Appeared in Business in Vancouver – March 11, 2014
Sheer coincidence of course, but visionary Erich Vogt died days short of the 20th anniversary of the shattering of his greatest professional dream.
That was the KAON project, on the TRIUMF facility site at the University of British Columbia (UBC). It was killed by the Jean Chrétien Liberal government, anticipating huge costs for pioneering in uncharted waters of particle physics, without any perceived practical goal or commercial – let alone political – payoff.
For 13 years Vogt was KAON’s determined advocate – tireless and finally tiresome, as seen by Vancouver Sun science reporter Margaret Munro, whose take on KAON was skeptical, even flatly dismissive.
Another Sun writer said Vogt had “a shambling, teddy-bear warmth combined with a double-domed intensity that gives him just the faintest air of a mad scientist.”
I’m shamelessly quoting myself: as a science lightweight I tiptoed in, interviewing Vogt and outstanding KAON backers like Leon Lederman, four months after he snatched a Nobel for his co-discovery of quarks, and Stanford’s Canadian-born Richard Taylor – a fun interview of down-to-earth scientists.
KAON would have been Canada’s largest single science laboratory, promising to make Vancouver an international scientific magnet comparable to Geneva, home of world-leading CERN and its supercollider. What these acronyms stand for only glaze the eyes; the common thread is fascination with smashing atoms at high speed into very small bits – counterintuitively called “big science.”
Vogt’s longtime associate, Prof. Jean-Michel Poutissou, recently retired and a distinguished physicist who holds the French Legion of Honour, colourfully explained: “CERN is like a Formula One [racing] car. You cannot get a very big thing to go that fast. If you look at TRIUMF you would associate it with a big dump truck. We accelerate many, many particles, many more than at CERN, but we can’t go that fast.”
Got that, class?
In business terms, KAON would have moved TRIUMF further up science’s hierarchy and attracted more of what Poutissou dryly calls “suitcase scientists” – restless world travellers in science’s major leagues.
For those who don’t care a particle about abstruse matters, KAON is a study in ambition, provincial-federal bickering, divisiveness among scientists, great international co-operation and equally small-minded turf protection.
Erich Vogt became TRIUMF director in 1981, rising from boyhood in Steinbach, Manitoba, to earn a physics doctorate at Princeton, where he heard the last of Albert Einstein’s lectures, and then on to a ton of honours and awards.
KAON’s original estimated cost was $750 million, funded a third each by Ottawa, Victoria (Bill Vander Zalm’s Social Credit government was high on the project) and Japan and the U.S.
By the time Chrétien, supported by ministers John Manley and Paul Martin, pulled the plug on February 24, 1994 – enraging NDP premier Michael Harcourt and minister responsible Glen Clark, who had taken up KAON’s cause – the estimate was $2 billion, plus operating costs of almost $100 million a year.
A big bill for shooting sub-atomic particles close to the speed of light and smashing them, to see what could be learned – “how the stars are cooking the elements that we are made of,” said Poutissou, who was TRIUMF’s associate director, assisted by former cabinet minister Stan Hagen, while Vogt globe-trotted to sell KAON.
“I think it’s very hard for governments to understand what fundamental science does for the country.
“We are not doing this particle physics just to build gizmos but to learn where we come from and where we are going as a universe.”
Vogt’s successor, Prof. Alan Astbury of the University of Victoria, calmed troubled waters. KAON “was a good idea at the wrong time … misaligned with the world at the time,” said Timothy I. Meyer, TRIUMF’s current head of strategic planning and communications.
One significant change: one year the Ottawa Liberals delayed setting TRIUMF’s budget for several months, scaring staff, some of whom bolted for other jobs.
In contrast, the Stephen Harper Conservatives – scorned for alleged indifference to science – have, more than a year early, comfortingly set out TRIUMF’s budget for 2015-20.
TRIUMF, with more than $1 billion in public investment in the last 40 years, vigorously lives on, a leader in nuclear medicine and physics and particle physics, contributing to CERN research and employing 380 staff.
It has Canada-wide ties with 18 universities and many manufacturers, like Pavac Industries in Richmond and Ottawa-based Nordion, a global health science company exporting sterilization technologies and medical isotopes to more than 40 countries.
When Vogt died February 19 at age 84, UBC warmly praised him and lowered its flags to half-mast.
And his KAON dream? Broken, it was picked up and implemented by Japan.
© Trevor Lautens, 2014