International Hypothetical Collider

The big story in high-energy physics this week is the release of a report on the projected cost of the International (very nearly) Linear Collider (ILC), which comes out to $6.7 billion-with-a-b (not including labor). There’s a story in the Times this morning, and an expert view on Cosmic Variance, and… well, if you read physics blogs, you’ve seen it mentioned. They’d revoke my blogging license if I failed to say anything about it.

Maybe I’m just cranky at the end of a long week, but I have a hard time getting all that excited about this. For one thing, it’s not my area of physics. More importantly, though, it’s still a hugely speculative endeavor, contingent on a lot of other factors.

The short explanation is that the ILC is proposed as a follow-up machine for the Large Hadron Collider, the new machine at CERN that is projected to start up late this year and has everybody in particle physics all a-twitter. The ILC won’t reach the same maximum energies as the LHC, but it will provide a little more control over the collision energy, and is thus envisioned as a way to “zoom in” and really nail down the properties of new particles discovered at the LHC.

Which is the “contingent” part. It’s only interesting to build the machine if something new gets found at the LHC in the energy range of interest, which we won’t know for at least a couple of years. It’s a pretty solid expectation, but by no means certain. If the LHC doesn’t find anything, the ILC won’t, either, so the most optimistic projections don’t have construction starting before 2010 or so. And that assumes that something interesting is found, and they manage to get the various governments involved to pay for the thing.

(The long explanation is here…)

Don’t get me wrong– I’m not saying that the planning effort is a waste of time– if the device is going to be built in the lifetime of anybody working in high-energy physics now, the planning needs to be done in parallel with the LHC development. I’m just saying that I’m not particularly excited about the announcement that a machine that may get built if the LHC finds something and the funding can be secured will cost shitloads of money. I understand that it’s been a slow news decade for particle physics, but this just doesn’t fill me with glee.

But, as I said, it’s been a long week, and I’m a little cranky.