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Come Fly With Me, Goldin Tells Physicists

BATAVIA, ILLINOIS--Space is the final frontier for particle physics, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin declared in a 28 May press conference here at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). But Goldin's vision of joining forces with the Department of Energy (DOE) and other agencies in an all-out assault on the mysteries of gravity and high-energy physics failed to uplift some listeners when he labeled Earth-bound accelerators--the focus of DOE's high-energy physics program--a "smokestack approach" to research.

The message of the press conference was that the agencies are encouraging grant proposals submitted to them jointly. Goldin argued that because of the colossally high energies at play in the big bang, the neighborhood of black holes, and within neutron stars, these astrophysical phenomena should be regarded as physics experiments that dwarf anything that can be done on Earth. NASA satellites, he said, could exploit those natural experiments by collecting radiation or particles, insuring that physicists would no longer be "victims of the last [terrestrial] machine you built."

Goldin's reference to scientists who focus on "the next bigger machine based on yesterday's technology," however, ruffled some scientists at Fermilab, which was just 4 days away from dedicating its latest particle accelerator, the $260 million Main Injector. Physicist and DOE Under Secretary Ernest Moniz, who was seated next to Goldin, interjected politely that physicists can look forward to "important advances, as well, in accelerator-based experiments." A subsequent speech by Goldin, purged of disparaging references to standard particle accelerators, got high marks from some scientists. "That's a grand vision," said Scott Burles, an astronomer at the University of Chicago, although "you're going to have to be very clever to come up with [actual] missions."

Goldin did show some interest in a proposal by Saul Perlmutter of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to build a telescopic satellite that would vastly expand both the quantity and precision of observations of distant supernovae, which have suggested that space is filled with a strange form of energy that counteracts gravity on large scales (see Science, 18 December 1998, p. 2156). "I think it's very exciting," said David Spergel, a Princeton University cosmologist who is familiar with Perlmutter's concept. If NASA and DOE can get in the same flight pattern, particle physics may yet go where it has never gone before.