APS News

Accelerators Are Ubiquitous but Unsung

In late October, dozens of the country’s top particle accelerator physicists assembled in Washington, DC to discuss issues facing their field. The three-day “Accelerators for America” symposium, sponsored by the Department of Energy’s Office of High Energy Physics, served as an open forum for physicists to confer about matters ranging from improving the public perception of science, to sharing new uses for particle accelerators in industry, medicine and national security.

The opening day’s speakers set the tone by emphasizing how accelerators are integral to many of the United States’ scientific advancements, but much of the American public is unaware of their importance. Norman Augustine, the retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, said that high energy physics serves the public both directly and by driving innovation, but it was sometimes hard for the public to see that tie.

“The connection between the work and the research and the connection to the public, to the taxpayers, is probably less apparent than in the biological sciences,” said Augustine. “Science is at the very root of innovation in this country and anywhere else in the world…I can think of no field more exciting, more brain-stretching and more demanding than particle physics.”

Several of the speakers referred to a recent meeting of the House Science and Technology subcommittee on energy and the environment where Chairman Brian Baird (D-Wash.) questioned the value of funding for big accelerators such as the US share in the Large Hadron Collider and the long defunct Superconducting Supercollider.

“We’ve got thousands of other problems and the money we spend on the big gizmos you folks [accelerator physicists] work with, is money we can’t spend on other things that might actually have more immediate and more direct benefit to the society and the economy that are in trouble.”

Dennis Kovar, associate director of the Department of Energy’s Office of High Energy Physics, responded to the congressman’s question by saying that the general public benefits from the numerous applications of accelerator beams, and that the scientific community needed to do a better job of conveying those benefits. In the opening talk of the symposium, Kovar said that “Particle accelerators serve the nation today in many ways.”

H. Frederick Dylla, Executive Director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics, echoed this sentiment and also referenced the chairman’s question during his talk to the symposium. He said that one of the major goals of the symposium was to help people show how and why particle accelerators are important to the public.

“Our community needs to do a better job of communicating the value of these machines,” said Dylla, who, before joining AIP, was Chief Technology Officer and Associate Director for the Free-Electron Laser program at Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility.

Speakers spent much of the rest of the day highlighting the importance of particle accelerators to society. A major point that several speakers tried to get across was the large but often overlooked role of particle accelerators in medicine. Cancerous tumors were first treated with accelerated particle beams in 1961, and medical accelerators were first installed at top hospitals in 1990. Jurgen Debus from the University of Heidelberg said that the proton irradiation therapy for ocular melanoma developed at the Harvard Cyclotron has a nearly 95 percent success rate. He pointed also to ongoing research into carbon ion and helium ion beams that can penetrate deeper with better focus than current proton beams.

“Accelerators have saved more lives than any other biomedical device,” said Tom Katsouleas, Dean of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University.

Speakers pointed out the importance of particle accelerators in industry as well. Particle beams are used to strengthen carbon fibers, sterilize food products, and even make the next generation of efficient solar cells. Indirectly, accelerator development has led to countless new offshoot technologies and enhancements, such as new materials and detectors.

“Almost all of the electronic devices we use have an accelerator somewhere in the background,” said Bill Barletta of MIT, “Many of these applications are derived from our basic interest in the fundamental nature of matter.”

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos