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Release: Immediate

UI researchers contribute to search for basic building blocks of matter

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The world's most advanced search for the basic building blocks of matter -- a quest begun in ancient Greece -- will be conducted with the help of physicists from the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.

The Iowa research connection, valued at more than $5 million, is the result of a recent announcement by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation that it will contribute $531 million over the next eight years to a $6 billion international project to construct the world's largest atom-smasher. The apparatus, to be built at the CERN particle physics laboratory on the border between France and Switzerland by 2005, will draw upon the work of researchers from nearly 100 international universities, such as Harvard and MIT, and will include particle detection devices built at the University of Iowa.

To understand where the Iowa research fits into the project, one need only know that the atom-smasher will use magnets to accelerate two beams of protons so that they race around a 16.5-mile oval track in opposite directions. When they meet in a head-on collision, the protons will break apart, spraying particles in different directions. The job of detecting those particles will fall, in part, to UI physics professors Yasar Onel and Edward McCliment and researcher Nural Akchurin, together with ISU physics and astronomy professors John Hauptman and E. Walter Anderson, who will design a part of one of the particle detectors. In addition to their design work, Onel serves as U.S. coordinator and Akchurin is the technical manager for the international project.

The detector itself, called the forward calorimeter, will measure the energy of particles moving in a forward direction after the proton collision has taken place at the center of an energy mass of 14 TeV, or 14 trillion electron volts -- enough energy to replicate, in miniature, conditions present in the early universe. The calorimeter's quartz fibers will give off light, called Cherenkov radiation, when struck by particles from the proton collisions.

According to Onel: "We don't need to see the particles themselves to know that they're there, only to measure the light they give off."

He adds that the field of elementary particle physics is very exciting, as one tries to unravel the building blocks of nature. Scientists know that atoms are composed of electrons and nuclei, and that the nuclei are made up of protons and neutrons. Neutrons are constructed of quarks. But that is where things end, at present.

"It may be that quarks and electrons are the fundamental building blocks, or they may be composed of something even more basic. No one knows," Onel says.

"Or we may discover a totally new physics," he adds. "There is enormous potential for discovery with this new machine."