Particle Physics Worth the Investment

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), September 9, 2008 | Go to article overview

Particle Physics Worth the Investment


Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Jim Brau For The Register-Guard

Some 14 billion years ago, a volume smaller than a single atom contained the entire visible universe. Today, the glorious structure of nature fills an incomprehensibly large region of space. And this fall, the United States loses its lead in the study of how it all happened as the Large Hadron Collider in Europe overtakes Fermilab, near Chicago, on the particle physics energy frontier.

Following a decade and a half of construction, the LHC opens operations this fall. Designed to find and study the Higgs boson, this new particle collider replaces Fermilab as the leading particle physics facility in the world with an energy seven times higher. Housed in a 17-mile underground tunnel near Geneva, Switzerland, at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, the LHC will empower physicists from all over the world to explore the fundamentals of energy and matter.

Particle physics seeks to understand the building blocks of the universe - quarks, leptons and likely other particles not yet discovered - to reveal the processes of its rapid expansion, the formation of stars, planets and galaxies, and its destiny, whatever that may be.

Earlier experiments have revealed the relationship between the familiar electromagnetic force and the less well-known weak nuclear force. Electricity, magnets, electrical storms and light are some of the manifestations of electromagnetism. The weak force creates radioactive decay. The LHC will search for the Higgs boson, or a substitute, thought to be the missing link.

Another discovery could be dark matter. First detected in the 1930s in the motion of galaxies in clusters and found in the 1950s in the rotation of galaxies, dark matter also affects the Big Bang remnant of microwaves filling the sky. But its identity is unknown.

Other breakthroughs are possible at the LHC - including extra dimensions of space, micro black holes, or other unexpected phenomena.

The United States once was host to highly productive particle accelerators. Even before World War II, the creative drive of E.O. Lawrence pushed accelerator technology. Cal-Berkeley accelerators inspired others, until the two workhorses of U.S. particle physics were constructed in the 1960s: the Stanford Linear Accelerator and the Fermilab proton accelerator.

Decades of research at Stanford, Fermilab and other American accelerator laboratories produced numerous discoveries, some rewarded with Nobel Prizes. But support for the U.S. program has been shrinking for more than a decade. Particle physics has stopped at Stanford, and Fermilab plans to shut down its collider as the European model makes it obsolete.

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