Electrons will collide with protons or larger atomic nuclei at...

Electrons will collide with protons or larger atomic nuclei at the electron-ion collider to produce dynamic 3D snapshots of the building blocks of all visible matter. Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

MUMBAI, INDIA — Some 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Democritus embarked on a quest to answer this question: “What is the universe made of?”

Today, we have a much more complete understanding than Democritus ever could. We know everything visible in our universe is made of atoms. We know that every atom is made of a nucleus surrounded by electrons. We also know that every nucleus is made of protons and neutrons, and that those particles are made of even smaller quarks and gluons.

It’s astounding that the entire mass of all matter in the universe comes from interactions among quarks, which are nearly massless, and gluons, which are completely massless.

So, what’s the origin of the proton’s mass? What holds all visible matter together? And how?

Those questions have remained unanswered for about 100 years.

But now the U.S. Department of Energy has said it will build a next-generation nuclear physics facility — an electron-ion collider — at Brookhaven National Laboratory. And with that tool, questions about the heart of the atom will be answered in Upton.

This facility for nuclear physics research will be built at the site of the current Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. Today at RHIC two circular accelerators move atoms stripped of their electrons — ions — in opposite directions. At several intersections, those ions collide. By the end of this decade, a new electron accelerator ring will be added to collide electrons with ions. Simply, the electron-ion collider will be similar to a microscope, allowing us to take 3D pictures of the subatomic quarks and gluons.

Observing electron-ion collisions and studying them will require scientists, engineers and technicians working together to create technologies beyond today’s state-of-the-art. This will require new ideas and technical breakthroughs. Some challenges will be addressed today. Others will create opportunities for the best and brightest of the next generation, and Long Island will benefit.

Hundreds of nuclear scientists will get hands-on training at the electron-ion collider. Some will continue along a career path of future scientific research. Others will move on to industry and elsewhere. All will help power the nation’s engine of intellectual and economic growth.

The fundamental knowledge gained by this new collider is beautiful. Unlocking the mysteries of the universe captures all of our imaginations. While the electron-ion collider is sure to keep the United States on the forefront of nuclear science for decades, it also will push the boundaries of science and technology. This, in turn, can lead to life-changing innovation, advances in isotopes for medical diagnostics and treatments, new materials for energy systems, detectors for national security, and advanced computation.

It’s fair to question what the knowledge gained at the electron-ion collider could do to help society. This is hard to predict, but the track record for fundamental discovery science is impressive.

Albert Einstein, in his attempt to understand gravity and space, developed the General Theory of Relativity. Little did he know that those ideas would eventually be used routinely in the Global Positioning System we rely on every day. Scientists in the 20th century could not have guessed what profound impact their studies would have on our modern-day electronics and modern-day energy saving devices, such as solar panels.

How can answering those 100-year-old questions directly benefit us?

I am eager to find out.

Abhay Deshpande is professor of physics at Stony Brook University.