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After Higgs Hunt, Fermilab Charts New Paths in Physics Research

March 27th 2013

M55 in Sagittarius via VISTA

Scientists in Switzerland announced earlier this month that they are confident their experiments with the world's most powerful atom smasher have finally turned up the long-sought Higgs boson, also known as the “God Particle.” Discovery of the elusive sub-atomic particle, which scientists believe imparts mass to all matter, also provides tantalizing clues to some of the most profound mysteries of the universe.

The search for Higgs began decades ago at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. Scientists there are developing new technologies to delve even deeper into the mysteries of particle physics. At the Grid Computing Center at Fermilab - half a world away from the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland - the key to understanding how the Higgs boson works and what it means for the universe, could be on one of these digital storage devices.

“The data has much more information in it than just information about the Higgs boson,” said scientist Robert Roser, who is overseeing the effort at Fermilab to sift through the computer data generated when atoms are smashed together by the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC.

"It’s a gold mine. You can look at it for years and tease out interesting pieces of information from it. It’s an important store of knowledge that we have to use for decades really,” said Roser. Roser said Fermilab is not waiting decades, however, to dig deeper into the sub-atomic world. “Energy matters, and so the higher the energy, the deeper you can probe these different particles to see whether or not there is a substructure inside these particles,” he said. To get that higher energy, Technical Division scientist Andy Hocker is working with physicists at Fermilab to build the next-generation particle accelerator - one that someday will make the LHC obsolete.

“What we are planning to build here at Fermilab is basically one of the most powerful proton accelerators in the world. We won’t be at the energy frontier anymore, but at the intensity frontier as we call it. An intense beam of protons that is basically unparalleled in the world,” said Hocker. Instead of particles being accelerated around a vast circle, as with the LHC, Fermilab’s new linear device - housed in a facility about 31 kilometers long - would aim two particle beams in a straight line at each other, much like two bullets fired to collide with each other at the speed of light. “The advantage of a linear accelerator is that you don’t have to keep those particles on a stable orbit. It’s much easier to send something in a straight line than it is to keep it in orbit in a circle,” said Hocker.

While the technology for the new International Linear Collider might be developed at Fermilab in the United States, engineering physicist Elvin Harms said that if it is approved, it might not be built there. “Right now I’d say the odds are the Japanese are showing the strongest interest in hosting the International Linear Collider, but I would say that the first word - International - is important because this is going to be an international collaboration,” said Harms. The International Linear Collider project includes about 2,000 people from 300 universities, and laboratories from 24 different countries.

The estimated price tag - between $7 billion and $8 billion.

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