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29 August 2006

A New World in Physics: 7.2 Million for Heidelberg

Prof. Karlheinz Meier: "The biggest experiments humanity has ever performed" — Federal Ministry of Education and Research provides 7.2 million euros for basic research on particle physics at the University of Heidelberg

"They will be the biggest experiments humanity has ever performed," enthuses Professor Karlheinz Meier of the University of Heidelberg's Kirchhoff Institute of Physics. He is very likely to be right. In the coming years various experiments conducted with major particle accelerators like the CERN in Geneva may radically change the complexion of physics as we know it. The German physicists involved will be receiving generous funding for their basic research in particle physics from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research — to the tune of 75 million euros in the next three years. The initial resources, amounting to 32 million euros, have already been assigned to three priority research areas. The share for the projects at Heidelberg's Institute of Physics and KIP amounts to 7.2 million.

"The really remarkable thing is that the Ministry is using an entirely new funding approach," says Karlheinz Meier. The resources are not supplied for individual projects at the institutes involved but for priority research areas. This new funding design is angled at improving the cooperation between German research groups in supra-regional research networks. There are 17 universities and the Max Planck Institute of Physics (Munich) involved in the three projects assigned financial support so far. They go by the names of ATLAS, CMS and ALICE. Heidelberg is the only university involved in two of these projects (ATLAS and ALICE).

"The ATLAS project is high-energy physics in the truest sense of the word," Meier explains. In these experiments protons will be colliding at record energies of 14 teravolts (1,400 billion volts). The energy thus obtained will be used to generate new kinds of matter. One of the aims of this experiment, for which CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has been equipped with 1,200 superconductive magnets cooled by liquid helium, is to find out whether there are more dimensions than the three we are familiar with, thus testing theories that suggest that there may be as many as six further dimensions.

The experiment also investigates the constitution of dark matter, which more than a fifth of the universe consists of. "Physicists conjecture that dark matter might be made up of so-called supersymmetric particles," says Karlheinz Meier. These particles are comparable to the ones we know, the difference being that they have half-integer amounts of spin. However, their existence has yet to be demonstrated experimentally.

In addition, the ATLAS project will be looking a very tangible phenomenon: the inertia of mass. This is widely thought to be attributable to Higgs bosons, but so far they only exist in theory and these will be the first experiments to attempt to prove their existence.

In the ALICE project, spearheaded by Heidelberg professor Johanna Stachel of the Institute of Physics, heavy ions will be accelerated, not protons. Exposed to colossal energies and temperatures, the structure of the atomic nuclei of the ions, made up of protons and neutrons, will disintegrate and the result is expected to be quark-gluon plasma. "Then protons and neutrons will be frozen back out of the plasma," says Karlheinz Meier with reference to what the ALICE project involves. The ulterior motive is to get a more accurate perspective on physical processes unleashed at the birth of the universe when it was not even one-hundredth of a second old.

The accelerator projects will not only enhance cooperation between German research groups. ATLAS and ALICE are genuinely international enterprises. ATLAS assembles 1,800 physicists from 35 countries and 150 institutes, while in the case of ALICE there are about 1,000 physicists from 28 countries hoping to gain insights into a new world of physics.

Stefan Zeeh

Please address any inquiries to:
Prof. Dr. Karlheinz Meier
Kirchhoff Institute of Physics
University of Heidelberg
Im Neuenheimer Feld 227
D-69120 Heidelberg
phone: 06221/549831

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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