February 12, 2004

Wilson Refocuses Research

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As the Wilson Synchrotron Laboratory prepares for its final high-energy physics experiment, its proud director, Prof. Emeritus Maury Tigner Ph.D. ’63 steadfastly reiterates, “This is absolutely not the end.” Take a walk through Wilson’s brick and concrete corridors and you will not find anyone crying in their lab books, and there is no one packing up their offices. The control room’s thousands of switches and lights are still glowing and humming.

Instead of nostalgically recounting the good-old days of high-energy university physics, everyone here is talking about the next frontier. In a quest to answer smaller and smaller questions regarding the nature of sub-atomic particles, the machinery needed to conduct the kind of high-energy physics experimentation that the Wilson Lab has concerned itself with has grown ever larger, forcing Cornell’s lab into near obsolescence.

The money, scale and size of the next generation particle accelerators have grown too large for any single university to control and operate.

“I expect that all future high energy accelerators are likely to be international efforts,” said Prof. Albert Silverman, physics, who directed construction of Wilson’s present detector, CLEO. According to Silverman, there are five other “centers of high energy physics” in the world; all of which are at least 10 times the size of Wilson. “Cornell can no longer compete in this field,” he added.

The Wilson lab has been an integral part of the Cornell and the high-energy physics community for over 50 years. It has greatly contributed to the development of the Standard Model, the grand schema of subatomic physics that has been worked through over the last fifty years. The lab’s namesake, Robert Wilson, helped to establish Cornell’s particle acceleration program as its first director. Former Director Karl Berkelman Ph.D. ’59 still recounts the “can-do attitude” of his predecessors and peers as he speaks of the next generation of particle accelerators. He is excited about the Cornell Laboratory of Elementary-Particle Physics (LEPP), which is already collaborating on the next high-energy facility, hopefully “to be built sometime in the near future.”

The Wilson lab with its synchrotron predecessor was one of many labs established by university researchers, such as Cornell physicists Hans Bethe and Wilson, who had been associated with the Manhattan Project. These researchers returned to their respective universities and continued to work in this relatively new field.

According to Tigner, when offered the choice between benefactors, Wilson aptly selected the National Science Foundation (NSF) over the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). This prescient decision allowed the Wilson Lab to continue to operate, while the AEC closed all other university-operated particle accelerators in the mid-1970’s in an effort to consolidate research and resources into super-sized national and international laboratories.

The lab is nestled into the backside of the Collegetown gorge and looks out over Bermen Field, 15 meters underneath of which is the 768-meter-long Cornell Electron Storage Ring (CESR). It is in the tunnel-like CESR where electrons and their anti-matter counterparts accelerate until they are thrust into the three-story-tall particle detector, CLEO. As they rush into CLEO, they crash into each other, fusing into bigger particles. These fusions are the key to unlocking the secrets of subatomic nuclei.

Berkelman also attributes CESR and the Wilson Lab’s resiliency to the character of Cornell physicists. “[They were] unusually gifted people with great ambitions, clever ideas, dating back to the 1940s [who] rebuilt its facilities every decade to stay at the forefront.”

As this article goes to print, Cornell’s particle physicists are converting the Wilson Lab to one of the lowest energy regions of sub-atomic research. When they finish this conversion process in July, the lab will run through 2008, checking the accuracy of a contraversial theoretical data collection technique known as lattice quantum chromodynamics (lattice QCD).

“In converting our machine to this energy range we will be able to check to see if new things are going on in the Standard Model,” Tigner said.

As CESR prepares for its last entrance into the sub-atomic world, Tigner said, “this is just the beginning [for the Wilson Lab].”

For some, the transition will change the way physics is studied at Cornell.

“What we will lose will be the luxury of being able to carry out the entire process — planning, accelerator construction and operation, experiment, data analysis, interpretation — without ever leaving the Cornell campus,” Berkelman said.

The Wilson Lab will not board up its windows, and its physicists will not move to warmer climates. Rather, the lab will move into the realm of x-ray particle physics, which according to Tigner has “another trajectory.” The Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), funded in part by NSF and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), shares glory, space and machinery with the Wilson Lab and has been CLEO’s counterpart for over 25 years. After the completion of CESR’s present endeavor, the CHESS team will begin converting CLEO to be solely “CHESS dedicated.”

Tigner and the associate director of CHESS, Don Bilderback, hope to begin construction of a new machine, called Energy Recovery Linac (ERL), a “source of x-rays that will outshine the best storage rings in the world for x-ray production.” Bilderback emphasized that ERL is only in its “conceptual stage,” and convincing the NSF’s government financiers to spend as the debt increases will not be easy. However, he is optimistic because the scientific reward is limitless. “It could put CESR right on the front of high-energy research,” Bilderback said. CHESS proponents originally conceived of it as a way of capitalizing on the powerful x-rays produced by CESR’s atomic collisions. The x-rays illuminate microscopic details of the structures of atoms.

“We’re able to answer a lot of questions about how the structure of matter is put together,” Bilderback said. Over a thousand researchers a year conduct all sorts of biomedical research in CHESS’ 12 experimental stations, including the 2003’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner, Rod MacKinnon.

Archived article by Michael Margolis