Japan and U.S. Team Up on Theoretical Physics

Strengthening its ties with a new facility at a major U.S. laboratory, the Japanese Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN) in Tokyo announced yesterday that it plans to spend $2 million in 1997 and more in later years to launch a center for theoretical physics at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Stony Brook, New York. The RIKEN-BNL Research Center follows $20 million that RIKEN has contributed to the construction of Brookhaven's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), expected to begin operations in 1999.

The center is the brainchild of Columbia University physicist and Nobel Prize-winner T. D. Lee, who will be its first director. Lee says the institute, to be housed in existing facilities, will host some 30 scientists each year from around the world, six of whom will be full-time staff: one American, one Canadian, one German, two Japanese, and one Russian.

The staff will work exclusively on the physics of the RHIC, a $500 million accelerator that will collide gold ions to create an extraordinary state of matter in which the quarks and gluons inside the gold nuclei are freed from their usual confined state. At energy levels reached by the RHIC, Lee says, the gold ions will pass through each other, generating a miniature fireball with an amount of energy perhaps not seen since shortly after the big bang. A portion of its $2 million start-up money will finance a dedicated computer, with operating speeds of 600 billion operations per second, for theoretical calculations.

The joint venture is a bright spot for Brookhaven, which has received a lot of bad press of late because of tritium pollution in its ground water, apparently from the lab's experimental reactor. "It's nice to get some positive news around here," says Peter Bond, head of the Brookhaven physics department. "This is terrific."