Hundreds Meet at SLAC to Discuss Future of U.S. Particle Physics

March 12, 2013

Last week SLAC hosted more than 400 high-energy physicists who conduct experiments deep underground, on the surface of the Earth and out in space. Over the course of five days of meetings and workshops, they discussed topics including underground facilities and experimental methods, dark matter, dark energy and neutrinos.

The meetings were part of the Snowmass process, a series of workshops taking place around the country to develop the community’s physics aspirations and opportunities for discovery over the next two decades. The workshops, initiated by the American Physical Society's Division of Particles and Fields, will culminate in a meeting in Minneapolis at the end of July.

Along with input from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, the ideas that spring from the Snowmass process will inform the creation of a new strategic plan for U.S. high-energy physics.

Held once or twice a decade (and originally convened in Snowmass, Colorado), the Snowmass planning exercise is divided into eight groups. Three of the groups address particle physics’ science frontiers: the Cosmic Frontier, where scientists use the cosmos as a laboratory to investigate the fundamental laws of physics; the Energy Frontier, where scientists use particle accelerators to observe matter and phenomena not seen since the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang; and the Intensity Frontier, where scientists use intense accelerator beams and massive detectors to measure ultra-rare processes in nature. The other five Snowmass groups address education and outreach, frontier capabilities, instrumentation, computing and theory.  

Last week’s SLAC meetings focused on the Cosmic and Intensity frontiers, and kicked off with an Assay and Acquisition of Radiopure Materials collaboration meeting. This group focuses on the development of shared simulation tools and a global materials database for underground experiments, with the long-term goal of understanding and mitigating the pesky background noise that can drown out the signal an experiment seeks to measure.

The following day saw the Deep Underground Research Association annual meeting, which brought together scientists from underground laboratories around the United States and the world, including SNOLAB in Canada, Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota, Soudan Underground Laboratory in Minnesota and Kimballton Underground Research Facility in Virginia. These deeply shielded labs are important for studies of dark matter, neutrinos and other mysterious phenomena.

Wednesday morning saw the start of the Cosmic Frontier general workshop, during which more than 325 participants presented more than 200 talks on dark matter, dark energy, matter/antimatter asymmetry, cosmic particles, how astrophysical measurements can test fundamental physics and everything in between.

“As I read through the agenda, I never felt so strongly the desire to be in six places at once,” said Cosmic Frontier co-convener Jonathan Feng. His fellow co-convener Steve Ritz added: “In a word, the meeting was vibrant. These three days represent a lot of work, but it’s been fun too. Getting together to discuss opportunities is important to our future.”

Wednesday and Thursday also saw more than 100 scientists specializing in neutrino research meet for the Intensity Frontier neutrino subgroup workshop. They talked about everything from how to reveal neutrinos’ masses to how neutrino detection methods can be used to benefit society.

“It’s important to be able to get together and interact. We very much appreciate SLAC’s hospitality,” said Sam Zeller, a co-convener of the subgroup. Co-convener Kate Scholberg added: “We’ve had wonderful participation, very lively discussion and great interaction.”

In all, the organizers agreed, last week’s meetings brought together an energetic and diverse group of researchers, enabling progress on understanding key issues in particle physics.