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Is this the future?

Is this the future?


Tohoku pins rebound hopes to atom smasher

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

As the disaster-hit Tohoku region struggles to recover from the deadly tsunami four years ago, many residents have hopes for what is considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to galvanize the area’s resurrection.

Chances are the region may host the International Linear Collider, a state-of-the-art research facility physicists worldwide hope will shed light on the secrets of the universe.

We look into the situation both at home and abroad surrounding the ILC and its potential impact on Japanese society.

What is the ILC?

The ILC is an unprecedented particle accelerator that must be built in an underground tunnel 30 to 50 km long. It is the brainchild of the Linear Collider Collaboration, a group of physicists from around the world.

The much-anticipated international project calls for the accelerator to catapult two ultra-small particles — electrons and positrons — into each other head-on at close to the speed of light. The process will be repeated numerous times a second, around the clock.

Each successful collision will unleash a significant amount of energy for a split second and re-create the extremely high-energy state of the Big Bang that purportedly spawned the universe.

Construction of the facility is expected to cost about ¥830 billion.

What’s the significance of the ILC experiment?

The high-energy reaction is expected to spark an array of particles considered relevant to the birth of the universe, including the recently discovered Higgs boson.

Scientists hope this Big Bang simulation will help explain some of the most profound mysteries in the universe, including its makeup and how it works. An estimated 95 percent of matter existing in the universe remains scientifically unaccounted for.

One chief objective of the ILC project is to delve into the mechanism of the Higgs boson, the “God particle” detected for the first time by scientists in the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) during an experiment conducted at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012.

The Higgs boson is thought to impart mass to other particles, meaning that without it, every single particle, for example those in a human body, would disperse at the speed of light.

The ILC, if built, will be the longest particle accelerator in the world, dethroning the LHC, which lies deep beneath the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva.

While the LHC smashes particles using a 27 km-long circular path — roughly equivalent to Tokyo’s Yamanote Line — the ILC will be straight. A linear collision is considered more powerful than a circular one because curves reduce the speed of the particles.

What would be the potential societal impact if Japan hosts the ILC?

If the ILC is built in Japan, it will be the first international research institute Japan has hosted, according to Satoru Yamashita, an associate professor at the International Center for Elementary Particle Physics at the University of Tokyo.

It will be a major breakthrough in a country that has long suffered from a brain drain of local talent and help Japan regain global visibility in science and technology, Yamashita said.

But perhaps more significantly, the ILC would attract a swarm of foreign physicists and their families, creating a global community.

Nomura Research Institute estimates the facility will create 250,000 jobs over a 30-year period covering its construction (10 years) and operation (20 years), with the economic benefits over the same period likely to reach ¥4.3 trillion, according to the Tohoku Conference for the Promotion of the ILC, a regional group seeking to promote Japan’s bid.

What are the chances of the ILC coming to Japan?

It seems the chances are quite high.

According to Yamashita, a consensus has been formed among physicists in the United States and Europe that it should be built in Japan.

The Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel (P5), part of the U.S Department of Energy’s high-energy physics advisory group, said in its report last May that Japan’s fledgling ILC initiative is an “exciting development,” and recommended the U.S. “play a world-leading role in the ILC experimental program” should “this exciting scientific opportunity be realized in Japan.”

Is there a nationwide movement to host the ILC?

So far, the domestic interest has largely been municipal, because the central government hasn’t officially declared Japan’s candidacy.

A panel of outside experts set up by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry is scrutinizing Japan’s potential to host the facility and is likely to conclude the discussion by the end of the next fiscal year.

Japan will then discuss the panel’s assessment with global leaders, and decide on its ILC acceptance and other details, Yamashita said.

Where in Japan would the ILC most likely be built?

A group of scholars and researchers determined in summer 2013 that the Kitakami mountains, which straddle three Tohoku prefectures — Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi — would be the best ILC location in Japan, ruling out the Sefuri mountains in Kyushu.

The Kitakami mountains, a large part of which lie in Iwate Prefecture, were judged ideal because their ground consists of layers of solid granite 50 km wide, long enough to accommodate the ILC.

An investigation by the group into geological conditions also confirmed there is no active fault running underneath that would trigger an earthquake.

What’s the local response like?

Iwate Prefecture, for one, has strenuously campaigned for the ILC. It characterizes the project as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for the future of Tohoku, which is struggling to recover from the devastating quake and tsunami four years ago that killed nearly 19,000 people.

“We believe the ILC will not only enable us to regain what was lost in the disaster but to gain something new and make the Tohoku region something akin to an international hub of scientists,” said Masataka Miya, chief of a team set up by the prefectural government for the hosting bid.

Miya said the project will boost science education for local children and provide new business opportunities to local manufacturing industries.

The prefecture set up a task force in 2013 to discuss how to make its communities more amenable to incoming foreign scientists and their families.

Among the topics under discussion are how to address the serious lack of full-time medical interpreters in local hospitals and where to school foreign children who accompany their parents, Miya said.

Any concerns?

Miya acknowledged that some residents are worried about the ILC’s link to radiation.

The ILC accelerator releases radiation while it operates and the tunnel as a whole will be designated a radiation-controlled area.

The Advanced Accelerator Association Promoting Science & Technology (AAA), which campaigns for the ILC initiative in Japan, claims on its website the possibility of a radioactive substance leaking outside the facility is nearly zero, citing its watertight safety measures and full-time surveillance system.

However, in 2013, a proton accelerator facility called Japan Proton Accelerator Research Complex (J-PARC) in Ibaraki Prefecture malfunctioned and exposed 34 workers and researchers inside to radiation.

Yamashita from the University of Tokyo said the likelihood is low that a similar accident will befall the ILC, noting that electrons and positrons require only a thousandth of the radiation necessary to collide protons. Still, he added: “Radiation is such a fearful thing for many people that even the tiniest amount of it leaking is enough to frighten them. The fact that the facility needs only a limited amount of radiation does not make unnecessary robust safety precautions.”

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