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Brother, Can You Spare a Cyclotron?

Federal research support during the Depression produced key findings and famous scientists. The experience sheds light on the pursuit of R&D during lean times.

I missed the defining event of my parents’ generation, the Great Depression. But I heard plenty about it, through tales about the jobless selling apples on the street and the songs Woody Guthrie sang. And eventually I found that so large an event leaves other traces for later generations to unearth. Some are tangible, such as the facilities constructed under the Works Progress Administration (the WPA, later called the Work Projects Administration), which President Franklin Roosevelt founded by executive order in 1935 to employ millions of the jobless. If you have flown into Washington’s National Airport, driven down Manhattan’s East Side Drive, or used any of thousands of other facilities, roads, and buildings, you have encountered this physical legacy.

Less concrete, but with its own kind of permanence, is the cultural legacy of the WPA, which employed artists along with the legions of blue-collar workers needed for construction jobs. Theatrical productions like Orson Welles’s Macbeth; murals that decorated (some said blemished) the New York Public Library and other buildings; art prints and posters; American travel guides-these and more came out of the WPA
Federal Art, Theatre, Music, and Writers’ projects. And the WPA supported artists who would later do important work. Richard Wright began Native Son in time allowed for creative writing apart from his WPA assignment; Jackson Pollock started developing his abstract style while receiving a WPA paycheck.

Not so well known is the legacy left by the scientists and engineers who conducted research with WPA help. It too includes famous practitioners and classic works: research by the likes of Glenn Seaborg, who won a Nobel Prize in 1951 for discovering plutonium and other atomic elements beyond uranium; significant compilations of data such as the MIT Wavelength Tables, which became a Rosetta stone for scientific
research; and experiments conducted on atom-smashing machines, the Big Science of the time. Not only do these moments in American scientific culture deserve recollection, but a look at WPA science, as well as some of its other endeavors, offers lessons for today. Although we 1997-model Americans have it far better than did the Depression generation, many scientists also operate in a climate of scarcity-layoffs and shrinking budgets-reminiscent of those earlier days.

Keeping the Science Gears Turning

Federally supported science was not utterly new in the 1930s. The public had long valued and paid for agricultural research; military technology received funding during the Civil War and World War I; and since 1901 the government had maintained the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology). But this support did not extend to broad-based, long-term, nondirected research, the kind professors perform at universities. State funds supported such efforts at leading state universities, but most funding for pure research came from private foundations. Corporations such as the American Telephone and Telegraph Co. funded applied research in their laboratories, figuring the work would lead to profitable new products.

When the Depression decimated these research funds, a group of leading scientists, headed by Karl T. Compton, then president of MIT, asked for a federal investment of $75 million over five years-at the time an enormous commitment-mostly for university research. The federal government rejected the request because the scientists were unwilling to specify how the money would be spent; instead, the government
asked WPA to contribute to science and engineering research by paying for the assistants and support personnel needed to work with academic scientists. In fact, the WPA put nine-tenths of its science budget into salaries for relatively untrained people before the agency shut down in 1943. By then federal dollars were flowing to science as part of the war effort, most notably through the Manhattan Project.

Although WPA support for science amounted to only 3 percent of the agency’s overall funding, the funds were 10 times greater than those for either the Art or Writers’ projects. And a few percent of a budget of some $14 billion over the lifetime of the WPA was enough to influence a great deal of research. The WPA Index of Research Projects through mid-1939 lists 60 efforts in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and astronomy, more than 300 in biomedical science, and hundreds more in other sciences and technology. Much of this research was of publishable quality: two-thirds of the projects in physical science, for instance, were reported in journals like the Physical Review, which is still preeminent.

Familiar names appear on some of these articles, including those of three outstanding researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, who operated on the cutting edge of nuclear physics with the assistance of WPA financing for their staff. Glenn Seaborg bombarded atomic nuclei with subatomic particles to transform one kind of nucleus into another, work related to his Nobel prizewinning research. Luis Alvarez, who was to win the 1968 Nobel Prize in physics for his method of detecting elementary particles, explored how an atomic nucleus captures its surrounding electrons, a process that illuminates the theory of anti-matter. Ernest Lawrence won the 1939 Nobel Prize in physics for his invention in 1932 of the cyclotron, the first truly powerful atomsmasher. In two WPA-supported projects, Lawrence used the device to make neutrons, which had been discovered in 1932, and tested their power to destroy tumors.

