Obituary: Roy Billinge
Friday 05 August 1994
ROY BILLINGE had a world- wide reputation as a designer and builder of particle accelerators that was outstanding even by the standards of international science. For the past 25 years he was based at the European laboratory, CERN in Geneva, where most of the world's particle physics research is done, and built two of their most important research machines.
Born in Buxton, Derbyshire, in 1937, Billinge studied physics at King's College London and joined the staff of the Rutherford Laboratory, then completing the first high-energy particle accelerator in Britain, NIMROD, which was commissioned in 1963 and closed in 1978.
Particle accelerators are racetracks of electromagnets round which fundamental particles such as protons circulate. On each lap of the track these particles are boosted by a high voltage, receiving successive bursts of extra speed until they reach velocities at which their energy is sufficient to create new kinds of particles according to Einstein's equation E=mc2 . These new particles last existed in the wake of the Big Bang, and recreating them helps physicists to understand the structure and the formation of the Universe.
The design, construction and operation of these accelerators requires large teams of physicists, engineers and other specialists. Roy Billinge became fascinated with this challenge and embarked on a career in which he was to make important contributions to two new such machines. The first, at Fermi Laboratory, near Chicago, was the largest of its kind at the time, consisting of a six- kilometre ring. Later, in 1971, when Europe started to construct a similar project at CERN, the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS), the late Sir John Adams, who led the project, sent emissaries to Chicago to recruit Billinge.
Adams entrusted Billinge with the design and building of the magnet ring, the biggest single component of the machine, whose precise field had to guide protons around 150,000 laps of the accelerator, a distance three times greater than that from the Earth to the Moon. Adams was aware when he made the choice that many of the views held by Billinge would overturn accepted practices of European accelerator specialists, to the benefit of the new project. The reliable supply of proton beams from the SPS has been the backbone of particle physics research in Europe for the last two decades, amply justifying Adams's choice.
Billinge then went on to head the team which constructed CERN's highly innovative Antiproton Accumulator. Every particle has its mirror image (or antiparticle) which it will annihilate if it gets a chance. All the antimatter that ever was has long since disappeared, but particle accelerators allow this fascinating aspect of matter to be recreated, stored and studied. This had never been done for antiprotons, the antimatter counterpart of nuclear protons, but doing so gave CERN a unique research tool and pre-eminence in a field which had long been dominated by the United States.
Billinge's main concern was to understand and satisfy the needs and ambitions of the frequently diverse teams of scientists and engineers under his charge. His wide professional experience and gift for finding simple solutions which were correct mathematically yet sound in engineering terms earned everyone's respect.
Billinge believed that Britain's place should be as a full partner in all European enterprise. A patriot who would not allow things British to be denigrated abroad, he nevertheless had no patience with the brand of dithering insularity that for him seemed to characterise the stance of so many of his countrymen when viewed from the centre of Europe.
His reputation across the Atlantic never faded. When the US decided to build an even bigger 'Superconducting Super Collider', 90km in circumference, to rival CERN's plans for the future, they made Billinge chairman of their SSC Machine Advisory Committee. Recently funds have been withdrawn from this ambitious project and the hopes of physicists have turned to CERN, where a much more modest version of this machine awaits approval. This is called the 'Large Hadron Collider' or LHC and, by making full use of the existing tunnels and other facilities, it can be built for a small fraction of the price.
When he died, Roy Billinge was working to bring a larger community of nations, including the US, behind the construction of LHC. These hopes have yet to be realised, but this project will surely be his finest memorial.
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