and inertial confinement experiments. It endorses what it calls the next logical step, the so-called burning core experiment.

The really unusual departure is the recommendation of the Long-Baseline Gravitational-Wave Facility (SN: 8/4/84, p. 76). Gravitational waves are disturbances supposed to be caused by motions of large astronomical bodies. They are the gravitational analog of radio waves -- cyclic disturbances of gravitational forces -- as radio waves are cyclic disturbances of electric and magnetic forces. They have not yet been unequivocally discovered, but when they are found, they will tell us new things about the cosmos. Up to now they have been considered a rather exotic specialty. If the report, which is published by National Academy Press, is any indication, maybe they are now becoming mainstream. -- D.E. Thomsen
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Author:Thomsen, Dietrick E.
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 19, 1986
Words:623
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