Italy Funds New Particle Smasher With U.S. Components

Staff Writer

Christmas arrived a few days early for physicists in Italy and the United States, as the Italian Ministry for Education, University, and Research has given funding to a project to construct a new particle smasher using parts from a now-defunct machine in the United States. Known as SuperB, the €400 million accelerator would blast electrons into positrons to make subatomic particles, including huge numbers of ones known as B mesons, and study their properties in exquisite detail in search of new physics. The funding announced yesterday provides only €20 million for the project in 2010, but Roberto Petronzio, president of Italy's National Institute of Nuclear Physics, says his understanding is that the ministry intends to spend another €250 million over the next 5 years to build the machine. "I'm quite confident it's the real beginning of the project," he says.

SuperB will be built with parts from a defunct particle accelerator called PEP-II, which ran at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, from 1999 to 2008. Physicists working with PEP-II and a competing machine known as KEKB, at the Japanese laboratory KEK in Tsukuba, have studied decays of a couple billion B mesons to probe an asymmetry between matter and antimatter known as CP violation. They confirmed the explanation of CP violation posited in 1972 by Japanese theorists Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in physics.

Physicists now want to produce B mesons at rates up to 100 times higher than currently possible to look for signs of new physics. The new funding by Italy keeps the country in the race with Japan for to achieve that. In June, the government of Japan gave researchers at KEK $100 million of the $300 million they need to upgrade KEKB to SuperKEKB. Both it and SuperB will increase production of B-meson and other particles by hugely compessing the beams of electrons and positrons in a scheme developed by the SuperB team.

Petronzio says he hopes that the Italian ministry will agree to a construction schedule early next year and that SuperB will start taking data around 2016. The construction of SuperB is contingent on the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) contributing the machinery of PEP-II, which would be worth more than €100 million. However, David MacFarlane, SLAC's associate director for particle physics and particle astrophysics, says the lab and the agency are onboard with the project: "Both DOE and the laboratory are fully committed to supplying the equipment requested."

Whether U.S. physicists will be able to fully participate in the Italy project is another matter. To support such participation, DOE officials will have to find some room in the agency's already tight $810 million particle physics budget. But David Hitlin, a particle physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who has been involved in the project since its inception, says that SuperB presents DOE with a scientific bargain. "DOE can be a major player in the project for a relatively small amount of money by leveraging the in-kind contribution" of the equipment, he says. For the moment, Hitlin says he's just happy that the project seems to be coming to fruition: "It's nice that it's real."

Posted in Europe, Physics, Policy