UBC's Particle Accelerator: What Could've Been

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Large Hadron Collider | BCBusiness
Image by: Eugene Regis
Recently, some CERN scientists devised an experiment with atomic particles, known as neutrinos, demonstrating that they could travel faster than the speed of light.

A long-dead university particle physics project could have created bountiful opportunities for B.C.'s business and science communities.

If you haven’t been paying attention to the world of particle physics this fall and, in particular, the experiment completed recently that left physicists all over the world gob-smacked, then you won’t get this clever joke: “Hey, we don’t allow neutrinos in this bar,” says the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar.


If you’re giggling, then you probably really like Star Trek too. For most of us, the joke requires a little explanation. The recently finished Large Hadron Collider, built as a part of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (known by its French acronym, CERN) in Switzerland, is an enormously expensive 27-kilometre-long piece of equipment that allows some very smart people to do wild experiments in atom smashing and near-speed-of-light physics.

Recently, some CERN scientists devised an experiment with atomic particles, known as neutrinos, demonstrating that they could travel faster than the speed of light. If confirmed, the experiment would erase most of Einstein’s theories, which postulate the speed of light as a constant. Hence, the joke: the neutrinos arrived at their destination before anyone could observe the button being pushed to launch them.


CERN does really important research, the impact of which has been felt beyond the pocket-protector crowd over the past 50 years. You may know, for example, that the World Wide Web initially emerged from CERN in 1993 as a collaboration tool for researchers. 


Which brings me to a chapter in B.C. science that only now, 17 years after it was scrapped by the federal government, can unequivocally be seen as a disaster for the province. The kaon particle accelerator project was the brainchild of everyone’s favourite physics professor, Erich Vogt. He still works today at the age of 82 at the Tri-University Meson Facility (known by its more user-friendly acronym, TRIUMF), the smaller-scale particle accelerator lab hiding in the forest at the south end of the UBC campus. The success of TRIUMF, built in the 1960s, helped Vogt gather multinational support for the kaon particle accelerator proposal, which essentially was the collider equivalent. It was intended to circle the endowment lands at UBC, allowing enough room to get those finicky particles up to 186,000 miles per second, for use in particle physics and nuclear physics experiments. 


Vogt came agonizingly close to getting the billion-dollar deal completed. At one point B.C. was in, and the U.S., Japan, Italy and others were contributing. All we needed was the federal money, a not-insignificant $300 million over five to seven years. Unfortunately, the Liberals had just swept to power and their mandate was to balance the budget. So science was shelved and the kaon accelerator died. (The recently announced $62.9-million Advanced Rare Isotope Laboratory, due to open in 2015, is a nice shot in the arm to TRIUMF, but its scope pales in comparison to the earlier proposal for a kaon accelerator.)


Imagine for a moment that the kaon accelerator existed today. It would be one of three super colliders in the world, and would have attracted the brightest minds in physics. It likely would have spawned spin-off companies in nuclear medicine, superconducting materials, nanotechnology and, perhaps, some unforeseen side benefit as important as the World Wide Web. 


The impact of the kaon accelerator would have been far greater than the 1,000 jobs it would have created during the construction and subsequent operation of the facility. It would have made a lasting imprint on the scientific and business world for decades to come. Erich Vogt is still enjoying smashing very small things these days at TRIUMF, and I am sure he is not bitter about what could have been. His contribution to society will be measured by the 5,000 or so physics students he taught over the years. I just wish many of them could have stayed here to chase their wildest dreams.



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