May 9, 2006

U of C site vies for new particle accelerator

American dominance in the study and development of high-energy particle physics may be seriously compromised, according to a report issued by the National Academy of Sciences, unless efforts are made to ensure that the next high-energy particle accelerator—the International Linear Collider (ILC)—will be constructed in the U.S.

Currently, the world’s highest energy particle accelerator is Tevatron, located at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in the western Chicago suburb of Batavia. Tevatron, however, will soon be trumped by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is located outside Geneva, Switzerland at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). The LHC is scheduled to begin operating within the next year.

Tevatron is consequently scheduled to shut down in 2010, forecasting a large cut in Fermilab’s staff.

“When we looked at the status of high-energy physics in the U.S., we were very sobered,” said Harold Shapiro, Princeton University economics professor and chair of the National Research Council (NRC) that studied this issue, in speaking to The Christian Science Monitor. Shapiro added that the U.S. “has no compelling follow-on” once Tevatron begins to shut down in 2010.

As a result, the center for high-energy physics experiments is shifting to Europe, and American scientists and researchers are being forced to conduct their experiments abroad.

“It’s more than just inconvenient,” said James Pilcher, a University physics professor and director of the University’s Enrico Fermi Institute. Pilcher, whose own research project is being conducted overseas at CERN, said he was “seriously concerned” that relatively inaccessible labs abroad will discourage the next generation of American physicists from pursuing research on high-energy particle physics, instead turning towards other fields of physics.

“Interesting questions in high-energy particle physics will be asked elsewhere, and a field of research that was born in the U.S. will be going overseas,” Pilcher said.

However, not all physicists are as pessimistic about the state of American high-energy particle physics as Pilcher or the NRC.

Mark Oreglia, professor of physics and co-chair of the American Linear Collider Physics Group, said the claim that a new American particle accelerator is necessary to save American physics is “standard Washington boiler-plate,” intended more to rally politicians on Capitol Hill than anything else.

But Oreglia said also that if plans for the ILC go through, he would like to see it built in the U.S.

Preliminary plans are already being drawn up for the ILC high-energy particle accelerator, a 28-mile-long machine that would cost anywhere between $5 and $10 billion, with the possibility of operation beginning in little more than a decade.

The ILC, which has been an international project from the start, has yet to decide on its final site, although serious bids have also been entertained for two sites in Europe and one in Japan.

U.S. government officials have indicated that Fermilab should house the ILC if built in America, citing its reputation among physicists, including Oreglia, as “the top of the heap.”

Oreglia pointed to Fermilab’s existing staff of scientists and facilities, its proximity to major research universities, and a geological makeup ideal for supporting the ILC’s large-scale machinery as selling points to attract the project.

Oreglia added that Fermilab’s chances are also strong because the U.S., if chosen as the host country, has the resources to meet the host country’s obligation to finance the majority of the project.

“We like to think Fermilab is the front-runner, but nothing is a given at this point,” said Steve Holmes, Fermilab’s associate director, to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Fermilab has wasted no time in courting support from the American scientific community and politicians to strengthen its candidacy. On April 21, Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory—managed by the University of Chicago—signed a Memorandum of Understanding to enhance cooperation between each other regarding research and development projects.

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, in recognition of the two laboratories’ work, declared April 21 “Particle Accelerator Day” in Illinois and has earmarked state funds to design an Illinois Accelerator Research Center in an effort to strengthen Fermilab’s ILC candidacy.