American Physics Dreams Deferred

American Physics Dreams Deferred

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When three American astronomers won the Nobel Prize in Physics last year, for discovering that the expansion of the universe was speeding up in defiance of cosmic gravity, it reaffirmed dark energy, and it underscored the case, long urged by American astronomers, for a NASA mission to measure dark energy — to determine, for example, whether the cosmos would expand forever or whether, perhaps, there might be something wrong with our understanding of gravity. In 2019, a spacecraft known as Euclid will begin such a mission to study dark energy. But it is being launched by the European Space Agency, not NASA, with American astronomers serving only as very junior partners, contributing $20 million and some infrared sensors.

For some scientists, this represents an ingenious solution, allowing American astronomers access to the kind of data they will not be able to obtain on their own until NASA can mount its own, more ambitious mission in 2024. But for others, it is a setback. It means that for at least the next decade, Americans will be relegated to a minor role in following up on their own discovery and is another example of a worrying trend in which American scientists, facing budget deficits and political gridlock, have had to pull back from or delay promising projects while teams based in Europe hunt down the long-sought Higgs boson or rocket scientists in China plan a Moon landing in 2025.

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