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Press Releases :: October 1, 2009

Subcommittee Examines Programs that Investigate the Nature of Matter, Energy, Space, and Time

(Washington, DC) – Today, the Committee on Science and Technology’s Energy and Environment Subcommittee held a hearing on high energy and nuclear physics research at the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science.  The witnesses and Members discussed these research programs and their collaboration with related programs and projects carried out by the National Science Foundation and NASA as well as international partners.

“This Subcommittee certainly supports basic research that may have uncertain or even unknowable outcomes, but we always need to be able to justify the level of that support,” said Subcommittee Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA).

High energy physics is a branch of physics that studies the fundamental building blocks of matter and energy, and the interactions between them. It is called “high energy” because many of these particles do not occur under normal circumstances in nature, but can be created and detected during collisions of other particles, as is done in large research facilities known as particle accelerators. Research in high energy physics has led to a deep understanding of the physical laws that govern matter, energy, space, and time.  Some of the outstanding questions involve the existence or nature of dark matter, dark energy, and the origin of mass.

In 1939, Albert Einstein sent a letter to FDR warning him of Germany’s advances in creating an atomic bomb,” said Subcommittee Vice Chairman Paul Tonko (D-NY), who chaired a portion of the hearing.  This spurred the president to begin the Manhattan Project, which gathered many of the greatest physicists of the 20th century from all over the world to successfully beat the Germans in a race of scientific and technological progress. After the end of the war, many of these physicists remained in the U.S. to resume their research in the basic nature of matter, energy, space, and time, a field also known as particle physics. Our country has historically supported significant research programs in these areas from this point forward.”

Some of the key facilities for high energy physics are the:

  • Tevatron Collider at Fermilab in Batavia, IL. The U.S. high energy physics community has recently proposed a new project that would utilize the Tevatron’s high-power proton beam to produce intense secondary beams of particles called neutrinos for unique new experiments after this facility shuts down within the next three years.
  • Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.  CERN is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory.  More than 1,700 scientists, engineers, students and technicians from 94 U.S. universities and laboratories currently participate in the LHC and its experiments. The LHC began facility test operations on September 10th, 2008. Nine days later, these operations were halted due to a serious electrical fault. Taking into account the time required to repair the resulting damage and to add additional safety features, the LHC is currently scheduled to be operational again in mid-November 2009. The U.S. contributions to LHC have met all performance goals to date, and CERN is taking full financial and managerial responsibility for this repair.
  • Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL), Homestake Mine, South Dakota.  NSF has proposed to build the lab in the decommissioned mine, and DOE is currently considering becoming a significant partner in this project. If completed, DUSEL would be the deepest underground science facility in the world, 8,000 feet below ground, which would enable unique experiments in neutrino physics and dark matter, among other areas.

The hearing also examined DOE Office of Science’s Nuclear Physics program, which conducts research to understand all forms of nuclear matter. Nuclear matter consists of any number of clustered protons and neutrons which makes up the core of an atom called its nucleus. The fundamental particles that compose nuclear matter are each relatively well understood, but exactly how they fit together and interact to create different types of matter in the universe is still largely not understood. To answer the many remaining questions in this field, the program supports experimental and theoretical research, along with the development and operation of specially designed particle accelerators and other advanced technologies, to create, detect, and describe the different forms of nuclear matter that can exist in the universe, including those that are no longer found naturally.

This is the third in a series of hearings on the DOE Office of Science.  The Committee is moving towards a reauthorization next year.

For more information, please see the Committee’s website.

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