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Unsolved Mysteries


Right now, on the other side of the world, two beams of protons are zooming around a 17-mile loop in opposite directions at speeds of 11,000 times per second. The particles are smashing into each other at levels never before seen. And from the collisions, high-energy detectors are collecting so much data that in 10 to 20 years, the volume of recorded information will equal all the words spoken by humans since humans began speaking.

Over the last six months, the physicists of the world have worked on and watched this experiment in awe. They have raised their glasses of champagne in victory, dreaming dreams of discovering proof of particles like the so-called “God particle,” dark matter, extra dimensions, super symmetry and string theory.

Right now, on this side of the world, grad students and university faculty are pouring over the data coming out of this over-the-top, newfangled machine. And while it all seems like magic with unfathomable potential to change the world as we know it, Brian Drell and Bernadette Heyburn just want to get their degrees.

“Other than a PhD?” Drell laughs, when he’s asked about his hopes and dreams for the project. “That’s pretty much it at this point.”

Drell, who is from Louisiana and has a wickedly dry sense of humor, is sitting in a window-filled room at the top of Gamow Tower with colleagues Heyburn, a Colorado native who studied nuclear physics during her undergrad, and assistant physics professor Kevin Stenson.

Gamow is one of two physics towers on the CU campus. Here, students and faculty are diving into data that could change how we look at the universe and existence.
The team has spent years collaborating with thousands of physicists on the world’s biggest physics project: the Large Hadron Collider. It’s a particle accelerator located underground at CERN, also known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva. The team works on the part of the experiment called CMS, or Compact Muon Solenoid, one of two main detectors that examine the reactions of the collisions. And while they are thrilled with the progress being made with CMS, they are not seduced by the big-picture potential of the experiments. They are too much in the nitty gritty to wax gleefully about extra dimensions and God particles.
Still, they take some time away from their number crunching (or whatever it is that they do ) to talk a little about their work with the Large Hadron Collider and how they found themselves getting up close and personal with the largest physics experiment known to man.

“I originally wanted to be an astronaut, but that looked too hard,” Stenson says.

Which is funny, seeing that these days Stenson, who’s been on the CU faculty since 2005, focuses on experiments that search for matter that can’t be detected.

“You really are trying to understand the origin of how everything works,” he says. “It’s at the most basic level. Which turns out to be—ironically—the most inaccessible. So, we need these huge colliders, lots of money, big detectors and lots of people in order to get the kind of physics we want out of it.”

Fundamental physics focuses on the basic building blocks of the universe. It’s quarks, electrons and leptons. It’s existence.

“I argue with my friends that I study more important physics than they do,” Heyburn says as she smiles innocently. “They don’t appreciate that.”

“That’s why we say fundamental, as opposed to important,” Stenson says. “But really what we mean is important. Fundamental sounds less like a value judgment.”

“Yeah, there’s no arrogance in physics,” Drell adds wryly.

But within this very important realm of physics, there are many unknowns. There are theories, but it takes time, technology and big budgets to find answers. That’s where these particle accelerators come into play, attempting to solve some of the universe’s greatest unknowns by recreating the moments after the big bang occurred.

“During the big bang, everything was really hot and close together,” Stenson said. “And that’s what we are trying to do with these colliders: make everything hot and close together.”

The Large Hadron Collider is a gianormous particle accelerator used to study the most miniscule matter. The expectation from physicists is that discoveries made with the Large Hadron Collider will be revolutionary, proving theories of particles like the Higgs Boson or disproving portions of fundamental physics as we know it. Despite running on lower energy and with fewer collisions, the project’s two main detectors—ATLAS and CMS—are churning out so much data that thousands of physicists from around the globe have been and continue to work 24 hours a day to collect, analyze and interpret the data.

“There are good things and bad things about it. It’s a bunch of people, so that can be a problem,” Drell says. “But there are amazing things you can do with that many people when they pool their efforts.”

The entire Large Hadron Collider project is cooperative. That means scientists and teams everywhere help build, repair, run, calibrate and maintain both the hardware and the software. They also take care of their own research.
“It’s a combination of what we are interested in and what the experiment needs,” Stenson says, noting that CU’s efforts cover five sub-fields of high-energy physics. “There is some trickiness because everyone wants to do the exciting physics and make the big discoveries.”

CU’s Large Hadron Collider team built environmental chambers to store the detectors and shipped them off to Switzerland. Heyburn and another grad student helped set up the forward pixel detector at CERN; she was there for two and a half years.

These days, much of their work revolves around taking information from detectors and making what they call tracks.

“We are essentially making 3-D pictures of all the particles that are coming out of the collisions,” Drell says.
That’s kind of like the filing of the physics world—not what you write prize-winning papers on. “But they are necessary to get those physics papers out,” Stenson says.

What is interesting fodder for a thesis paper or graduate research? Stenson and Drell study beauty quarks, and Heyburn is working on super symmetry, a theory that has no proven backing.

“There is no evidence for it yet, but it has really nice theoretical correlations,” she says happily.

But what if the experiments don’t detect things like super symmetry and the Higgs Boson? Stenson says it’s a reality, at least for now.

“The likelihood that we will see something interesting by the end of 2011 is small,” he says. “After 2011, they will shut it down for a year. And then get it up to the designed collision rate and energy. So, now we are talking end of 2013 by the time you can really see something.

“There is a lot of other stuff we can do that is not exactly Noble Prize-winning stuff,” he continues.

On a personal level, that would make writing papers and getting advanced degrees much harder. When the Large Hadron Collider broke in 2008, some grad students had to find new experiments because of a 14-month delay to repair the collider.

In the big picture, not finding something interesting may not be so bad.

“We all expect the Higgs to be there, but if we discover nothing it’s a much bigger challenge for a theorist to explain,” Stenson says. “Though the funding agencies might not agree with it, the physicists would actually be excited because it means we don’t understand what is going on—when we thought we did.”


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