The world’s first electron-ion collider will allow scientists at Brookhaven National Lab to study the building blocks of the universe, and provide Long Island with the building blocks to construct a booming and vibrant economy.
The decision to site what may be the world’s most complex machine on Long Island is extraordinarily good news.
The announcement Thursday means significant advances for the region. It will start with a construction boom tied to the $2 billion project and lead to crucial new infrastructure. Then there will be cutting-edge research and technology jobs created, which will birth startup companies and an academic culture driven by the most advanced scientific exploration in history.
Experts say the selection of BNL over the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, could be more important to the Island than the decision to build the Apollo lunar module here, which paved the way for tens of thousands of prime jobs and decades of prosperity. And the simple fact that the United States decided to build a collider at all promises the opening of a new frontier in physics that will power the technologies of the future.
Before the BNL selection
In 2015, the Department of Energy formally recommended building an electron-ion collider. BNL, located on a 5,000-acre site in Upton, already has an ion collider, which accelerates particles around two open rings, and could be turned into an electron-ion collider by reconfiguring one of those rings. The Virginia lab already has an electron collider and would have had to build an ion ring to create the new facility. For years the two facilities, the only ones seriously considered for the upgrade, were in a tight battle for the prize.
With such a big win, there are plenty of accolades to go around. BNL’s director, Doon Gibbs, is credited with putting the greater good and the science above all else, fighting first to make sure the crucial facility would be funded and built in the United States and asking Long Island’s representatives in Washington to do the same. Taking the high road paid off.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer worked tirelessly to see the collider funded and sited on Long Island, using both his power over the budget and his intricate knowledge of D.C.’s bureaucracy to get the win. Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin, a favorite of President Donald Trump who is increasingly influential in his party, worked GOP connections in both Congress and at the Department of Energy. And state and local officials promised their support, too.
Stony Brook University has shared responsibility for managing BNL since 1998, and its former president, Sam Stanley, a physician by training, knew what this revolutionary collider could mean for both organizations and was aggressive in pursuing it. And Stony Brook’s greatest philanthropist, former mathematics professor turned billionaire hedge-fund owner Jim Simons, by funding the Center for Nuclear Science at Stony Brook and creating chairs to attract top scientists, made BNL the increasingly obvious choice. Its close relationship with BNL is sure to increase Stony Brook’s stature worldwide.
Founded in 1947, BNL is one of just 17 national labs in the United States, part of a system that sprung out of the massive federally funded scientific exploration during and after World War II. Most of the labs have one huge experimental piece of equipment. BNL, with its existing ion collider and the National Synchroton Light Source II, which produces the world’s brightest and most powerful light, is the only national lab with two such groundbreaking facilities.
Even before Thursday’s announcement, BNL was a juggernaut, staffed by nearly 3,000 scientists, technicians and other workers and hosting about 4,000 visiting researchers a year. Now those numbers and the lab’s influence and scientific contributions in the world of physical sciences are certain to grow.
The promise of science
And the promised science is extraordinary. The technologies we use today came about because we came to understand more about electrons and their electromagnetic bond to each atoms’ nucleus. Upon its completion in about 10 years, the electron-ion collider will begin to teach us what happens inside that nucleus, with the protons and neutrons it’s composed of, illuminating the relationships and behaviors of quarks and gluons and opening the doors to both groundbreaking knowledge and lifesaving technologies.
Medicine, transportation, communication, exploration and human endeavor in every form will be advanced by what is learned on Long Island through experiments conducted at the electron-ion collider. Commerce, infrastructure, employment, education and the tax base at every level will be enhanced, too. Huge research facilities are one of society’s great economic building blocks, with the potential to spin off entire industries, incubate countless forms of commerce and bring unforeseen advantages.
An industry at the forefront of science anchored a prosperous Long Island in the 20th century. Now there is a promise that the same can happen in the 21st.
— The editorial board