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BU Physicist Honored for 1984 Supercollider Work

2011 Sakurai Prize to Kenneth Lane after 26 years


BU physicist Kenneth Lane, seen here in France, was one of the early pioneers of supercollider physics, which eventually led to the design and construction of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Lane

For the past 14 years, the cover to Kenneth Lane’s 1984 paper that helped chart the course for supercollider physics has been hanging on his office door. Now, more than 25 years after publication, the paper has been recognized with one of the field’s most important prizes.

“We started this work 27 years ago,” Lane says with a chuckle. “It’s gratifying, but I’m getting old. Then again, the guy who just won the Nobel Prize in medicine is 85 years old, and he won it for in vitro fertilization, which was developed over 30 years ago.”

Lane, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of physics, is the recipient of the 2011 J. J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics of the American Physical Society, established to recognize and encourage outstanding achievement in particle theory. He shares the prize with coauthors Estia Eichten and Chris Quigg of Fermilab, a national laboratory in Batavia, Ill., and Ian Hinchliffe of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in Berkeley, Calif. The citation for the award, which will be presented at the APS annual conference next April, reads: “For their work, separately and collectively, to chart a course for the exploration of TeV-scale physics using multi-TeV hadron colliders.” TeV refers to teravolt, or a trillion electron volts.

“As one of the 2011 Sakurai Prize winners, Ken joins some of the most distinguished particle physics theoreticians in the world over the past three decades,” says Andrei Ruckenstein, a BU vice president and associate provost for research. “I was overjoyed to receive the announcement. This is a great recognition for Ken, our physics department, and Boston University.”

Lane, Eichten, Quigg, and Hinchliffe were early champions of TeV-scale physics, and in a 1984 issue of Reviews of Modern Physics, investigated the energy range and particle beam density needed to explore the mystery of how particles got their mass. Shortly after, their specifications were adopted for the proposed Superconducting Super Collider, a particle accelerator then being built in Texas that, if finished, would have been triple the size of the competing Large Hadron Collider (LHC) constructed near Geneva, Switzerland, in 2007.

“I like to say that our conclusions chose the major parameters of the Superconducting Super Collider, because that’s basically what it came out to be, exactly the machine that we specified,” Lane says. “People were talking about the idea years beforehand, but we sealed the deal. That’s the main thing our paper did. It was recognized immediately as being important and got many citations.”

In 1993, however, a cost-wary Congress killed the multibillion-dollar Texas project. All eyes in the physics world then turned to the proposed Large Hadron Collider at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), which drew upon the same principles as the Texas project and conducted its first successful experiment in September 2008. Today, the LHC is the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator and is expected to address the most fundamental questions of particle physics and illuminate the basic laws governing the interactions and forces among the elementary particles.

The LHC, which took 25 years to plan and build, straddles the French-Swiss border. It is a 16-mile underground vacuum tube lined with 4,000 of the world’s most powerful superconducting magnets. Operating at a temperature of two degrees above absolute zero, two beams of protons circulating in opposite directions are pulled around the 16-mile loop a billion times until they approach the speed of light. The beams collide and produce fundamental particles such as quarks and gluons. The actions of those particles are recorded by two huge detectors known by their acronyms, ATLAS and CMS. That information is sent instantly to hundreds of the world’s largest supercomputers, one of which is housed at BU. The aim is to discover what happened in the first few instants after the Big Bang. Such evidence, scientists believe, could help resolve theoretical disputes about the structure and evolution of the universe that have been ongoing for decades.

Lane spends his summers in labs in the French-Swiss region near Geneva. And the BU physics department has groups of scientists attached to both of the LHC main experiments, ATLAS and CMS.

“This is the year of the LHC,” Lane says. “It’s running well, and it’s gotten good publicity. People are aware that this era of physics is now here. Maybe that’s why we got the prize now.”

Lane is also hoping the recognition will translate into additional support from the U.S. Department of Energy for BU physicists, both in terms of funding and of research assistance.

“Students and postdocs are very important in our research,” he says. “We have a group of eight theorists, and we have just two graduate students to support us on our DOE grant. We should have five, easily. There’s plenty to do. LHC data is going to be coming out in a flood in the coming year. There’s scheduled to be a shutdown for a year, and then the machine is supposed to come back up in 2013 with full energy and luminosity. It’s a very exciting time. It’s just been a long time coming.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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