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Physicists hope to win support for new subatomic smasher

They say the US should host the next particle collider to strengthen high-energy physics domestically.

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For decades, United States high-energy physics labs have been at the forefront of high profile - and expensive - efforts to probe the nature of matter. Now, as labs overseas begin to overshadow facilities here, researchers are trying to find ways to keep the US program free of cobwebs.

A panel of scientists from inside and outside the field says the US should make the next major particle collider on the horizon - the International Linear Collider - the centerpiece of its high-energy physics efforts. Washington should announce its desire to host the collider, if it's built. It should support a robust, related research and development program so if the machine finds a home elsewhere, US scientists will still have ready entree.

"When we looked at the status of high-energy physics in the US, we were very sobered," says Harold Shapiro, who chaired the National Research Council panel that looked at the issue. "The country had no compelling follow-on" to research programs that will wind down by 2009. Indeed, he says, to an outsider, the country's current approach almost looks like an exit strategy.

Meanwhile, the center of gravity for high-energy physics experiments is shifting from the US to Europe, where the European Organization for Nuclear Research is bringing a new collider on line next year that will push beyond the frontiers explored by current US colliders.

Initial cost estimates for the two-step, multibillion international linear collider project are slated to be completed by the end of this year. The initial stage would launch subatomic particles from opposite ends of a 19-mile-long tunnel and steer them to collide at detectors in the middle. From the collision debris the detectors sense, scientists hope to gain new insights into the nature of mass, perhaps discover evidence of extra dimensions to the universe, and probe the nature of dark matter, which pervades the universe.

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