The disappearing American frontier itch

In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the American frontier had closed, raising an important question: Absent the frontier, what would fuel the audacious, inventive and energetic nature of the bold American character?

Arguably, imperialism created the new frontier: the Spanish-American War with the acquisition of Cuba and the Philippines blossomed into the American century. Arguably, imperialism, with America's involvement in Iraq, Iran, Libya and elsewhere, remains America's frontier.

I disagree. America's frontier is and has been intellectual. American science has powered our drive to find new challenges, all the while expanding the frontier of knowledge far beyond geographical limits. That's why the closing of Fermilab's Tevatron particle accelerator on Friday deserves more than passing notice.

For a quarter of a century, some of the world's most important and pioneering fundamental research was conducted in the small west suburb of Batavia. Fermilab has been exploring the most exciting and expansive frontier known to man — our universe, from the most infinitesimal specks of matter to the most powerful forms of energy.

Not in this small space can I catalog all the significant research conducted there, right under our noses; I'll leave that to the inquisitive reader. The Tevatron did it by accelerating protons and anti-protons in opposing directions in a four-mile-long underground ring, smashing them together, and watching in minute detail for what ever-tinnier particles were produced — such as the "top quark," the heaviest subatomic particle known to exist and a key to understanding the forces of the universe.

Here's the analogy used to describe the process when I covered the opening of the Tevatron as the Chicago Sun-Times science reporter: Imagine trying to understand the workings of a clock that can't be opened to examine the insides. Hit it with a hammer and watch the parts fly apart — here's a spring, there are some gears — and you can get a glimpse, however incomplete.

The importance of such work was demonstrated by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, in Geneva using a more powerful Tevatron-like collider. Coincidently with the Tevatron's shutdown, scientists at CERN announced they had recorded subatomic particles traveling faster than the speed of light, a discovery — if it holds up — that explodes a century's worth of physics based on Albert Einstein's almost universally unchallenged theory of relativity. So much for "settled science."

So what, you ask? Do you like the idea of time travel? How about more distant space travel? Beyond those popular sci-fi visions are uncounted, unimaginable and unexplored territories. If none of that excites you, then you're a candidate for the Dull Hall of Fame.

Fermilab won't close with the shutdown of the Tevatron. Hundreds of scientists will continue doing important science there, including and ironically, trying to confirm the CERN findings.

Unfortunately, this spectacular discovery belongs to Europe, not to America. We had a chance to build a "superconducting super collider" as powerful as CERN's, but we blew it thanks to what I fear has become growing American shortsightedness.

Physicists at Fermilab long ago had proposed scaling up the Tevatron by accelerating particles through a 100-mile-long tunnel before sending them to a Big Bang-like smashup. Politicians saw an abundance of jobs in the multibillion dollar enterprise and so what was supposed to have been built at Fermilab became the prize of a multistate political competition. Clout-heavy Texas won the project, which was started but soon after terminated for "lack of funding."

With it went what should have been another American frontier achievement. What should have been Fermilab's ended up in Europe.

How does a conservative lament a failure of government to spend? Easy. This is exactly the kind of research the private sector can't and won't entirely fund. The payoff, as gigantic as it could be, is too distant, too iffy. It requires the kind of vision inspired by President John F. Kennedy when he laid out a 10-year timeline for man's first landing on the moon.

Objectively, we shouldn't care where this research is conducted, as long as it gets done. But there's still that troubling disappearance of the frontier itch that for more than five centuries compelled Americans to scratch in search of the unknown and of unimaginable opportunity.

This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

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