For Physicists: There Is Light after the End of the Tunnel

Article excerpt

WITH the demise of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), particle-accelerator physicists lost an opportunity to probe the intriguing question of why matter has mass. Now they are challenged to answer the equally intriguing question of why there is any matter at all.

While the political fight over the $11 billion Texas-based super collider diverted public attention, the United States Department of Energy quietly approved construction of a much-less-costly $177 million particle collider in Stanford, Calif. It will be uniquely adapted to study a subtle phenomenon that may explain why there's any matter left today to make galaxies and planets. The question arises because cosmological theory implies that any matter created in the first split second of the universe's existence should have quickly transformed into radiant energy.

The new machine "won't replace the SSC," says physicist Michael Riordan at the Energy Department's Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), which will build and run it. But, he adds, "This is a remarkably cost-effective facility, {and} it's exciting physics."

This is the perspective from which American physicists are beginning to see the SSC loss. Initial dismay is giving way to the realization that there still is "exciting physics" to be done. American physics "is not a wasteland," says Cornell University physicist Karl Berkelman. Focus on low-energy physics

Dr. Berkelman, who also bid for the new facility, explains that some basic physics problems can only be tackled at "the high-energy frontier" because they involve particles that have not yet been detected. That is where the SSC would have come in. There are other puzzles that can best be studied with lower energy but more intense particle beams. "That's where we are now," he says.

In all this kind of research, physicists are dealing with the almost magical properties of the two basic forms or matter - ordinary particles and their antimatter twins. Antimatter is just like ordinary matter except that certain properties, such as electric charge, are reversed. When particles of matter meet their antimatter twins, they mutually annihilate each other. …