Cash-Challenged CERN Lifted by Nobel Hunts for BRIC FundsThomas Mulier and Simeon Bennett
The Geneva research center that made the most important find in particle physics in half a century, helping explain how the visible universe holds together, is tapping developing nations to help fund its follow-up act.
CERN’s observation of a Higgs boson last year led to a Nobel Prize in Physics yesterday for Peter Higgs and Francois Englert for their theoretical work predicting the particle’s existence. CERN is now considering new multibillion-dollar projects that may prove that other dimensions exist and track what happened after the Big Bang formed our universe.
“It took us 50 years to complete our description of the visible world,” CERN Director General Rolf-Dieter Heuer said at a press conference yesterday. “It’s high time to go into the dark universe. To open that window would be just great.”
The financial crisis made it harder to raise cash to build on last year’s discovery of the so-called God particle, so the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, is casting the net wider, inviting more countries to contribute, including Brazil and Russia. One of the new systems may cost as much as 8 billion Swiss francs ($8.8 billion), compared with the 1 billion francs CERN has said it needs to continue research at its existing infrastructure.
“There’s never enough funding,” 65-year-old Heuer, who plans to retire at the end of 2015, said in an interview. “If your ambitions are not beyond the funding envelope, you’re making a mistake.”
New members, associates and other contributions could supply as much as 800 million francs for current projects, CERN has estimated.
The existence of the Higgs boson helps physicists explain how other particles have mass. CERN discovered the particle with the world’s largest particle accelerator, a 27-kilometer (17-mile) underground science racetrack in Geneva.
The Large Hadron Collider, which cost 6 billion francs to build, shoots two beams of protons at each other at near light-speed, or more than 11,000 laps each second. Superconducting magnets, kept at a temperature colder than outer space, guide the beams so they hit each other with as much force as two high-speed trains. Some collisions release smaller elementary particles, which are studied by magnetic detectors, one of which contains more iron than the Eiffel Tower.
The Higgs boson that CERN observed completes the Standard Model, the theory that explains physics for the 5 percent of the universe that can be observed. Physicists have been searching for explanations for the rest of the universe, which theoretically exists though can’t be seen, and is thought to have disappeared after the Big Bang.
The properties of the Higgs boson could point to fields for investigation to find such dark matter or dark energy. By 2017 or 2018, CERN may have results from tests to indicate the level of energy necessary to study such “new physics,” Heuer said.
That would help determine what CERN should build next: a straight-line electron collider, which may cost as much as 8 billion francs, depending on its power, or a 100-kilometer particle accelerator loop that would lie partly under Lake Geneva.
The “E” in CERN ought to stand for “Everywhere” instead of “Europe” since 2010, as all countries can become full members, said Heuer, who was born in Germany. Israel, Romania and Serbia are on their way to becoming members, as is Cyprus, whose parliament still needs to ratify the move.
New sources of funding will help the research institute upgrade its installations to work at higher energy levels. CERN has estimated its deficit will rise to 353 million francs in 2018 from a forecast of 216 million francs this year.
Brazil, Russia, Pakistan and Turkey have applied for associate membership, a new category, which costs a tenth of the price of full membership, Heuer said. Such agreements allow companies from those countries to bid for CERN contracts. CERN agreed to Ukraine entering that category earlier this month.
“So BR- is there, -IC is not yet there,” he said, referring to the BRIC acronym for Brazil, Russia, India and China. “I’m still hoping for at least one of the ICs. It takes more time to say yes because of the economic situation.”
Still, the rest of the world isn’t sitting still. Japan is considering a $7.8 billion linear collider project of its own. CERN is open to helping to set up the facility and cooperating on research, Heuer said.
An hour-long delay yesterday in announcing who won the Nobel Prize for Physics was caused by a dispute in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences about whether scientists at CERN should share the award, Swedish Radio reported today, citing a member of the academy.
CERN’s Large Hadron Collider is down now for maintenance and Heuer has taken advantage of the hiatus to offer underground tours to 98 national delegations, including United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and about 21,000 visitors. Next year, the accelerator will start up again, working at higher energy. An accident when the collider started in 2008 reduced its ability to reach top power.
Heuer studied physics at the University of Stuttgart, and worked at CERN from 1994 to 1998. He returned as director-general in 2009. Heuer said that when he retires, he will spend more time with his wife traveling and on his hobby of model trains. Before then, his main goal is to use the momentum of the Higgs boson discovery to help CERN prepare funding for its plans through 2030.
It’s important to ask for funding soon after making a scientific breakthrough, otherwise “they might not even remember that you discovered something,” he said.