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U.S. to Contribute $500 Million To European Atomic Collider

By Curt Suplee
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

In an unprecedented act of international scientific collaboration, the United States Monday pledged to provide more than $500 million in high-tech components and services for construction of a state-of-the-art atom smasher near Geneva.

"For the first time, the U.S. government has agreed to contribute significantly to construction of an accelerator outside our borders," Energy Secretary Federico Pea said at a ceremony formalizing the agreement in the Old Executive Office Building. "We have concluded that this is the most cost-beneficial way for the United States to participate" in expensive experiments at the forefront of high-energy physics.

"It sets an excellent precedent," said Christopher Llewellyn Smith, general director of the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), which will build the facility. Not only is the cost of such projects increasingly "beyond the means of most countries," Smith said, but the physical location of the center is "increasingly irrelevant. Science knows no national borders or continental boundaries."

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), planned for completion in 2005 at an estimated cost of about $6 billion, is designed to be the world's most powerful accelerator, generating about seven times more collision energy than the record-holder, the Tevatron at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) outside Chicago.

Those energy levels are expected to create conditions that will enable researchers to "uncover and unravel the deepest secrets of the physical universe," said National Science Foundation Director Neal Lane, including the profoundly vexing question of what process in nature causes particles to acquire mass.

Other objectives include trying to understand the mysterious "dark matter" that makes up at least 90 percent of the mass of the cosmos but has never been seen, investigating why there is so little antimatter in today's universe and studying how the four fundamental forces of nature might be unified.

The LHC was conceived years ago by CERN, which is supported by a consortium of 19 European countries. U.S. interest in the project spiked in 1993 after Congress killed funding for a domestic next-generation accelerator, the planned Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) then under construction in Texas. The United States had conducted an urgent search for international partners as domestic support waned for the SSC - the cost of which threatened to exceed $10 billion - with only modest success.

Suddenly America found itself faced with the prospect of becoming an international partner in the LHC collaboration (which also includes Russia, India, Canada and Japan, among others) or possibly losing the chance for important participation in cutting-edge science as well as the ability "to train the next generation of physicists," as John H. Gibbons, assistant to the president for science and technology, noted Monday.

It took four years of complicated negotiations to define an appropriate role for the United States and to iron out difficult questions such as whether the United States would have to pay more if the project experienced overruns (now "our contribution is fixed" at $531 million, Pea said) and the American role in directing research (U.S. physicists will be "full and equal partners," Smith said).

Under the terms of the agreement signed Monday, DOE will provide $200 million in equipment and materials for the LHC, which is being constructed in an existing tunnel that crosses the Swiss-French border.

In addition, DOE will contribute approximately $250 million in components for the facility's two giant detectors, five-story-tall instruments that record the results of the particle collisions. NSF will provide an additional $81 million in in-kind contributions. Some 550 U.S. scientists are working on experiments at those detectors, about 20 percent of the total number.

"For about 10 percent of the total cost," Pena said Monday, the arrangement will "enable about 25 percent of the U.S. high-energy experimental physics community to take advantage" of the LHC's resources.

Like Fermilab's Tevatron, the LHC is designed to boost heavy subatomic particles such as protons (part of a class collectively called "hadrons" from the Greek word for thick) to energies of about 14 trillion electron volts by accelerating them around the 16-mile circumference of the LHC ring. When they collide, the detectors will track the results - a decidedly non-trivial task. "The volume of data is equivalent to every man, woman and child in the world making 20 phone calls at once," said Bill Willis, a Columbia University physicist and U.S. spokesman for one of the huge detectors, called ATLAS.