"Realizing the extraordinary opportunities at hand will
require a new, crosscutting approach that...brings to bear the techniques
of both astronomy and physics, telescopes and accelerators, and ground-
and space-based instruments. The goal then is to create a new strategy."
- NRC Committee on the Physics of the Universe
As reported in FYI
#67, a new report by the NRC's Committee on the Physics of the Universe
addresses interdisciplinary research that could lead to breakthroughs
in both physics and astronomy. FYI #67 listed eleven questions the Committee
identified as the key research opportunities at the intersection of
these two fields. This FYI presents the Committee's strategy for the
research and interagency coordination necessary to investigate the eleven
The Committee recognizes that addressing such interdisciplinary challenges
in a comprehensive way will require new approaches and greater cooperation:
"The obstacles are sometimes disciplinary and sometimes institutional
because the science lies at the interface of two mature disciplines
and crosses the boundaries of three U.S. funding agencies." The
report later adds, "No one agency currently has unique ownership
of the science at the intersection of astronomy and physics; nor can
one agency working alone mount the effort needed to realize the great
opportunities. DOE, NASA and NSF are all deeply interested in the science
at the intersection of physics and astronomy and each brings unique
expertise to the enterprise. Only by working together can they take
full advantage of the opportunities at this special time."
The Committee was not asked to address the financial aspects of its
strategy. It does not provide cost estimates for its research objectives,
nor make recommendations for securing sufficient funding to carry them
out. Although it was only charged with considering the U.S. research
agenda, the Committee notes that "Some of the opportunities we
have discussed involve international partners.... The strategy we have
developed for DOE, NASA, and NSF should help facilitate the participation
of additional partners, be they international, other agencies within
the United States or private foundations."
Below are the Committee's seven recommendations for a research strategy:
1. "Measure the polarization of the cosmic microwave
background with the goal of detecting the signature of inflation.
The Committee recommends that NASA, NSF and DOE undertake research
and development to bring the needed experiments to fruition."
2. "Determine the properties of the dark energy. The
Committee supports the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project, which
has significant promise for shedding light on the dark energy. The
Committee further recommends that NASA and DOE work together to construct
a wide-field telescope in space to determine the expansion history
of the universe and fully probe the nature of the dark energy."
3. "Determine the neutrino masses, the constituents
of the dark matter and the lifetime of the proton. The Committee recommends
that DOE and NSF work together to plan for and to fund a new generation
of experiments to achieve these goals. We further recommend that an
underground laboratory with sufficient infrastructure and depth be
built to house and operate the needed experiments."
4. "Use space to probe the basic laws of physics. The
Committee supports the Constellation-X and Laser Interferometer Space
Antenna missions, which have high promise for studying black holes
and for testing Einstein's theory in new regimes. The Committee further
recommends that the agencies proceed with an advanced technology program
to develop instruments capable of detecting gravitational waves from
the early universe."
5. "Determine the origin of the highest energy gamma
rays, neutrinos and cosmic rays. The Committee supports the broad
approach already in place, and recommends that the United States ensure
the timely completion and operation of the Southern Auger array."
6. "Discern the physical principles that govern extreme
astrophysical environments through the laboratory study of high- energy-density
physics. The Committee recommends that the agencies cooperate in bringing
together the different scientific communities that can foster this
rapidly developing field."
7. "Realize the scientific opportunities at the intersection
of physics and astronomy. The Committee recommends establishment of
an Interagency Initiative on the Physics of the Universe, with the
participation of DOE, NASA, and NSF. This initiative should provide
structures for joint planning and mechanisms for joint implementation
of cross-agency projects."
Chapter Six of the report outlines the justification for these recommendations,
and describes the type of instruments, collaborations and data needed
to pursue each objective. "If a cross-disciplinary, cross-agency
approach can be mounted," the report says, "the [Committee]
believes a great leap can be made in understanding the universe and
the laws that govern it."
The prepublication version of "From Quarks To the Cosmos: Eleven
Science Questions for the New Century," which runs approximately
164 pages, can be read online at http://www.nationalacademies.org/bpa/projects/cpu/report.
The hardcopy version is not yet available from the National Academy
Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics