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Archive for Tuesday, June 29, 1993

KU SCIENTISTS

June 29, 1993

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Kansas University researchers are defending the superconducting supercollider, a government-financed atom smasher, against charges of unnecessary spending in tight budget times.

KU physicists John P. Ralston and Philip S. Baringer say experiments with a supercollider will provide new knowledge -- the same kind of new knowledge that once led to electrical generators, radios and microwaves.

The two are members of two teams of KU researchers working on the supercollider, an $8.25 billion project under construction in Texas and scheduled for completion early in the next decade. Ralston, professor of physics and astronomy, says the cost of the supercollider amounts to about one-tenth of 1 percent of the annual federal budget.

"If we could do it any other way, we would do it at home on our coffee tables," Ralston said. "But you need really high energy to discover new particles. And why do we care about these teensy-weensy things? That's not the point. You can't understand workings of the universe until you have got the laws of physics right."

Baringer, associate professor of physics and astronomy, is helping design one of the huge particle detectors that will be attached to the supercollider. He said theorists have come up with several ideas about how the forces of nature work together. But experiments with a supercollider are needed to confirm or disprove any of those theories.

"One of the goals of physicists is to be able to write a set of equations that explain everything," Baringer said. "But at the moment we're stuck. Physicists don't just have one theory; they have this grocery list of theories, but they're stalled out until they get some experimental data to prove or disprove them."

The supercollider is a structure built about 200 meters underground consisting of a 54-mile-long, circular tunnel enclosing two rings. Protons -- positively charged particles found in the nucleus of atoms -- are hurled through the racetrack-shaped rings at a velocity close to the speed of light. Superconducting magnets guide the protons, which normally would move in a straight line.

At points where the rings intersect, the protons -- moving in opposite directions -- collide. Among other things, researchers hope the results of the collision will help them discover a theoretical particle, called the Higgs particle.

If the Higgs particle exists, knowledge of it would help provide the same breakthrough concept of the universe that James Maxwell provided with his theory of electromagnetism in the 19th century, or Albert Einstein did in this century with his theory of relativity. Such breakthroughs inevitably lead to revolutionary technological advances, physicists say.

"The supercollider is not going to make new light bulbs tomorrow, but in the past, this kind of exploration led to electricity, radios and microwaves," Ralston said. "The government should be as careful as it can be to spend money wisely -- and it's a proper function of the government to spend a certain amount of money on exploration of the unknown."

KU's supercollider research is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and Texas National Research Laboratory Commission.

In addition to Ralston and Baringer, five more KU physics and astronomy professors are involved in the research: Raymond G. Ammar, department chair; Robin E. Davis; Nowhan Kwak; Douglas McKay; and Herman J. Munczek. Alice Bean and David Besson will join the faculty and the research program in fall 1993.

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