Physical physics

Building the world's largest particle accelerator and Israel's scientific reputation in Europe.

proton collision atlas (photo credit: Courtesy of CERN)
proton collision atlas
(photo credit: Courtesy of CERN)
Protons, electrons, positrons, quarks, gluons, muons, shmuons! I should have paid better attention to my high school physics teacher. If I had, maybe I could have understood even a fraction of what Israeli particle physicist Giora Mikenberg was talking about when explaining his work on the world's largest science experiment. Forget building model spaceships and soccer-playing robots for the high school science fair, I am talking about the construction of a massive detector - about the size of a seven-story building with a height of 25 meters and 44 meters in length and weighing some 7,000 tons - that will track billions of collisions of electrically charged particles per second. In layman's terms, that is like trying to detect the speed of something you can't see with the naked eye going "faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive…" Known as ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS - even the full name is practically in code), this particle physics experiment will explore the fundamental nature of matter and the basic forces that shape our universe. The $1 billion project is designed to measure the broadest possible range of signals from colliding particles whizzing around a 27-kilometer underground accelerator ring at the Geneva-based European Organization for Nuclear Research (known by its French acronym CERN, Conseil Europ en pour la Recherche Nucl aire), the world's largest particles physics laboratory, but more popularly known as the birthplace of the Worldwide Web and the setting of Dan Brown's other best-selling thriller, Angels and Demons. "We know that a lot of mass exists in the universe, but we can't see it," said Mikenberg, who is leading a major part of the ATLAS experiment. Although Dan Brown's novel describes CERN and the experiments that take place there as some kind of secret nuclear research facility, it is by far no underground Iranian nuclear arms program in the making. In fact, with pretty lax security and young scientists tossing around frisbees on open lawns, CERN more closely resembles a college campus with streets aptly named after their scientific heroes - route Einstein, route (Isaac) Newton, route (Marie) Curie and so on. South American-born Mikenberg, who came to Israel in the 1960s, could easily pass for the role of Dan Brown's main character, Harvard professor and religious iconologist Robert Langdon. But rather than chasing down religious theories and conspiracies, this pipe-smoking Weizmann Institute scientist, who hasn't had time to read the book, is investigating his own mysteries. "We are looking for new discoveries to explain missing mass in the universe," he added. "We are looking to further explore the building blocks of matter and what holds it together and the origin of its mass. Studying particle collisions is like looking back in time, recreating the environment present at the origin of the universe." Mikenberg is the project leader responsible for building the muon spectrometer, a massive, complex device that will accurately measure the momentum of muons - tiny electron-like particles, only 200 times heavier. When finished, the spectrometer will include eight moving "big wheel" structures (four on each end of the detector) that are made up of thousands of intricate components - semi-conductors, magnets, wires, pipes, optic fibers and more. "The detector, when completed, will hopefully be able to determine the existence of new particles which will help us understand the Big Bang and the origin of the universe," said Professor Mina Teicher, chief scientist of Israel's Ministry of Science and Technology. In physical cosmology, the Big Bang is the scientific theory of how the universe emerged from a tremendously dense and hot state billions of years ago. "This is exciting stuff and will have implications not just for solving theories in physics, but the technology going into computing the observations will have uses in other scientific fields such as biology and immunology," she added. As gaining understanding of the universe is no small task, Dr. Mikenberg is working with some 1,800 physicists from more than 160 scientific institutions in 35 countries, to make sure the ATLAS experiment is up and running next year. All in all, there are about 45 Israelis working on the project, including physicists, technicians, engineers and graduate students from all of Israel's top universities. Professor Shlomit Tarem from Haifa's Technion is in charge of the detector control system, while Professor Erez Etzion from Tel Aviv University is in charge of the muon spectrometer's databases. "Israel's involvement at CERN is very important; it allows us to be at the cutting edge of science and technology," said Eliezer Rabinovici, a physics professor with the Hebrew University and chairman of the Israeli high energy physics committee, which coordinates the policy of all Israeli universities and institutions working at CERN. "Israel is making a strong name for itself here, especially with so many Israeli scientific institutions working together on one particular aspect of the experiment. It is also amazing to see so many scientists and technicians from all over the world working together toward the same goal." The muon spectrometer alone is part of a close collaboration between 45 institutions from 11 countries. Here, you even find Israeli and Pakistani technicians working together in building the massive structures. Such cooperation is characteristic of CERN, which has a long history of using science to build bridges. One of the earliest examples Mikenberg cited dates back to 1957 - three years after CERN was founded - when the memories of World War II and the Holocaust were still raw. Breaking with taboo, German physicist Wolfgang Gentner is credited with initiating a scientific relationship at CERN with Israeli physicist Amos de Shalit, who was then chairman of the Weizmann Institute's department of theoretical physics. The initial meeting eventually led to joint research between the two countries, well before Israel and Germany established diplomatic relations in 1965. CERN was one of Europe's first joint ventures - a precursor to the European Union as we know it today - and includes 20 member states. Although participating in high-profile projects and offering its scientific know-how for years, Israel remains an observer and is not represented on the organization's governing council that is responsible for policy direction. Other states with observer status include India, Japan, Russia, Turkey and the US. Even with observer status, Israeli companies - such as Maresco Technologies (optic equipment), Fibernet (optical fibers), Batm (network switches), Silicom (network processing accessories) and Tal (heavy duty welding), to name a few - are benefiting from Israel's involvement at CERN, providing manufactured parts and equipment for various CERN projects. "Becoming a member would give Israel more opportunities," stressed Mikenberg. "It would also get us more involved in other big, ground-breaking scientific experiments like ATLAS, and even pave the way to join other important scientific institutions like the European space agency." But becoming a full member comes at a cost - about $7.2 million a year in dues, compared with the $500,000 both the Ministries of Trade and Science currently pay each year to be an observer. Some $2 million or so in additional contributions allow Israeli scientists, students and engineers to spend time at CERN and are used for purchasing technology and equipment from Israeli companies. "Our scientific participation in Europe, particularly at CERN, is very important," added Chief Scientist Teicher. "Without it, science and technology in Israel will suffer." It's not just about scientific advancement, but Israel's overall standing in the political arena. "By being part of CERN, we can improve our status not only in the European scientific community, but in Europe as a whole," said Ambassador Itzhak Levanon, Israel's permanent representative to the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, just down the road from CERN. "These days we are seeing some more acceptance in European circles at the UN. We are able to attend meetings that in the past were closed to us." Although CERN is not part of the UN system, it is a growing Europe-wide organization where about half of the world's particle physics scientists and engineers are working on a range of experiments. "Our future is much closer to this part of the world," said Mikenberg. "The high degree of flexibility of Israeli industry makes us very competitive. We are a leader in research and development and should not be afraid to jump into new projects." Perhaps as Mikenberg and his team try to gain a better understanding of the universe, one may learn that there are more practical applications for getting involved in such grandiose experiments than meets the eye.