From financial woes and teacher shortages to major projects being delayed or cancelled, many issues facing physicists 30 years ago remain just as pertinent now as they did then. Michael Banks investigates
Having worked as news editor of Physics World for over a decade, much of what I do is report on the here and now – be it covering the latest delay to the James Webb Space Telescope or examining the impact on physicists of the UK leaving the European Union (EU). But to mark Physics World’s 30th anniversary, I decided instead to look back at the top news stories in 1988 and see how they have moved on over the past 30 years.
As I trawled through the first few editions of Physics World – as well as the last few issues of the magazine’s predecessor Physics Bulletin – it struck me just how many topics covered in the late 1980s still affect physicists today. Those range from countries wrestling with the cost of international scientific projects to worries over the impact of nuclear power.
Before I delve a little deeper into those topics, it’s worth noting some conspicuous absences in Physics World’s news section in 1988. There was almost nothing about China, which is currently one of the powerhouses of physics. Nor was there much on efforts to make physics a more diverse and inclusive discipline – no doubt because few such initiatives existed.
Let’s start, though, with Britain’s political ambivalence to European integration. As one UK staff member working at the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva noted in 1988 when a lack of funding was threatening Britain’s membership of the organization: “If Britain leaves it will be unpleasant, but at least we’ll know what the position is.” Given the UK’s impending exit from the EU, you would be hard pushed to decide if that quote was taken from a news story today or back in 1988.
The issue at stake was the UK’s desire to cut the amount of cash it paid to be a member of CERN. Subscription levels to the lab used to be totted up every three years using gross domestic product, but the UK said this method hurt it. In June 1988 the CERN Council therefore approved a new way of calculating contributions every year and applying an exchange rate at the time.
While some countries, notably Italy, dragged their feet over accepting the changes, particle physicists in the UK were worried that – if a deal could not be reached quickly – Britain mighty simply pull out and become an “associate member” of the lab. “We’d be a laughing stock if we tried to join as an associate member instead,” one anonymous particle physicist told Physics World. “We have to pay up or get out.”
The uncertainty for CERN was also hitting staff morale, with another source claiming that workers at CERN were “fed up with the sword of Damocles hanging over them”. In the end, the UK did not pull out of CERN, but the question mark over Britain’s involvement with European institutions will resonate with many physicists today.
With Brexit negotiations still ongoing, there is huge uncertainty over the UK’s membership of EU research activities, such as the Horizon Europe programme. And while the UK is likely to remain a member of many non-EU organizations such as CERN, which has an open-door policy for members outside the EU, there remains much insecurity for British physicists, who have done exceptionally well from the UK’s close ties with Europe.
In the Framework 7 programme, which ran from 2007 to 2013, for example, researchers from the UK won €1.7bn in grants from the European Research Council – 22.4% of the total and more than any other nation. Yet with only five months to go before the UK formally pulls out of the EU, it seems unbelievable that Britain’s European collaboration should, once again, be so illogically endangered, just as it was in 1988.
Particles and politics
While CERN was grappling with the UK’s threat to quit, there was more positive news in the late 1980s for the lab, which was making steady progress building the Large Electron–Positron collider (LEP). The 27 km circular machine, which accelerated electrons and positrons to around 100 GeV, was an amazing feat of engineering and technology. Switched on in August 1989, LEP was to prove a remarkable success. It operated for more than a decade and spawned many breakthroughs in particle physics, notably making precise measurements of a host of Standard Model particles including the mass of the Z and W boson.
Yet just as LEP was firing up, over in the US, storm clouds were gathering over particle physics. In late 1988 George H Bush had just been elected as the 41st US president, beating his Democrat rival Michael Dukakis. Two days following the election, the US Department of Energy announced that the $4.4bn Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) would be built in Waxahachie, Texas. The SSC was to be an incredible 87.1 km circumference circular collider that would accelerate protons to 20 TeV – roughly three time more than LEP’s successor at CERN, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
Texas had beaten a site proposal from Fermilab, which would have been cheaper given that the Illinois lab was already home to the Tevatron – a proton–antiproton collider that at the time was ramping up its accelerator to an energy of 900 GeV. Back in the late 1980s there was much talk about how the SSC could lead to particle physicists from Fermilab upping sticks to Texas. Even the Nobel laureate Leon Lederman, who was then director of Fermilab, noted that the lab could undergo a “loss of the kind of feeling you have when you are the best”. In the end, those concerns proved immaterial: despite some $2bn being spent on digging parts of the SSC’s underground tunnel and constructing some of the buildings, the SSC was cancelled in 1993, by which time the project’s estimated final price tag had almost trebled to $12bn.
The decision to axe the SSC was a huge blow for US particle physics but recently, Fermilab has had to face its own future once more. Following the closure of the Tevatron in 2011, the “energy frontier” in particle physics now lies again in Europe. Although there are many particle physicists in the US who work at CERN, the US physics community has been forced to pursue the so-called “intensity frontier”, which involves repurposing Fermilab’s accelerator complex to produce an intense beam of neutrinos.
Such particles will then be sent some 1300 km away to detectors placed at the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) belonging to the Sanford Underground Research Facility. Physicists hope to use DUNE to investigate charge–parity violation in neutrinos, which could shed light on why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe.
The LHC, meanwhile, has been successfully running for almost a decade – the highlight being its discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 – and an upgrade is already planned. When complete in the early 2020s, the high-luminosity LHC (HL-LHC) will give physicists a greater chance of spotting particles beyond the Standard Model of particle physics.
It is too early to tell what will come beyond the HL-LHC, but it seems likely that there will be another global power shift. This time it will not see the baton being swapped between Europe and the US, but instead will involve Asia taking the leading role through a Higgs factory – a dedicated machine to study the Higgs boson in detail. It will be built in either Japan or China – or most likely with one rival facility in both nations. Japan could decide later this year to go ahead with the International Linear Collider, while China may, in the coming years, give the green light for the China Electron Positron Collider. Support for these projects is high within their respective communities, but let us hope neither suffers the same fate as the SSC did 30 years ago. As always with big-science projects, money and politics are the key to success.
Down in the dumps
The launch of Physics World in 1988 occurred only two years following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the now abandoned town of Pripyat in the former Soviet Union. Nuclear power, however, was then in a period of overall strength, at least in the UK. The number of nuclear plants peaked at 16 in 1988 with 11,000 MWe of installed capacity producing around 20% of the country’s demand.
Today, the UK has only 7 nuclear plants, and although nuclear power still accounts for about a fifth of UK electricity supply – with roughly 9000 MWe of installed capacity – almost half of the UK’s nuclear capacity is to be retired by 2025. Germany, meanwhile, is abandoning nuclear altogether. Currently the only approved new-build nuclear power station in the UK is Hinkley Point C in south-west England. It is set to generate 3200 MWe – about 7% of the UK’s electricity needs – but will not open until the mid-2020s, some 30 years after the last British nuclear power station, Sizewell B, came online.
The headlines have not been kind to Hinkley Point C or the first two units of its kind at Olkiluoto in Finland and Flamanville in France, which are also facing costly construction delays, partly due to new rules around safety following the Fukushima Daiichi accident in 2011. In the planning stages for almost a decade, Hinkley Point C has also been hit by fights over funding and the price of the electricity it would generate.
While nuclear power certainly has a role to play in the energy mix, there is still uncertainty about what to do with the high-level and long-lived radioactive waste it produces. Little seems to have changed since 1988 when Britain’s House of Lords published a report throwing its weight behind the deep geological burial of waste. Their recommendation followed that of the independent Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC), which condemned the UK’s government’s “vacillation” over developing a policy on disposal. “The question of how and where [waste] should be disposed cannot be postponed indefinitely,” the RWMAC warned in 1988. The Lords complained that the RWMAC’s expertise had “not been treated with respect” adding that postponing such a move was “irresponsible”.
Successive UK governments have, however, failed to heed the advice from 30 years ago, with the country still unable to decide where to permanently store radioactive waste from its reactors. Many other countries are struggling with the issue too. In the US, the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository located about 150 km north of Las Vegas in Nevada was chosen the year before Physics World launched as the site to store waste from American nuclear plants. Yet despite some test tunnels having been built, it still has not received the official go-ahead.
