Big Bang and bucks set to collide in inner space

The next big thing in physics: a machine 20 miles long that produces energy fireballs recreating the Big Bang. Time and cost: 13,000 person-years and $6.7 billion. Plus parking.

The price of exploring inner space went up this week.

At a news conference in Beijing on Thursday, an international consortium of physicists released the first detailed design of what they believe will be the Next Big Thing in physics: a machine 20 miles long that will slam together electrons and their evil-twin opposites, positrons, to produce fireballs of energy recreating conditions when the universe was only a trillionth of a second old.

It would cost about $6.7 billion and 13,000 person-years of labor to build the machine, the group reported. And that does not include the cafeteria and parking.

In an e-mail interview before the announcement, Barry Barish, a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology and chairman of the design team, said, "The good thing is that we have developed a design that can address the challenging physics goals and meet the technical requirements, and we have worked very hard to cost-optimize it, yet it (not surprisingly) does remain expensive." The design team includes 60 scientists from around the world.

The location of the announcement yesterday, the Institute for High Energy Physics in Beijing, underscores the growing role and ambition of Asia, particularly Japan and China, to become major players in high-energy physics, a field that has been dominated by the United States and Europe in the last century.

In its initial phase, the International Linear Collider would be 20 miles long and hurl electrons and their antimatter opposites, positrons, together with energies of 500 billion electron volts. Later the collider could be extended to 31 miles and a trillion electron volts.

The proposed machine, physicists say, is needed to complement the by actually finding something new, the governments of the world are unlikely to sign on to contribute a share of the billions needed for the new machine.

Particle accelerators derive their punch from Einstein's equation of mass and energy. The more energy they can pack into their little fireballs, the farther back in time they can go, closer and closer to the Big Bang and perhaps ultimate truth about nature, allowing particles and laws that once ruled the cosmos--but have since vanished more completely than the dinosaurs--to briefly strut their stuff again. But as physicists have pushed inward and backward, their machines have gotten bigger and more expensive. Competitions between universities and laboratories turned into races between countries and then continents.

The Large Hadron Collider cost about $3.77 billion, according to CERN. But that total did not include the cost of digging the collider's 18-mile-circumference tunnel, which had been used for a previous machine, the detectors, which cost upward of $1 billion, or most of the above-ground CERN complex, which has been a particle-physics center for decades.

A proton collider that would have been bigger, the Superconducting SuperCollider, was canceled by the United States Congress in 1993. At the time its estimated cost had ballooned to $10.3 billion in 2007 dollars, according to Robin Staffin, associate director for high energy physics at the Department of Energy.

The International Linear Collider collaboration, led by a steering group that is headed by Shin-ichi Kurokawa, of Japan's High Energy Accelerator Research Organization, consists of 1,000 scientists and engineers from 100 countries.

Physicists acknowledge that it could be years before the world commits to building the International Linear Collider, although jockeying for the costly privilege of playing its host has begun.

The committee priced three sites: near CERN in Switzerland, at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., and in the mountains of Japan. The committee found that so-called site-specific costs, including digging tunnels and shafts and supplying water and electricity, were nearly the same in each case: about $1.8 billion.

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