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Fundamental physics asks really big questions - like, what's the universe made of? And it answers them with really big machines. Researchers built particle colliders miles long, then they sift through the debris from those collisions with detectors the size of buildings.
Such big instruments cost a lot of money and as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel explains, U.S. physicists are trying to figure out how to pay for the next generation of machines.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: High-energy physics is abstract. So abstract, in fact, that when scientists discover something new, it's kind of hard to tell. Here's researcher Joe Incandela, announcing the discovery of the Higgs particle last summer.
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JOE INCANDELA: They combine to give us a - an - a combined significance of five standard deviations.
BRUMFIEL: Researchers discovered the Higgs by smashing together other particles inside a huge collider in Switzerland. Finding the Higgs took decades, according to Michael Peskin, a researcher at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California.
MICHAEL PESKIN: Now, the question is - we've discovered this particle; now, what's it about?
BRUMFIEL: The Higgs gives everything else mass, substance. It's a big part of the reason we even exist. Now that researchers have found it, they want to look at it really closely, to see how it works. But studying the Higgs is going to take a new collider, which is expected to cost $8 billion.
PESKIN: Somehow, we have to figure out how to put our dreams together with the reality.
BRUMFIEL: Times are tough. Budgets are tight. If this thing is going to happen, then physicists across the globe need to have a common vision.
PESKIN: You only need one in the world. And somehow, what you want to do is to have all nations of the world contribute to a single project.
BRUMFIEL: At the moment, that global project is likely to be built not in the U.S., but in Japan. The Japanese government is looking at the collider as part of a broader economic stimulus package, according to Lyn Evans. He's head of the Linear Collider Collaboration, the global group that designed the new machine. But Evans says they won't build it if other countries don't pitch in.
LYN EVANS: The problem is going to be convincing the U.S. government that they can find a pot of money in order to support this Japanese initiative.
BRUMFIEL: Evans has an economic argument. U.S. laboratories and high-tech manufacturers will supply parts to the machine.
EVANS: The reality is that money will not flow to Japan. In fact, pieces of the machine will be built in Europe, in the U.S., and then installed in Japan.
BRUMFIEL: And it's not just about hardware. People are at the heart of these projects. Chip Brock is a researcher at Michigan State University. He says about half of his students take the skills they learn to other parts of the economy.
CHIP BROCK: They've gone into finance. They've gone into teaching. They've gone into manufacturing of one sort or another.
BRUMFIEL: That's the economic case. But at the end of the day, Michael Peskin says the best argument may be just the fact there's so much more to learn.
PESKIN: We're not done. There are lots of questions out there. There's a huge amount we don't know about the universe.
BRUMFIEL: For example, Peskin says the new collider could help explain dark matter, a mystery material that holds galaxies together. Dark matter makes up about 85 percent of all the stuff out there. Compared to that, what's a couple billion dollars?
Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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