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New opportunity for American physicists

America's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory exemplifies the aphorism that less can sometimes be more. Using advanced magnets, it is doubling the energy of its particle accelerator. Yet, because the magnets are superconducting - that is , they offer no resistance to electric current - the machine saves on electricity needed to run it.

At a stroke, Fermilab has come up with an accelerator that will help American physicists again take a leadership role in probing the underlying nature of matter while the money saved on electric bills will help put that machine to fuller use. The high cost of power had been restricting Fermilab to half-time operation. The new magnets are expected to cut Fermilab's power cost in half.

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This is good news. For too long, American physicists have had to watch from the sidelines as the Europeans make incisive discoveries. We don't mean to be chauvinistic about this research. All humanity shares its fruits. But Americans need to make their own contributions to the harvest if physics is to remain vigorous in the American hemisphere.

We say American, by the way, rather than United States because Fermilab is run under contract with the US Department of Energy (DOE) by a consortium of 54 universities in the US and Canada. Future American accelerators might well include participation by Mexico and other Latin American countries or even Japan.

Within two to three years, the Fermilab machine is expected to run with two particle beams smashing head-on. The impact will have nearly four times the energy now available with colliding beams at the European Center for Nuclear Research at Geneva. This will be a world-leading machine indeed.

However, new, more powerful machines will be needed to maintain that leadership. Possibilities now are under study by the DOE's High Energy Physics Advisory Panel. Its study is complicated by continuing rivalry between various US institutions with competing proposals. This is counterproductive. The high cost of such facilities ensures that only one or two can be funded. US physicists would do better to agree on a preferred design from which all can benefit than to maintain a sterile rivalry among themselves. Presidential science adviser George Keyworth made this point when he told the American Physical Society in April: ''In the years Americans squandered on a porkbarrel squabble, the Europeans moved boldly ahead.''

We hope US physicists will heed this lesson. Meanwhile, we congratulate Fermilab director Leon Lederman, his predecessor Robert Wilson who conceived the improved accelerator design, and the Fermilab staff and contractors. They have opened a new avenue for American physicists.