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New director named for Fermilab

Nigel Lockyer | Submitted

Nigel Lockyer | Submitted

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Updated: June 21, 2013 9:35PM

The newly-appointed director of Fermilab in Batavia wants you to know he’s been rooting for the U.S. particle physics program for a long time.

And also for the Blackhawks.

“Let’s say I’m a big hockey fan,” Nigel Lockyer, currently the director of TRIUMF, Canada’s flagship particle physics laboratory, said. “And I am certainly rooting for the Blackhawks. Prior to Vancouver falling out of contention they were my first choice.”

But Lockyer said that it’s definitely the grand opportunities on the horizon in fundamental particle physics research that are bringing him back to the Fox Valley.

“It’s an exciting time in the world for particle physics,” he said.

On Thursday, the Fermilab Research Alliance announced it had found the newest director for the nation’s most prominent particle physics laboratory in Lockyer, who will become the lab’s sixth director starting Sept. 3.

Since May 2007, Lockyer has directed and greatly expanded TRIUMF, Canada’s top lab — a bit smaller than Fermilab, with a crew of about 500.

“Small, but mighty,” Lockyer said.

The lab is well known in physics circles for its study of rare isotopes and a strong nuclear astrophysics program, as well as work on fundamental symmetry and a large, modern particle accelerator program.

“We also are the support structure for the Canadian particle physics community in the same way Fermilab is for the U.S. community, so there are some analogies there,” he said.

As for his vision for Fermilab once he officially takes the helm from retiring Director Pier Oddone, Lockyer said that depends a lot on the decisions made by the U.S. physics community, which will hold a conference in Minneapolis later this summer, and the Department of Energy.

“Right now, (U.S. physicists) are putting a plan together. It’s all their dreams. The present situation is that for those dreams to become reality, they’re going to have to align with what Fermilab wants to do and is able to do. The present program at Fermilab is very strong, very exciting and something we want to continue in the near term,” he said.

Long-term, he said, Fermilab will be “pushing very hard” on the neutrino frontier. Neutrinos are elementary particles, basic building blocks of matter.

“Director Pier Oddone has taken it very far, and were going to try and go even more,” he said.

He said he also plans to make the Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment, which will shoot neutrinos hundreds of miles through the Earth’s mantle to understand the role of those particles in the universe, “a true flagship experiment for Fermilab.”

The experiment will aim to understand phenomenon like proton decay and the neutrinos emitted by supernovae, or exploding stars.

One challenge Lockyer is likely to face, however, will be garnering support from the U.S. Department of Energy, which has for the past several years shown a preference for practical and applicable science — such as research into clean energy or medical applications — rather that the fundamental science for which Fermilab is known.

Lockyer said he is undeterred.

“I view it more as an opportunity. As you’re doing your science, you build technology and sometimes you realize those technologies can be pushed off to the private sector, for economic purposes or for the betterment of society. Certainly the public loves the mind-stretching physics of cosmology — that’s our mission — but they also like to know what its good for and we should be able to answer that question. The answer can have very big impacts.”

With a background in the medical applications of physics, Lockyer is expected to build up the new research and development center on the Fermilab campus, funded in part by the state of Illinois, that is dedicated to applying particle accelerator technology to the private sector for use in medicine, manufacturing and energy.

Fermilab bonds

Lockyer, with his strong affinity for and long history with Fermilab, might be the ideal man for the job.

Lockyer was born in Scotland, raised in Canada and received his graduate education in the United States. He has served in a variety of roles, dating back more than 25 years, at Fermilab.

For many years he conducted research on the Collider Detector at Fermilab, or CDF, one of the two major experiments on the Tevatron at the lab. He served as the CDF co-spokesman from 2002 to 2004, and was a Fermilab guest scientist from 2002 until 2005, co-head of CDF operations and guest scientist in 2001 and 2002, and a visiting scientist during the summers of 1987 and 1988. Lockyer said the experiment would “go down in the history books” for its discovery of the top quark, for which, he said, there is still a great deal more to understand.

And he speaks fondly of the now-defunct Tevatron machine itself.

“It was time to turn it off. If the Higgs (boson) had been just a few GeV lighter, the course of history would have been different,” Lockyer said. “But now, it’s our chance to decide where we as a community want to go in our research. We’re going to take over the top of the mountain, and that’s going to be a lot of fun.”

In the future, he said, there will be decisions to be made regarding the programs already at Fermilab, and the U.S. lab’s role in cooperative international projects, such as upgrades at CERN and the construction of the International Linear Collider, a particle accelerator on the scale of the Large Hadron Collider slated to be built under a Japanese mountain range.

Fermilab, he said, will play a leading role in all of them.

“If you think of the world situation, until five years ago, Fermilab was the premier lab in the world for research, for two decades,” Lockyer said. “Now, CERN, with the Large Hadron Collider, they are unquestionably on top of the mountain. What I want to make sure of is that we at Fermilab end up on top once again. It’s going to be that competition once again.”

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