Fundamental questions | March 18, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - March 18, 2011

Fundamental questions

SLAC director works to keep funding for basic science in national labs

by Chris Kenrick

America's scientific elite and budget-slashing Tea Party Republicans might make for strange bedfellows.

This story contains 1522 words.

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Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be reached at


Posted by local science buff, a resident of Stanford
on Mar 18, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Thanks for an nice story on an admirable lady. However, the implication in your lead sentence that these science leaders are "bedfellows" with Tea Party Republicans is inaccurate--and not even congruent with the rest of your own story. Talking does not make people bedfellows. If I read only your first sentence (as many browsing news may do), I would assume the story discussed shady dealings among these people. All just to write a cute lead? Not worth it.

Posted by Roland, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 18, 2011 at 3:09 pm

The article is a fairly comprehensive and well written overview of SLAC in the context of the budget crisis and the importance of basic research. Facilities like this are crucial for our society because if we do not hold in high esteem the search for answers to the fundamental nature of our world, our place in it, and how we might use that information to enrich our lives then we might as well go back to living in caves. Honestly, we should just give up now, take our ball, and wait for the next mass extinction if our elected officials cannot work together for a budget resolution to fund important basic and applied research like SLC, PEP, the LCLS, etc. at facilities like SLAC, Fermilab, Argonne, NASA, and so on.

I also liked the bit about the professor who inspired Persis. How many of us were on the verge of giving up on something difficult but truly rewarding and then because of the encouragement of a teacher, eschewed the easy route for a life more rewarding?

Posted by Mo, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 18, 2011 at 3:42 pm

All these words, and still .. not a clear vision of what SLAC will be doing in the future, to justify US taxpayer support. The Director hints that some medical research is being done at SLAC, but fails to provide clear explanation why this research requires a Linear Accelerator.

The Director talks about SLAC being involved in the development of the WWW, but in reality, it appears that SLAC was just a very early adopter of this technology, having contributed just a "port" to one of the local machines of some web software:

Web Link

None of the Weekly articles have managed to investigate SLAC's budget to the point that the yearly cost to the taxpayer is included in an article. Neither is there any comment about the capital costs of building this facility from its inception.

In a previous article about SLAC, some comments suggested that SLAC would not do defense work. Certainly an interview with the Director about SLACs role in National Defense would probably have been more interesting than learning about her trials and tribulations as a teenager some 30-40 years ago.

Amazing how the media will do anything to avoid actually digging up the details that would help us taxpayers understand what's going on at SLAC.

Posted by Bob Cook, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 18, 2011 at 8:19 pm

Mo, I think you made some valid points. Some of the things that you found uninteresting, others found more interesting. And the things you wanted instead weren't there.

But I'd like to address one of your points that I think missed Drell's point. You said

'The Director talks about SLAC being involved in the development of the WWW, but in reality, it appears that SLAC was just a very early adopter of this technology, having contributed just a "port" to one of the local machines of some web software <Web Link>'

What's actually in the article is this sentence:

'In particle physics, the applications to daily life are less direct, though Drell notes that the particle physics community was an initial developer of the World Wide Web because of the need for collaboration with global counterparts.'

That says that "the particle physics community", not just SLAC, was an initial WWW developer. The WWW was invented at CERN, with the particle physics community leading the way in its adoption. But the point she was trying to make is that fundamental research often leads to very important things that nobody would have imagined at the beginning; the WWW is a huge example that came directly out of particle physics, but I believe there are lots of others in other fundamental research fields.

Posted by Steve Lewis, a resident of another community
on Mar 20, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Several points have been missed here:

1. By re-using the old Linac it was possible to construct LCLS for much less money, in a shorter time, and with much less technical risk than would have been the case for a 'green field' approach: a good deal for the taxpayer. In fact the whole facility met all its goals ahead of time and now exceeds the technical requirements by a large margin.

2. LCLS produces X-Rays that that far exceed any existing method of probing molecules (proteins) important to society. There are many proteins that cannot be prepared for conventional X-Ray probes; LCLS experiments have demonstrated that unprepared (possibly even living) biologic elements can be studied; the implications for medicine and biofuels are breath-taking and will have a relatively short time to witness their beneficial impact on society. LCLS will also allow 'molecular movies' to be made, so that reactions of importance to society--for example, combustion--can be understood.

3. Start/stop funding is very, very inefficient. Assembling the multidisciplinary engineering teams, buying and commissioning the facility equipment, arranging the schedules of experimenters from all over the world…this takes years of advance planning. Time lost can never really be made up. Although the centers-of-excellence for high-energy physics have moved away from SLAC, SLAC is now the prime candidate to be a center-of-excellence for medicine and biofuels; to endanger this prospect is truly to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

I am a 70-year old scientist/engineer that came out of retirement to work on this project. I live in Oakland--yes, quite a commute.

Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 20, 2011 at 5:56 pm


Here is the homepage for *one* of the things done at SLAC:

Web Link