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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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The Opera House and the particle accelerator

Since I had never been to Australia before, and who knows when I will go again, I decided to spend a couple of days ahead of ICHEP being a tourist in Sydney. No physics, just get some rest in, and save my fingers for typing during the live-blog session at the Higgs seminar tomorrow.

And then I took a tour of the Sydney Opera House. This building is among the most famous in the world, and has become an icon of Sydney. There are actually six performing spaces inside, and eight million people visit the Opera House each year, many of them tourists like myself. In case you are unfamiliar with it, here is a photo that I took from the top of a pylon of the (also famous) Sydney Harbour Bridge:

The domes are actually segments of spheres, by the way. Anyhow, what I learned on the tour was that when the design was selected in a competition in 1956, the judges agreed that Jan Utzon’s was the most innovative…but it wasn’t a real design yet, so much as conceptual sketches. In fact, no one knew how to build the building at the time! Even by the time the foundation had been laid, it wasn’t clear how to build the roof. It was something of a leap of faith, a belief that the final product would be something remarkable. Given that, it is unsurprising that the project took almost five times as long to build as originally envisioned, and cost over ten times more than budgeted. (Ultimately, there was a lot of friction between Utzon and the government of New South Wales; he resigned as architect during construction and never saw the finished product.) On the other hand, a tremendous amount was learned in the process of developing the design, knowledge that could be applied to future buildings. (And it was all done without the benefit of computer-aided design software.)

On hearing this, my first thought was — would anyone let such a project go forward today? Take on a project of such great complexity, without being to show that you had every detail nailed down? Probably not; leaps of faith are not in fashion in our economically-constrained times, even if it is a leap that you thought could have a tremendous payoff.

Are particle accelerators a bit like that? They are projects of great complexity, to be sure, and they have the potential for enormous payoff. You can even learn some things in the construction process that can be applied to other projects, even some that are totally outside the discipline. But could we convince anyone to let us start building an accelerator that we didn’t know that we could finish building? There are a number of ideas for what machine we would want to have after the Large Hadron Collider. For instance, it might be a linear electron-positron collider, or maybe a muon collider. These would allow us to study a Higgs boson (if it exists) or other new phenomena in a very different way than we do at the LHC. We’d rather have these machines sooner rather than later, so we can start getting that science done. But there is still a lot to learn about how to construct either one of them, and it would be a bit risky to commit to such a project now. I’d love for us to be able to build our own Sydney Opera House of particle physics, something that will be a technical wonder, a fabulous scientific tool, and an inspiration for the world…and I hope that it will happen within my working career.

Here’s another thing I learned about the Opera House: there was very little funding from the government. Instead, it was paid for by the gamblers of Australia, through a series of Opera House Lotteries. I’m not sure that we’ve yet considered that idea for funding a particle accelerator!

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2 Responses to “The Opera House and the particle accelerator”

  1. Sarah says:

    “But could we convince anyone to let us start building an accelerator that we didn’t know that we could finish building?”

    Evidence from the SSC abandonment suggests: NOPE.

  2. Dave says:

    But what if the only goal is to build a great collider, no matter the end or the journey? Big payoff only comes from big risk. A willingness to make a mistake, no?

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