Planet Earth Can’t Afford Its New Gigantic Particle Accelerator

Planet Earth Can’t Afford Its New Gigantic Particle Accelerator

A team of scientists unveiled the technical designs for the International Linear Collider (ILC), a proposed particle accelerator that could unravel the deepest mysteries of the universe. At just under 32km long, it’s about 30 per cent larger than the world’s biggest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.

Extra size means extra power in the field of particle accelerators as well as extra capabilities in terms of atom smashing. Physicists hope that it also means the frenzied quest to understand the Higgs boson and to observe dark matter may soon be over.

There’s only one problem: nobody wants to pay for the $US7.8 billion it will take to build the dang thing.

It’s not just money that’s holding back the ILC either. The facility’s immense scale means that it will take up a decently large chunk of land, so the team of 1000-plus scientists from around the world who worked on the design are having a little bit of trouble finding a country to host it. The mountains of Japan are the most likely location for the ILC at the moment. And right now is when the project’s leaders will start getting serious about building this massive lab.

“The Technical Design Report basically says that we are ready to go ahead,” Barry Barish, Director of the ILC’s Global Design Effort, said in a statement. “The technology is there, the R&D milestones have been achieved, the physics case is clear, and we could start construction tomorrow. All we need is a clear political statement, and there are strong signs from Japan that it could bid to host the project.” One of Barish’s colleagues similarly said that the ILC “should be next on the agenda for global particle physics”.

Why We Need a New Collider

So it’s big, expensive and bulky. But what is it for? It’s for finding out the secrets of existence. The physics that you learned in high school doesn’t explain about 85 per cent of the universe as we know it. That’s because scientists now think some 85 per cent of the universe is made up of dark matter, which scientists have never directly observed. (It doesn’t emit light or any kind of electromagnetic radiation.) This is largely why everybody got so excited when the white coats at the LHC in Switzerland confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson last year. The existence of the Higgs boson provides proof that the Standard Model of physics doesn’t sufficiently explain how the universe actually works.

Actually, nobody knows how the universe works. That’s why the world’s leading physicists and theorists want to build a new facility that can create Higgs bosons and keep them from decaying long enough so that they can observe the particles’ behaviour. At least that’s what they say they’re going to do.

What’s more exciting, however, are all the things the physicists don’t even know they’ll be able to do with a particle accelerator as big as the ILC. “At the height of operation, bunches of electrons and positrons will collide roughly 7000 times per second at a total collision energy of 500 GeV,” reads the press release, “creating a surge of new particles that are tracked and registered in the ILC’s detectors.”

New particles?! Can you imagine how excited physics nerds would get if we had a Higgs boson-style discovery every year? Would they be excited enough to donate a dollar to the construction of the ILC?

Who knows. But there should be a Kickstarter for this.

Above: An artist’s interpretation of what a map of the unknown universe would look like.

Pictures: ILC