12 APRIL 1975, Page 25


Too much to spend?

Bernard Dixon

This month the Science Research Council custodian of public funding for 'pure' science in Britain.

makes an intriguing and costly decision. The SRC must decide

whether or not to give physicists at the Rutherford Laboratory in Berkshire £25 million to build a complex new machine, called EPIC, to probe the structure of mattes There are no compelling practical': grounds for doing so, just the thrill and enticement of intellectual. exploration. The project has at least one major competitor proposal for a new Northern Hemisphere Observatory. And in Britain as elsewhere expenditure on research on this handsome scale has already been curbed and: is likely to be reduced even mare drastically in the future. The ,prolspects for EPIC are not good.

In a world where social, politica,. and financial forces are daily pushing science towards projects; of tangible relevance, the debate over EPIC (which will become a noisy row if the physicists don't get their way) is very much a test case. EP'DCE would be used to investigate oneof the most fundamental questions in the whole of science, or anywhere else the nature of the material) comprising the tiniest constituents of atoms, and thus of molecules, of you and me, and everything that is. It happens that the requisite' machinery for such studies has become increasingly expensive. But it also happens that, just when its cost is being boosted savagely by inflation, this branch of science' in, passing through its most creatime period for many decades.

EPIC is required for what lies' been called the 'hit and watan' method of determining atomic structure. Lord Rutherford invented it. He used the vanishingly tiny particles emitted by radioactive substances as missiles to probe the make-up of other atoms. By shooting such particles at target materials and observing what emerge*, he initiated the line of inquiry' which showed that atoms were not the smallest, indivisible constituents of matter. They were made up of even tinier components, — neutrons, protons and electrons — and they could be split asunder. That was the picture of atoms which most of us learned at schoot. Today, the picture is much moire complex. Many other particles have been discovered, and 'quarlisS' have been hypothesised as the' ultimate building blocks. Reaching. our present understanding has required, over the years, increasingly powerful (and thus costly)) machines to accelerate the 'bullet'. particles to near the speed of light before colliding them with their target. EPIC, which will do better than conventional accelerators lisy sending two streams of particles in

opposite directions around a ring system, is a particularly advanced conception of this sort As well as the capital investment, it will require 2,000 man years of staff effort to make it operational by 1980.

High: energy physics (as the subject is called, because of the tremendous power required for particle acceleration) is arguably the most difficult sort of science to describe. Far, far removed from those homely analogies of atoms as billiard balls, its currency is entirely symbolic. Its subject matter cannot be seen or felt, merely hinted at in the form of obscure mathematical equations.

Not surprisingly, high energy physics is not popular with many scientists in other disciplines. Cri-ticsrpoint out that it has become so remote from the tangible that it now deals with an unreal world with forms of matter that exist only in high energy accelerators. Indeed one of its practitioners, Professor Steven] Weinberg, recently compared the subject to zoology practised by zoologists who had only the tortoise and parrot to study and had to make all the other creatures fur themselves.

That is precisely why high energy physics is so uniquely exciting. Like theology it deals with universal, possibly eternal, questions. Which raises a disturbing question. Is £25 million the cost of two days of British smoking and drinking a derisory sum to pay in the pursuit of such fundamental knowledge? Or is it far too much to spend on a machine whose results will alinost certainly be entirely incomprehensible to us who foot the bill2

IrMr lidernard Dixon, who writes fortniglirtly in the Spectator, is editatrof New Scientist