The Time Machine

Given Canada’s key role in the experiment, it would have been a little embarrassing if this business at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva had destroyed the universe. In theory, it still could produce microscopic black holes that will suck us into oblivion and pull our screams in behind us. But frankly, scientists at TRIUMF-Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics-aren’t too concerned. “These collisions are going on all the time with cosmic rays,” says Nigel Lockyer, TRIUMF’s director. “I wish we could make collisions of higher energy than what nature does routinely.”

No, any nail-biting at TRIUMF concerned whether the hardware would work on game day. TRIUMF built a part of the accelerator-a system of “kicker magnets” that spank the already fast-moving protons into the main ring of the collider where they really start to motor. There was a tense moment when word came from CERN (Compact Muon Solenoid Experiment) that some magnets had failed, followed by relief when they weren’t crucial and, as one TRIUMFer puts it, “they weren’t ours.” In fact, the “Canadian Insertion” worked perfectly and the Great Discovery Machine was up and humming, conducting the groundbreaking ATLAS Experiment, stalking the so-called God particle and probing the mysteries of the origins of everything.

Every day Lockyer parks his red Porsche Carrera on a little-visited plot of land at the hem of the UBC campus where some 500 scientists-astrophysicists and material scientists and theoretical physicists and chemists and engineers-beaver away. In the middle of the facility, behind radiation barriers, a particle accelerator called a cyclotron produces high-intensity beams that every job here depends on in some way. Three smaller cyclotrons work 24/7 making medical isotopes. A big computer farm awaits incoming raw data from CERN. TRIUMF belongs not to UBC but to the national-and to some extent the international-scientific community. It is, as they say, a hedgehog rather than a fox: it knows a lot of little things, rather than one big thing.

Lockyer’s a little like that, too. Officially, the 55-year-old Ontarian is a quark man. “My claim to fame was having measured the lifetime of the B quark,” he says. (In case you’re wondering, it is one-trillionth of a second.) To be a quark man is to be intensely curious about what happened in the first few frames of a movie we walked in on partway. The universe was the ultimate factory for quarks moments after its birth; few are produced in nature today. We can make them ourselves in particle accelerators, which are like time machines in this respect. It’s a virtual trip worth taking because something dramatic happened in that Goldilocks moment (the nuclear soup was neither too hot nor too cold, but jussst right) that tipped the balance of matter and antimatter in our favour. And so we have something-chairs, skyscrapers, dogs, omelettes-rather than nothing, and human minds able to ponder the question, Where’d the antimatter go?

“The definition of antimatter is that if you combine a particle of antimatter with its opposite, it creates two photons”-particles of light, Lockyer explains. “So what has happened in the early universe is that all the particles of matter and antimatter have found their mates, they’ve created a universe of photons. And the ones that didn’t find a mate are what we’re made out of.” It’s a pretty cool mystery when you frame it this way, one that puts all genealogical questions in the shade. Where did my original dance partner disappear to, the one who was about to sweep me into her arms and turn me into light?

Lockyer isn’t the kind of monklike purist who ponders such things to the exclusion of real-world trifles: fashion, nutrition, personal hygiene, other people. He is, unlike the particles he’s chasing, quite interactive. And though it was from boson-hunting at Fermilab in Chicago that TRIUMF plucked him, he spent many years teaching physics at the University of Pennsylvania, trying to make muons fun for the Simpsons generation.

Lockyer almost didn’t become a scientist. One summer during his undergraduate years at York, he started talking seriously about a career as a provincial bureaucrat, but a physics and astronomy teacher named Bill Frisken took him aside and shook sense into him. (Lockyer had the mind of a particle physicist, Frisken said, one that could understand what made things tick at the smallest scale.) Nonetheless, that nonacademic part of his personality-an unapologetic eye for commercial opportunity-persists. It’s these dimensions, one member of the hiring committee admits, that factored into his being hired last May. Right now what TRIUMF needs most is a communicator-a salesman, even. Because it’s facing the sales job of its life.

On a rainy Wednesday in September, two weeks after the LHC thrummed to life in Geneva, Lockyer took the podium in the TRIUMF auditorium at UBC. He fumbled a little cordless mike onto his striped TRIUMF tie and looked out at a sea of sports coats. This was a peer-review committee assembled by the National Research Council, made up of scientists from some of the world’s top facilities. Front and centre was the shaggy-maned Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the guy chairing the committee and the incoming director of CERN. All were here to hear TRIUMF toot its horn and plead its case. TRIUMF may be a big deal in Canada, but it is a modest nuclear facility by international standards. It would like to play with the big guys. To do so, it needs more money. Its directors are asking for $328 million, which amounts to a 50-percent increase over what it received in the last federal budget. A stamp of approval from this group doesn’t guarantee that Parliament will find TRIUMF the money in February 2010, but a thumbs-down all but ensures that Lockyer will have more time to watch Phillies games.

TRIUMF’s 853-page five-year plan sat next to many of the suits, like Yellow Pages for those wishing to call a cab. Because no one will read it all, Lockyer and others boiled it down. TRIUMF wants to “make more beams, more types of beams, and get more science out.” Lockyer’s poise at the podium belied the delicacy of the juggling act. He was speaking to the science geeks while also looking beyond them to the general public who will ultimately be footing the bill and who harbour the unspoken question, What’s all this good for?

