Technology & Science

Erich and the KAON Factory

University of British Columbia professor emeritus Erich Vogt never won a Nobel Prize, but has worked with some 30 winners and is celebrated for his commitment both to science and teaching.

Erich Vogt and Kaons: The very political particles that weren't to be Canadian

This weekend, three Nobel Prize winners and dozens of other scientists of the first order blew into Vancouver for a physics symposium — and a party.

Forty years ago, TRIUMF, Canada's national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, was established and that alone is reason for a physicist to celebrate.

The TRIUMF cyclotron on the University of British Columbia campus can accelerate negatively charged hydrogen ions to 75 per cent of the speed of light. The cyclotron is used for research on atomic particles, allowing scientists to probe the structure of matter, search for nature's basic building blocks and measure the fundamental forces between them, according to TRIUMF. ((Courtesy TRIUMF))
But that's not what drew Carlo Rubbia, Dick Taylor and Walter Kohn to the gathering at the University of British Columbia (UBC). It was friendship for the man who co-founded TRIUMF — a man who never won a Nobel Prize but who has worked with some 30 winners, and a man celebrated for his commitment both to science and teaching.

Professor Emeritus Erich Vogt has taught 5,000 first-year physics students over the last 43 years.

Vogt is 78, and according to his students, a prince of a professor. Writes one at Ratemyprofessor.com: "This man is AMAZING. He got his PhD in Princeton in the 50s and had lectures of ALBERT EINSTEIN — !! not mentionong (sic) his OTHER Nobel Laureate friends!!"

"Incredible prof. about 200 years old and he's been teaching for free since he was 65," enthuses another.

"All other lecturers should sit in on some of his classes to learn how to teach," scolds a third.

What some of his students may not know is that Vogt is also the man who came that close to getting Canada another huge physics facility — the KAON Factory. If you were interested in Canadian science between 1985 and 1995, you couldn't miss the debate — or Erich Vogt.

"I think he tried harder than anyone else to get Canada into big particle physics," says Dick Taylor, a Canadian-born physicist who won the Nobel in 1990 for his detection of the quark at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. ("Boy, was I lucky," he says about that.) 

"It was the only thing Canada had, and — it would have been a big thing. It would have been at least as big as TRIUMF," he adds.

Oh, it was an exciting time in physics. The Americans were planning the Superconducting Supercollider. Canada's Sudbury Neutrino Observatory was on the drawing board; its eventual success would mark what Taylor calls "the first time — a really major experiment in particle physics has been done in Canada."

And the irresistible force that was Erich Vogt plotted to plant Canada even more firmly on the map of particle physics.

The plan: an international collaboration to build a billion-dollar machine at UBC which would whip protons around so fast, they would spill out gazillions of kaons.

Erich Vogt (left) with a tiny model of the TRIUMF cyclotron when it was being designed in the late 1960s. ((Courtesy TRIUMF) )
These short-lived (how long is 12 billionths of a second?) particles just might answer some of those profound questions physicists like to ponder, such as: How the heck did the universe get to be, well, the universe?

Marcello Pavan was a graduate student at TRIUMF during those years. Now, he's a physicist tasked with explaining things to a reporter treading uncertainly in the world of nuclear and particle physics.

"Particle physics is big scale, it's the basic building blocks of the universe. You know, why things have gravity, why things are attracted to each other, why things stick. Nuclear physics is studying the nuclei of atoms," he said.

The KAON Factory, he said, "would have been on the boundary between the two. It would have dipped its toes into particle physics and it would have been a great place to do nuclear physics."

It was a niche, says Pavan, but "this one facility [was] just going to kick everybody's ass — it would have established Canada as a serious player in serious science."

For 10 years Vogt sweet-talked here, strong-armed there, lobbying politicians, foreign governments, universities, scientists and journalists, using reasoning and logic, emotion and rhetoric to goose the country onside.

UBC physicist Jess Brewer says, "it was the right thing to do and — when Erich decided this was the right thing to do, he just basically wouldn't take no for an answer."

Vogt's argument was simple: "If you want world class spinoffs, you need world class ideas and world class people." He promised all three.

Kaons get political

With projections of 17,000 construction jobs, 3,000 permanent jobs, and thousands of scientists flocking to UBC, the provincial government didn't need much persuasion. Ottawa, however, did. And so did many scientists. Battle was joined. 

Erich Vogt (right, red tie) says Canada missed the opportunity to become a leader in atomic particle research when the KAON Factory project was dropped. 'We could have been a decade ahead of everybody in the world in this - it's just a pity we couldn't lead it and reap the benefits from it.' ((Courtesy TRIUMF))
Kim Campbell, then a provincial MLA, called the plan "essential" to Canada's economic development.   "Twaddle!" cried the opposition's Dale Lovick, of the NDP, declaring it would divert money from crises such as AIDS and Alzheimer's disease.

Proponents held the manufacture of kaons to be in the spirit of Banting and Best and those who built the Canadarm. Opponents — including the Science Council of Canada — fretted such big science would leave scant dollars for anyone else.

Western Canada said that was unfair, after all, Eastern Canada got the Canadian Space Agency, federal money for the Hibernia oil field, and subsidies for the auto industry.

By 1994 Italy, Japan, and Germany had committed. The U.S. was close.

It all depended on Ottawa anteing up its one-third share.

The Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney had said it supported the plan. But a change in government brought in a Liberal finance minister who was in a major cost-cutting mood. In his first budget, Paul Martin pulled the plug. "Too expensive for us to pursue," he said.

Marcello Pavan is still angry. "We could have had that market cornered, all of that physics, all that science could have been here. We could have been leading, and it was just pure politics. And it's a terrible, terrible shame."

Jess Brewer says the KAON Factory, "would have changed Canada's position in the world's physics community. It would've been the biggest and the most romantic or, what's the word, glamorous scientific project in the history of Canada." 

Should it have been built? Well, Japan thinks so.

"It's so important, that the thing we were going to build in Canada is just now being completed in Japan," says Vogt. "We could have been a decade ahead of everybody in the world in this — It's just a pity we couldn't lead it and reap the benefits from it."

But Vogt — an "infectious Pollyanna," according to Brewer — has rolled with the blow that knocked the kaons out of Canada.

He's concentrated on a few small problems, he says. Things like how stars evolve and eventually collapse — and what happens inside them.

And while he's at it, he'll be sending a few thousand more students out into the world equipped with enthusiasm and the Big Questions. Perhaps one of them will find the answers — and bring one more Nobelist into his already rich life.