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FYI Number 68: June 7, 2002

Strategy for Interdisciplinary Physics & Astronomy Research

"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 questions.

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 The hardcopy version is not yet available from the National Academy Press.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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