U.S. Particle Physics Lab Names New Director

21 June 2013 1:50 pm


Nigel Lockyer

Into the breach! Nigel Lockyer, will take over as director of the U.S. particle physics lab, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, the lab announced yesterday. Effective 3 September, Lockyer's appointment comes at a time of transition for Fermilab: Physicists there shut down their storied atom smasher, the Tevatron, in 2011 after it was superseded by Europe's Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and they have struggled to get the go-ahead for their next megaproject, the proposed billion-dollar Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE).

"Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!" says Henry Frisch, a particle physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois who worked with Lockyer on CDF, one of two massive particle detectors fed by the Tevatron. "It's a difficult time, and I have great confidence in Nigel, in his ability to work with difficult situations, in his common sense, and in his ability to get things done."

An American citizen who was born in Scotland and raised in Canada, Lockyer, 60, is now director of Canada's particle and nuclear physics lab, TRIUMF, in Vancouver. He made a name for himself when he and two colleagues led the effort at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, to measure the lifetime of the bottom quark, a heavy cousin of the down quark found in protons and neutrons. He has worked on experiments at Fermilab for more than 25 years and served a stint as spokesperson for the 600-member CDF team.

Times are tough at Fermilab, which employs roughly 1700 people. Its budget for this year is $366 million, down from $397 million in 2010. The lab has cut staff members in recent years. Most important, although Fermilab has a number of intermediate scale projects going on now, its future a decade down the road remains uncertain.

A few years ago, Fermilab researchers hoped that after the Tevatron shut down, they would build a 30-kilometer-long, straight-shot particle smasher called the International Linear Collider, which would complement the LHC. But in 2007, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) blanched at the machine's price—the United States' 50% share was estimated at $7 billion. So researchers turned toward building LBNE, an enormous experiment to study particles called neutrinos and, eventually, a hugely intense proton accelerator, Project X, to feed it and other experiments.

But those efforts haven't gone smoothly either. For LBNE, Fermilab researchers envisioned firing a beam of neutrinos 1300 kilometers to a 34,000-tonne detector 1480 meters down in the abandoned Homestake gold mine in Lead, South Dakota. LBNE would study how the three types of neutrinos morph into one another as they zip along. It would look for a difference in how neutrinos and antineutrinos change type, which could help theorists explain how the universe generated so much matter and so little antimatter.

In March 2012, however, DOE officials said that they couldn't afford to build the $1.9 billion experiment all at once. So in August 2012, researchers proposed to start with a 10,000-tonne detector on the surface at Homestake. But to come close to achieving all the detector's original goals—such as searching for evidence that the proton decays, as predicted by some theories—it would have to be built underground where it would be shielded from interference from cosmic rays. To make that happen, Fermilab officials are looking for contributions from other nations, a prospect that looks brighter now that European physicists say they may be willing to participate in a U.S. facility.

LBNE has also struggled because U.S. physicists outside of Fermilab have not clearly rallied around it. Many are concentrating on efforts at the LHC in Europe or in cosmology. Researchers will get a chance to hash out their differences this summer, as the community goes through its roughly decadal strategizing effort known as the Snowmass process. "My first challenge is to get my arms around that process, talk to the leaders of the various efforts, and understand what the U.S. community really wants to do," Lockyer says.

The challenges may be great, but Lockyer is up to them, says H.H. "Brig" Williams, a physicist at the University of Pennsylvania, where Lockyer was a faculty member before going to TRIUMF. "He sleeps 4 or 5 hours and has tremendous energy and endless tenacity," Williams says. "He can do things I wouldn't even try." One of the things that Lockyer should try is to restore the original scope of LBNE, Williams says.

Lockyer succeeds Pier Oddone, who is retiring on 1 July. Fermilab will be guided by Jack Anderson, the lab's chief operating officer, until Lockyer arrives.

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