Other projects led to compilations of archival data with enormous scientific impact. The MIT Wavelength Tables did nothing less than determine the characteristic light emitted by each element in gaseous form and at high temperatures-hydrogen, oxygen, and the 100-odd others that make up the universe. For example, hydrogen emits ultraviolet radiation and mercury a red glow under those conditions. Knowing the wavelengths of the light allows scientists to unequivocally identify the matter that emitted it, no matter how far away. What we know of the birth, death, and constitution of stars comes from analyzing their light.

Similarly, the WPA Mathematics Tables Project, conducted in collaboration with the Bureau of Standards, extended the quantitative language that scientists use to describe the world. Over centuries of analysis, certain functions have proven essential to the mathematical vocabulary. For example, the recurring peaks and valleys of the sine wave describe the repetitive vibrations common in nature that form waves of water, sound, and light. Other examples include the exponential function, which describes extremely rapid physical change, and Legendre functions, named for the eighteenth-century French mathematician who first explored them, which describe electric fields and quantum behavior.

In 1938, when the mathematics project began, its aim was to calculate these useful functions and publish the results in tabular form. A contemporary article characterizes the project’s computational facility as the largest ever established. It used some 150 electrically powered machines, which added and subtracted numbers the same way an automobile odometer works, with rotating gears whose positions represent numbers and interlock so that results can “carry” from one column to the next. Some 250 WPA-supported staff worked among the slowly churning electromechanical monsters, with their characteristic “chinga-ching” sounds. The employees, who were known as “computers,” checked the results and transferred them from one machine to another, since no single machine could calculate the functions all by itself. The effort continued from 9 a. m. to midnight five days a week, year after year. By 1942, the project had published 12 volumes of tables and had also performed secret military calculations.

Today, of course, printed mathematical tables no longer enjoy brisk sales; people can instantly determine functions using calculators and electronic computers. But during the WPA era-before 1944, when Harvard University researchers built the electromechanical Mark I computer, which followed stored instructions, and before University of Pennsylvania scientists completed the first programmable electronic digital computer in 1946-the development of the tables promised a significant boon to science.

PhDs Aren’t Everything

The Mathematics Table Project and other WPA research efforts remind us that although science needs people with doctorates, it also needs those trained less intensively. If we make earning a doctorate the only worthy goal of scientific education, we may not best serve the long-term interests of science and those who are drawn to it. The issue is relevant now because we may be producing too many PhDs in the sciences. In physics, for instance, we annually turn out 1,400 new doctorates for 700 positions. The WPA focus on support staff for scientists suggests a way out of this bind. People with good technical, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees-not just those with doctoral degrees-also play important roles in launching a Hubble Space Telescope or turning an idea into a product.

We should avoid making hasty decisions about the numbers of PhDs needed, since employment prospects can change over the years necessary to produce a scientist with a doctorate. But the more choices we can give students during this uncertain funding period, the more they-and science-can succeed. One way to achieve such flexibility is to offer a variety of degrees.

The Physics Department at Emory University, where I teach, offers both a traditional BS degree and a BA-the latter requires fewer physics courses and is intended for those who want to pursue directions other than a graduate physics program. We also offer a BS in applied physics, representing a move away from the idea that every student must study advanced quantum mechanics. This curriculum trades some standard courses in theory for others in optics, computing, and electronics, preparing students for either immediate employment or graduate work in those fields. The applied track has become our department’s most popular undergraduate program.

Graduate education can also be made more flexible by offering highly specialized master’s degrees that are not just traditional low-value whistle-stops along the track to a doctorate but provide substantial training in, say, growing semiconductor materials. And if graduate education were to include more practice in writing, speaking, teaching, and managing research, it would give students additional abilities to help them keep up with a changing job market.