One country that has taken action on deep disposal of nuclear waste is Finland. Following a three-decade search, in 2015 its government approved construction of an underground facility to permanently store spent nuclear fuel. Based on Olkiluoto island off Finland’s west coast and due to open in the early 2020s, the €3bn ($3.2bn) repository – the first of its kind in the world – will bury up to 6500 tonnes of uranium in copper canisters placed some 400 m underground in tunnels hewn from granite rock. Officials estimate that the repository will be sealed off in 2120, when it should be able to hold waste for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years.
Size is everything
What is the best size for a university physics department? That vexing question was on the minds of many UK physicists 30 years ago as they awaited the outcome of an investigation being carried out under the leadership of the late theoretical physicist Sam Edwards from the University of Cambridge. Commissioned by the University Grants Committee, the eight-man Edwards panel (and, yes, they were all men) had been asked to examine the state of research and teaching in UK universities.
Released in late 1988, the “Edwards report” recommended that a “viable” physics department – defined as one that can “stretch and fulfil good students” as well as maintain high-quality research – should have a minimum of 20 full-time-equivalent (FTE) staff and 200 FTE undergraduate and postgraduate students. For departments below that limit, Edwards recommended they either enlarge, merge with other departments or shut altogether, transferring staff to another department or nearby university. Universities that had departments greater than 400 should, according to the committee, consider a hiring freeze.
The report proved explosive and was quickly attacked by the UK physics community, not least for the allegedly arbitrary way that those thresholds for acceptable departments sizes were drawn up. The effects of Edwards were to reverberate for years, with notable physics departments such as those at the universities of Reading and Newcastle closing their doors, though the latter thankfully reopened in 2015.
Education and jobs were also central themes of a major report published in 1988 by the European Physical Society (EPS). The society was celebrating its 20th anniversary that year and physicists looking for a job had reason to be optimistic. The EPS found that there was “virtually” no unemployment of physicists on the continent, with demand set to rise sharply.
Yet that same report highlighted what has become a perennial issue for physics – teacher shortages – that remains with us today. The EPS estimated that only around 15% of European physicists were teaching in schools, with the same fraction doing university teaching and research, 30% working in industry, 10% in government work and the remaining 30% involved in “small industries and computer firms”. As more physicists moved into industry, teaching would suffer, the EPS warned – a situation underlined by a report also released in 1988 by the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World. The IOP report found a third of the 2700 or so that graduate in physics each year in the UK went into industry, notably aerospace, telecommunications and nuclear technology, with only 5% of UK physics undergraduates going into teaching. Those statistics have changed little today, with barely 4% of British physics undergraduates becoming teachers, around 40% going to work in industry and over 50% taking higher degrees.
None of us can perhaps remember that in 1988 the UK was about to make a huge 25% cut to its fusion programme and was resisting a 5% annual hike for the European Space Agency.
If anything can be concluded by my venture into the past, it is that physics now, as then, still needs to show its relevance to society. Competition for funds will never disappear and physicists, more than ever, need to break out of their ivory tower whether by promoting the use of evidence-based decision making, campaigning for adequate funding, or by inspiring the next generation.
But as one anonymous physicist told Physics World back in 1988: “In so many areas money seems to be having a louder say than science these days.” Some 30 years on, the details of our concerns as physicists may be different but the fundamental issues sadly remain the same.
10 things from 1988 that changed the world
- NASA climate scientist James Hansen uses the term “global warming” in testimony to the US Congress, sparking worldwide interest.
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a scientific and intergovernmental body – is created under the auspices of the United Nations.
- University of Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking publishes A Brief History of Time.
- Canadian astronomers Bruce Campbell, Gordon Walker and Stephenson Yang publish radial-velocity observations suggesting that an extrasolar planet orbits the star Gamma Cephei. Its existence is finally confirmed in 2002.
- Leon Lederman, Melvin Schwartz and Jack Steinberger bag the 1988 Nobel Prize for Physics for discovering the muon neutrino.
- Adobe Photoshop graphics-editing software debuts.
- US entrepreneur Robert Morris creates the Morris worm – considered the first notable computer worm to be distributed via the Internet.
- The first transatlantic fibre-optic cable, carrying 280 Mbits, is created between the US, UK and France.
- Intel releases its i960 processor with a clock speed of 10 MHz and containing 250,000 transistors.
- Philips and Sony publish the first specification of a compact disc that can be written once and read many times (CD-R).