There’s no doubt the experiment in Geneva-“the biggest scientific project ever undertaken by mankind,” as we are hearing ad infinitum-has made scientists giddy. A fire that shut the collider down for two months hardly quelled their enthusiasm. And to an extent the interest has trickled down. A lot of people know that the Higgs boson, the particle the LHC is looking for, is the missing piece in the standard model of particle physics. The superlatives of the ATLAS Experiment are cocktail-party fodder. The protons shot round the ring will reach 99.99 percent of the speed of light. The particle beam is microns across but contains as much energy as an aircraft carrier travelling at 30 knots. The data coming out of CERN is equivalent to everyone on Earth using their cellphone at the same time. Particle physics is suddenly cool, and therefore hot. “It’s a unique moment to seize scientific discovery opportunity,” Lockyer says.

But you have to wonder if interest in the big questions won’t decay as more prosaic concerns intrude. People’s nest eggs just disappeared, perhaps into another dimension. An energy crisis looms, such that high-energy physics might not be at the top of the priorities list. (The power required to run the LHC could heat 120,000 homes.) Around income-tax time, esoteric experiments into things we can’t see, by people we can’t understand, for a purpose we can’t quantify, may ring a little hollow.

If it helps Aunt Millie’s cancer treatment, that’s another matter. The medical isotopes TRIUMF churns out for export are valuable and going to get more so-in what will soon become a multibillion-dollar market. And producing them in a particle accelerator may be safer than making them in a nuclear reactor. TRIUMF engineers are also working on a small cyclotron that hospitals will be able to buy to make medical isotopes themselves for their own PET scans. “We call it an espresso maker,” Lockyer told the group. “I used to say it works like a Xerox machine, but that makes it sound like it’s going to break down.”

TRIUMF wants to become a little more fox than hedgehog by focusing on its strengths: beefing up production of rare isotope beams, increasing its collaborations with other facilities, expanding the nuclear-medicine program-and training people to run the particle accelerators that produce more of the stuff of everyday life, from microchips to plasma TVs.
But Lockyer’s immediate hopes are hitched to that big collider at CERN.

TRIUMF was present at the conception, so to speak, with the “Canadian Insertion.” Now it wants to help catch the baby.
“Let’s say we find the Higgs,” Lockyer says. “Then, everybody would probably agree, we want to study this with an e-plus/e-minus machine.” He’s talking about another collider, still on the drawing board, that would, depending on your taste, either trump the one at CERN or perfectly complement it. The International Linear Collider, which will probably end up being built in Chicago, will point two 15-kilometre-long linear accelerators at one another. The ammo is electrons (and antielectrons) rather than protons, which is like smashing bullets together rather than garbage cans: the results are way cleaner and easier to study. Building the thing would take a global design effort that TRIUMF would be part of.
“You have to have something in the drawer,” Lockyer says. “Once there’s some exciting physics going on, physicists are going to be pounding the table and saying, ‘We need another accelerator to understand the new stuff.’ ”

A character in Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s play about physics, coincidence, and weeds, has this to say: “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter-otherwise we go out the way we came in.” Stoppard and Lockyer taught a class together on the play at UPenn. The two men saw each other on and off for a week, and Stoppard got excited about nuclear physics all over again. A supernova had been discovered in a neighbouring galaxy. It wasn’t that there was something distinctive about that flash of light; it was the implications. “That light took 150,000 years to travel to Earth,” Lockyer says. “And during the time the neutrinos were making this journey, we evolved as a species and proposed an experiment to detect them, and we built this huge underground ball of water in Japan, and it just happened to be turned on the day that the neutrinos arrived, all of them within a second or so. Well, that blew his mind.”

Like the character in Arcadia, Lockyer wants to know, but he’s not consumed by the mystery in the dreamy, poetic way of people who know less than he does about the nuts and bolts. He is not consumed by the paradoxes, the moment-to-
moment probability of this happening over that. (“I don’t play the lottery, if that’s what you’re asking.”) If there is a parallel universe in which he never chanced to meet Bill Frisken, and so was never talked out of becoming a bureaucrat, and is at this moment snoozing over a spreadsheet in a corner office in Queen’s Park with his laminated MBA on the wall and maybe reaching for the phone to book a tee time, well, that’s not a place he chooses to let his mind go.

“My interests are purely scientific,” he says. “I always come back to, ‘How did the universe begin? Why are there six quarks?’ ”

The story of quantum physics is both what Tom Stoppard thinks it is and what Nigel Lockyer thinks it is: a literary story, a philosophical story, a science story. Also a religious story. Particle physics is a leap of faith, the hunt for confirmation of things we only believe to exist.

“The story is different for everybody, and its meaning is different for everybody,” Lockyer says. “My mother is uncomfortable with the discussion of the beginning of the universe. But while it’s true that we’re pushing religion back further and further in time, we’re not pushing it away. We’re saying, ‘We don’t know where this universe came from. We don’t know if there’s one or many universes. We don’t know if we’re unique. We don’t know where space came from. We’re just stuck. And we’re gonna be stuck for a long time.’

“One of my favourite cartoons,” he adds, “is a guy writing equations on a board and saying to his dog, ‘Why don’t you understand?’ There’s no reason we’ll ever understand.”