Another lesson from the WPA era is that, although science needs proper facilities, a healthy scientific enterprise can continue even in the face of government cutbacks in funding for equipment. The WPA paid for people instead. Scientists such as Lawrence, Alvarez, and Seaborg made do with existing facilities or exercised their ingenuity to find other sources of support, such as the nonprofit Research Corporation. (Since
1912, this nonprofit foundation has applied the proceeds from an invention that reduced industrial air pollution for the “advancement of technical and scientific investigation”-varied research that has, in fact, included some of my work.) Lawrence also raised about $2 million from the Rockefeller Foundation and other nongovernment donors to begin building, in 1940, the world’s biggest cyclotron, then the pinnacle of elementary particle research.

Today private funding still has its impact. For instance, the W. M. Keck Foundation has given $140 million to build an observatory housing an immense telescope on the extinct Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. But the costs of many kinds of equipment have outstripped the reserves of private support-and sometimes even government aid. In 1993, the Superconducting Supercollider, descended from the cyclotron, had already cost $2 billion when the federal government abandoned preliminary construction in the Texas desert rather than spend another $9 billion.

While scientists should continue seeking and receiving federal money to support needed equipment or upgrades of valuable but aging facilities, they can also try to replace dollars with ingenuity, as NASA scientists and engineers have already done. For example, they have simplified the large Cassini spacecraft expected to be launched this October to examine Saturn and its environs. One change eliminated a rotating platform that was to hold astronomical instruments. Without the platform the space vehicle must alternate between gathering data and turning its body so its antenna faces the earth, which enables the craft to send home the information. Still, the device can harvest a broad range of information. Such modifications have reduced costs of the Cassini mission by one-fifth.

And in elementary particle physics, costs will be shaved from the next huge accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, because it will be built within an existing tunnel some 17 miles around. And because that tunnel is located at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (known as CERN), the international agency for particle research that straddles the Swiss-French border, support should be readily available from several nations. Researchers are also beginning to examine novel and potentially much cheaper table-top-size, laser-based techniques that may someday serve to raise elementary particles to high energies.

As scientists face funding realities, they also need to confront an inevitable corollary: if science needs public dollars, it must win public acceptance. That means showing that the work is important to society. The WPA offers a lesson here as well, but through its artistic rather than scientific activities. Poring over WPA reports, I found no efforts to present science to the public, although scientific breakthroughs did attract popular attention. But the WPA made a point of bringing its artistic activities to people. The Music Project invited Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson to conduct public concerts; the Art Project attempted to beautify the civic world. These efforts were not meant to turn most citizens into painters and composers but to show that culture is, or should be, part of our lives.

In 1997, science too is part of our lives. It has become an economic engine. Yet its practitioners often fail to impart to the public a sense of how science works and what it has accomplished; they fail to awaken the sense of wonder that occurs when we gain insights into the human mind or find planets beyond our solar system.

Even in the college classroom, where we are supposed to be reaching people, we often do a poor job. Few science courses and textbooks aim at non-majors. I teach astronomy to nonscientists and find that most available texts cannot bear to omit any facts whatsoever. The poor students, who have no plans to become professional astronomers, lose sight of beautiful ideas in thickets of detail. If science were more accessible, helping students to understand the natural world and their own civilization, it would yield better-informed citizens who might listen carefully when scientists ask for funding.

In the 1930s and ’40s the massive WPA effort, including its science program, created jobs and thus helped hold together an unraveling social fabric and give people hope. Only if scientists understand the realities of the 1990s-only if they appreciate that science is deeply rooted in a society and an economy in good times and bad-and they respond appropriately, will society support them with a similar powerful conviction.

A Particular Passion

THE Superconducting Supercollider was to be the most powerful particle accelerator in the world. The 53-mile underground tunnel, lined with 11,000 superconducting magnets, would accelerate two beams of protons in opposite directions around a gigantic ring, slamming the beams together to create a spectacular fireworks display of subatomic particles. Physicists expected that by mimicking the conditions thought to exist in the primordial plasma of the early universe, the supercollider would reveal new and exotic species of particles, thereby providing significant insight into the fundamental structure of matter.

