Tag Archives: particle accelerators

Making Big Science Smaller: Accelerator Technology

The story goes that after Ernest Lawrence came up for the design for the first cyclotron, he raced from the Berkeley library shouting, “I’m going to be famous!” His prediction was spot on: the cyclotron was the first particle accelerator, the first machine that could study matter on its smallest scales. Since it was became the model for all subsequent accelerators, its invention established Lawrence’s place as one of the most important and influential physicists of the 20th century.

Eighty years later, accelerators range from the relatively low-energy machines used to treat cancer in single hospital rooms to the Large Hadron Collider, which crosses an international border and gets us to energy levels last seen fractions of second after the Big Bang. Up until now bigger has meant better in terms of accelerators, but as we look forward to the proposed International Linear Collider and beyond, many physicists are investigating how to fit the biggest of Big Science onto a tabletop.

New accelerator technology at Fermilab

New accelerator technology at Fermilab

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Who’s afraid of the Superconducting Super Collider?

The site of the abandoned Superconducting Super Collider.

The site of the abandoned Superconducting Super Collider.

The Superconducting Super Collider is rarely discussed anymore, but its ghost has haunted high energy physics for the last 16 years. Slated to begin operations in 1999 in Waxahachie, Texas, the SSC would have been nearly three times as powerful as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Had it been completed, we would probably not be waiting with bated breath for the hints of the Higgs Boson from the LHC: the Higgs and a slew of other physics would most likely be among the recent accomplishments of jubilant experimental physicists.

Alas, after ten years of planning and $2 billion in construction costs, Congress pulled the plug on the project in 1993. Today, several of the buildings and 14 miles of the planned 54-mile-long tunnel sit abandoned in the Texas desert — the tunnel intentionally filled with water in order to preserve it. Despite talk of turning the site into a mushroom farm or a data center, the site hasn’t been used for much other than a filming location for Universal Soldier: The Return, which even we aren’t curious enough to watch.

But wondering about what’s actually there, Nick and I decided to search for its remains on our way from Chicago to Los Alamos.

Lizzie comes face to face with the greatest unrealized dream in American particle physics.

Lizzie comes face to face with the greatest unrealized dream in American particle physics.

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The National Synchrotron Light Source

Brookhaven’s National Synchrotron Light Source, we would discover, is just that — a light source. And despite the differences in scale and the methods of production, it isn’t so different from the studio lights used by photographers. In each case, the way to get the best image is to shine a really bright light on the subject and take a picture of it. Indeed, the only respect in which the light source’s name can be misleading is that it does not confine itself to the visible light spectrum, but uses everything between infrared and x-rays.

A view of the workspaces surrounding the smaller ring at Brookhavens National Synchrotron Light Source

A view of the workspaces surrounding the smaller ring at Brookhaven's National Synchrotron Light Source

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Hello, World!

We’re Lizzie Wade and Nick Russell. This summer, we will be taking a road trip across the United States before Lizzie starts a Fulbright in Mexico City. On the way, we will visit some of the sites and laboratories that have contributed (and continue to contribute) to the history of high energy physics. We aim to document a particular moment in science and history: as the Large Hadron Collider slowly rumbles to life in Europe, it promises to change not only our understanding of the universe at its most fundamental level, but also the manner in which high energy physics is conducted around the world.

Our itinerary takes us to seven National Laboratories and to the site of the abandoned Superconducing Super Collider (and hopefully to the Very Large Array, just for fun):

Brookhaven National Laboratory (Brookhaven, Long Island, New York)
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge, Tennessee)
Fermilab National Laboratory (Batavia, Illinois)
Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne, Illinois)
•The former planned site of the Superconducting Super Collider (Waxahachie, Texas)
Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los Alamos, New Mexico)
The Very Large Array (Sorroco, New Mexico)
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena, California)
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley, CA)
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Livermore, CA)
SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (Stanford, CA)

In addition to this blog, we will be working with Symmetry Magazine, the joint Fermilab/SLAC publication about particle physics, to produce a multimedia piece. We hope you enjoy what we come up with!

-Lizzie and Nick


Here are some questions I hope to investigate during our trip, in no particular order:

How do labs like Oak Ridge and Los Alamos incorporate their history while moving forward with their scientific and philosophic missions?

Are multi-use labs the way to go in terms of funding, public interest, and continuing relevance?  Can they help physics become more interdisciplinary?  What are the benefits and drawbacks of interdisciplinary science — and how do such collaborations work?

What are the prospects for the International Linear Collider and other future high energy physics experiments?  What are the chances they will be located in the U.S. — particularly at Fermilab?

How does having a physics lab in town change the surrounding community?

What can’t the LHC explore? How can lower energy American labs fill the gaps?

How will the U.S.’s political climate influence support for current and future projects? Has the current administration’s stated support for basic research changed any realities or expectations?

What happened to the Superconducting Super Collider? What lessons have we learned for future projects? Has the science been incorporated into other projects?

What will Fermilab do when the Tevatron shuts down? What will its new niche be now that it is not the highest energy collider in the world?

Do you have questions of your own? Leave them in the comments!