Physicist Nigel Lockyer has been appointed the new director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. In September he will move from his post as director of TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics in Vancouver, British Columbia. Lockyer spent many years working on Fermilab’s Tevatron, and earned renown for measuring the lifetime of the bottom quark. Under his lead, TRIUMF built new experiments and international agreements, worked to produce better medical isotope supplies and developed a commercialization arm, Advanced Applied Physics Solutions. Nature spoke to him about Fermilab’s future focus on a large neutrino experiment.
Fermilab’s major project, the Tevatron, shut down in 2011. Is the lab past its glory days?
Absolutely not. There’s half a dozen really interesting questions where Fermilab can play a really interesting role. We’re looking to have a flagship programme where we can ‘own the podium’, as they said in Canada during the Olympics.
What will that flagship be?
This is determined by the international landscape. Europe is really focusing on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). They say if you want to study neutrinos, talk to the United States or Japan. So what Fermilab is pursuing is the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE). I personally find the science there very inviting. One issue is charge parity violation, looking to see if neutrinos are different from antineutrinos. This could broach completely new ground. The second goal is to look at proton decay, which gets into Grand Unified Theory questions. The third thing is people are very interested in detecting neutrinos from supernovae.
What the US government has given a bit of a green light to is a detector on the surface that I would argue is too small. I’d like to make it twice as big and put it a kilometre underground. The challenge is to work with European and Japanese colleagues to see if we can do that.
The budget for particle physics in the United States is seriously constrained thanks to the financial crunch. How much money do you have to play with? Is it enough?
Nobody has told me how much I have to play with yet, and I’m sure it’s not enough.
You have been described as having “an unapologetic eye for commercial opportunity”, and are renowned for your abilities as a communicator and salesman as well as a physicist. You’re moving from a facility with a strong interest in making isotopes for medical procedures, to one with a far more esoteric goal of understanding the Universe. Will that be a harder sell?
That’s where I started, so I’m just returning to my roots. What you call ‘esoteric’ is really what I enjoy — that’s my favourite. That said, I’m a believer that the public, who pays for what we do, should get more. These labs should always have economic or social impacts. You have to remember we provide both knowledge and training. These students can go out into the world and do great things.
TRIUMF is known for its work on medical isotopes; CERN for the world wide web; and Fermilab for superconducting magnets from which magnetic resonance imaging is derived. I’m going to keep my eyes open for these opportunities. Though in my lifetime, that won’t be the main thrust of Fermilab, which is the only US national lab dedicated to particle physics.
What are the biggest differences between doing particle physics in Canada and in the United States?
In Canada, about 90% of our particle physicists have to go elsewhere to actually do it; the other say 10% work at TRIUMF, SNOLAB or the Perimeter Institute. I don’t know the number for the United States. I’d guess a majority also go overseas now, but at least you’ve got a lot of people at Fermilab actually doing the work.
What is the atmosphere like at Fermilab? Are people excited about future opportunities, or feeling squashed by budget constraints?
I haven’t been yet! The selection committees met off site. I go there this coming Friday. But I guess it’s a mixture of both.
What do you see as your main job as director?
My focus is going to be ensuring that Fermilab has a readily identified flagship experiment, in an area that everyone agrees is important. That means getting involvement from the international community on LBNE.
The other half of my time will be working towards making the Linear Collider happen, whether that’s in the United States or Japan. It will probably be hosted in Japan; there’s a lot of momentum on that. As director I’ll be a leader in the US community, so I need to add my own two cents to where the interesting physics is and where we should put our effort. We have to build a Higgs factory. It has to happen.
The community is meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, this August to set an agenda for particle physics. Fermilab will have to see how we can contribute to that, given budget constraints.
How will Fermilab’s neutrino work stand out above the international competition?
Europe has helped: they have decided not to go ahead with a European version of LBNE, which was on the table, from CERN to Finland. And can the Japanese do both a Linear Collider and neutrinos? That’s not clear.
What’s going to happen at TRIUMF after you leave?
An interim director will be found. They should get someone good — the lab’s in great shape.