During this exciting period, I began studying introductory physics in high school. Caught up in the enthusiasm of the time, I became enraptured with the field. I was first exposed to modern physics through Stephen Hawking’s remarkable bestseller A Brief History of Time. Hawking’s straightforward description of the frontiers of particle physics left an indelible impression. In stark contrast to the familiar realm of classical mechanics, the world of subatomic phenomena seemed counterintuitive and of course wholly unfamiliar. I vowed then to understand properly this domain of physical phenomena.

You can imagine my excitement upon entering MIT as a freshman in September 1993, enchanted by the prospect of performing future research in that field. You might also imagine my profound disappointment one month later when, Congress unceremoniously scrapped the supercollider project. Construction of the 16,000-acre facility was halted, machinery was salvaged at auction, and the half-completed underground tunnel was refilled with dirt. The extraordinary machine, once heralded as the flagship for the world’s highenergy physics program, was reduced to a barren plot of broken earth in Waxahachie, Texas.

Although the project’s termination was not in itself a devastating blow, many highenergy physicists perceived it as a symptom of diminishing U.S. support for the entire field of research. On the brink of new achievement, the particle-physics community had choked on the end of its leash, held back by a Congress that held little esteem for basic research.

Some time after the supercollider’s demise, I visited a particle physicist at MIT and noticed on his office wall a poster that vividly demonstrated the response of the physics community to the recent news. The poster featured a large graph on which time was labeled on the horizontal axis from 2000 BC to the present, with a thick red line representing the “accumulated knowledge” of physics. After the Renaissance, the red line’s slope increased exponentially, leaping incredibly in the twentieth century and seeming to approach infinity in the 1990s-before abruptly breaking. A prominent jagged edge was labeled “The Death of the Superconducting Supercollider.”

Students and faculty alike became exceedingly grim about the prospects for new research and new careers in particle physics. Professors suggested that I concentrate on solid-state, condensed matter, or atomic and molecular physics, so that I might find a job in industry or defense. Many recent graduates resorted to semipermanent postdoctoral fellowships, previously considered only stepping-stones to tenuretrack positions. Some graduates even left the field, applying their analytical skills to areas such as finance theory on Wall Street or cost-benefit analysis for consulting firms. Suitably disturbed by such stories, I decided to pursue a second degree along with my physics work, in the more financially lucrative field of computer engineering. For a time I relegated my interest in particle physics to a “hobby.”

But I soon found that my “hobby” consistently challenged and interested me more than my principal field of study. Although I was competent, I lacked the spirit or enthusiasm to pursue computer engineering as a lifelong occupation. Engineering emphasizes the practical aspects of constructing complex systems-work I considered banal compared with the task of a particle physicist. The grand challenge of that field is to reduce the entire structure of the universe to a simple set of absolute physical laws describing the fundamental nature of matter.

Many have criticized particle physics for that exact goal, in fact, claiming it has no relevance to everyday phenomena. Such observers fail to realize that by neglecting pure or abstract research, we imperil long-term technological development. When Michael Faraday presented his experiments in electricity and magnetism to Queen Victoria, she reportedly asked him, “What good is electricity?,” to which he replied, “Madam, what good is a baby?” A presumption that pure research will never yield practical results is naive and shortsighted.

Yet for the sake of argument, even if particle physics never proves “useful,” the pursuit of knowledge itself makes the task worthy. The ancient Greek philosophers understood this to the extent that they were almost contemptuous of practical knowledge, favoring the abstract over the concrete. During the Age of Reason in the 1600-1700s, scientists continued to study physics primarily for its own sake; this pursuit of knowledge was ennobled by a perception that the laws of physics were a manifestation of God’s order. Not until after the advent of the industrial age did the study of physics become a more practical occupation, a means for developing new technology. The world wars of the twentieth century firmly established that physics could have practical applications, most conspicuously in the development of the atomic bomb.

Almost four years after the supercollider was canceled, and despite a persistent climate of pessimism about the field, I have decided to pursue a career in particle physics. Egotism or naive idealism might be blamed, but I prefer to ascribe my decision to stubborn optimism. For the same reason a poet writes poems, I will continue to study this field: not because it is practical but because it is important. Making a living may not be easy, but doing something I dislike will mean, for all intents and purposes, not living at all. The death of the superconducting supercollider, though unfortunate, will not end future research in particle physics, and I intend to contribute to that work.-Jeff Bowers

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