Dismal future for nuclear physics in America

Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York might soon be halting operations.

Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York might soon be halting operations.

You can collide all the gold particles you want, you won’t make them multiply into gold bars.

That’s too bad for the particle collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York; it’s the first on the chopping block for a dwindling nuclear physics program in the U.S.

Physicist Robert Tribble of Texas A&M was saddled by the federal government with assessing our nuclear physics program and seeing where some cuts can be made. The sad fact is we’re not nearly as minted as we used to be, and scientific research programs are suffering for it. Our local collider, the Tevatron at Fermilab in Batavia was shut down in September 2011 because of budget issues as well.

Tribble ran the numbers and told the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee that if one entire facility had to be cut, it should be Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider (RHIC), our last active particle collider in the country. Also on the table are the planned Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) at Michigan State University and Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF) at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia, which is in need of upgrades. Tribble says CEBAF’s upgrades should take top priority.

While RHIC, which works exclusively with gold particles, isn’t the largest or most powerful collider around, scientists there say the research done at Brookhaven can’t be replicated anywhere else, even CERN in Europe. The protons are collided with aligned spins, which allows researchers to examine quarks and gluons and how they interact, something that residents say only RHIC can accomplish. Right now it costs $160 million a year and 750 employees to operate the lab.

Tribble would rather not deal with a nuclear physics Sophie’s Choice. His recommendation is to pare down operations at all the nation’s nuclear projects. It would slow progress, but prevent the U.S. from tearing a huge hole in it’s own science program… and allowing CERN to take the lead in the field.

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