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Erich Vogt (Courtesy of TRIUMF)
Erich Vogt (Courtesy of TRIUMF)

OBITUARY

Scientist Erich Vogt put Canada on world physics map Add to ...

As a child in Steinbach, Man., Erich Vogt stared up at the vast prairie sky, watching as a large flock of Canada geese flew overhead in perfect V-formation, and was struck with wonder. That sense of wonder lasted throughout his long, storied career as one of Canada’s most eminent nuclear scientists, driving him to associate with anyone who could nourish it, from famous scientists involved in the Manhattan Project to an aging Albert Einstein, to the thousands of first-year physics students he taught over more than four decades at the University of British Columbia. (“Before they got jaded,” he would explain.)

Yet Dr. Vogt made his greatest mark as co-founder of the remarkable laboratory at UBC known as TRIUMF, which catapulted Canada into the front ranks of nuclear research. Forty years later, TRIUMF and its celebrated cyclotron continue to thrive, branching into areas never dreamed of back in those heady days when visionaries such as Dr. Vogt conceived of establishing the facility, the likes of which had never been contemplated in Canada.

Its reach extended as far as the landmark discovery of the Higgs boson particle at the famous CERN laboratory in Switzerland in 2012. As many as 75 Canadian physicists from universities across the country, using TRIUMF as their chief base, were part of the international team involved in the breakthrough.

Their participation in this form of international collaboration was due largely to Dr. Vogt’s pivotal 13 years as director. During this time, ending in 1994, he pushed, prodded and promoted TRIUMF relentlessly, overseeing its expansion from a brilliant but basic research facility to a global player.

“He was responsible for getting us on the world map of physics,” says Ewart Blackmore, senior research scientist at TRIUMF. “He made it a truly international laboratory, where outside scientists loved to come, and the major laboratories of the world took notice of our technical and research successes.” A study several years ago placed Canada among the top six countries for particle and nuclear research, thanks primarily to TRIUMF.

Dr. Vogt, who died Feb. 19 from heart complications, was there from the start. It was an audacious project, centred on an immense cyclotron that remains largest on the planet, even today. Such an enterprise, costing close to $80-million even then, would almost certainly never be built in this age of often suffocating bureaucratic scrutiny, restraint and escalating price tags. Experts estimate a similar construction would now cost more than a billion dollars. But times were simpler then. Infused with the success of Expo 67, Canada was searching for further ways to attract global attention. The federal Liberal government was open to such bold missions. Said then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau at TRIUMF’s official opening: “I don’t know what a cyclotron is, but I’m sure glad Canada has one now.”

Cyclotrons such as the one at TRIUMF accelerate hydrogen ions to form intense beams of protons that can be directed at targets. The resulting particle beam is powerful enough to “smash” atoms, providing vital material for nuclear research and, more recently, practical applications such as feeding the growing demand for medical isotopes.

The lab’s focus has also shifted to astrophysics, examining the mysteries of stars and how they came to be.

Located in a three-storey underground bunker, the TRIUMF cyclotron is the cornerstone of Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics, headquarters for more than 400 scientists, engineers and staff.

It is still Ottawa’s largest single investment in science.

Few could have foreseen all this 50 years ago when a small group of scientists decided it was time for a Canadian accelerator to tap into the hot new field of nuclear physics.

While John Warren, head of nuclear physics at UBC, Californian Reg Richardson and a few others concentrated on design and construction, Dr. Vogt was theoretician and chief booster, successfully driving the quest for funds.

“He was the most focused on making the case to the public, the brashest and most ambitious,” says Tim Meyer, head of strategic planning and communications at TRIUMF. “It would never have happened without him.”

The first successful beam was produced Dec. 15, 1974, to cheers and champagne. “It was a great moment,” Dr. Blackmore says. “We knew then the thing would work.” They had no idea just how well it would work. While other accelerators have fallen by the wayside, TRIUMF’s cyclotron has proved astonishingly adaptable, displaying a flexibility that has enabled its conversion into myriad uses unforeseen in 1974. “For more than three decades, this cyclotron has remained at the cutting edge of science,” Mr. Meyer says.

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