We are closer to the heart of matter. But we will get even closer.
20 May 2010
As scientist's at Fermilab's Tevatron announce new insights into the nature of the Universe, Brian Foster, European regional director for the International Linear Collider considers what's to come in particle physics
Particle physics had been an international endeavour before I took my first faltering steps in the subject as a postgraduate in Oxford. My first experiment involved Oxford, groups in Amsterdam and Nijmegen, and CERN. Subsequently, I have progressed through collaborations of increasing size and complexity, culminating in my current position as European Director for the next major project in particle physics, the International Linear Collider (ILC).
Internationalism in particle physics is a necessity because of the scale of the infrastructure needed to carry out world leading research. No individual country, even 50 years ago, could afford to build a CERN; the technical specification of the ILC project and the technology choice were fully international from the outset. There are many benefits of internationalism beyond the obvious but important one of pooling resources: a specialised technological base may be stronger in one region than another; different scientific cultures often catalyse new approaches; and if the facility can be operated remotely, one region's night shifts become another's day shifts. The downside is a corollary – ILC teleconferences can only take place if those in one of the regions work late at night.
While the future of accelerator physics is hard to predict, one certainty is that it will be international. The UK's two accelerator science centres, the John Adams and Cockcroft Institutes, are raising the UK's profile through international collaborations, particularly on the ILC. Some of the new ideas being worked on worldwide include plasma acceleration, basically harnessing the enormous electric fields at the atomic level, which become unshielded inside a plasma to accelerate beams to high energies over very short distances. There is a long way to go before these become practical devices, rather than blue skies research, but progress has been promising. Another idea, CLIC, which accelerates one beam via the intense electric field of another, is being developed through international collaboration at CERN. It is even possible to sketch designs for acceleration of muons, even though their average lifetime is 0.000002 seconds. Einstein's relativity is a wonderful thing!
Might such international collaborations be extended to other areas of science? Of course; they already are. The particle physics accelerators of today become the synchrotron radiation or neutron sources of tomorrow; a list of examples, and the range of scientific disciplines they serve, are both too long to write down. CERN was itself the model and partial incubator for other international scientific organisations, such as the European Southern Observatory (ESO). The ITER machine comes from a parallel line of international collaborations in fusion.
Even disciplines traditionally thought of as 'table-top' are finding the necessity, and the advantages, of large collaboration, as the cost of the sophisticated apparatus required for world leading science increases. The Human Genome is one example; climate science, with its demands on computational resources, another. All the disciplines I have mentioned in this piece have much to offer, and much to learn from, each other. Truly, the future is international.