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Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe

Unraveling the Mysteries of the UniverseThe debut of the Large Hadron Collider places scientists around the world on the precipice of discovery—including a group from Tufts.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [09.15.08] On Sept. 10, 2008, beams of protons successfully traveled around a 17-mile circular underground chamber at the France-Switzerland border. That lap was just the warm-up for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), sometimes referred to as a "Big Bang machine," the product of a global initiative in particle physics hoping to answer some of the biggest questions in science by recreating the moments when the universe was born.

As the most powerful particle accelerator in the world, the LHC facilitates the high-energy collision of protons to attempt to emulate the "Big Bang" that produced our universe. By analyzing what happens in those critical moments, scientists are exploring topics such as the origin of mass, properties of space and the existence of heretofore unknown particles.

"It's like a microscope which allows us to look into the structure of matter, space and time deeper than ever before," explains Krzysztof Sliwa, a physics professor at Tufts and head of the Tufts High Energy Physics ATLAS Group that is working on the project.

The LHC is a global initiative in particle physics led by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, that draws on the contributions of nearly 10,000 scientists from 60 countries and hundreds of universities around the world. Tufts' participants from the Department of Physics include Sliwa, Professors Austin Napier and Anthony Mann, research associates Simona Rolli and Sarka Todorova-Nova, and graduate student Samuel Hamilton. Todorova-Nova is currently based in Switzerland, while Hamilton spent the past summer there and Sliwa goes as frequently as possible.

Tufts, along with Boston University, Brandeis, Harvard and MIT, is part of the Boston Muon Consortium (BMC), whose researchers has been collaborating on this project since its inception in 1994. In the United States, LHC work is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

Tufts and the BMC have been working on a portion of the project called ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus), a detector within the LHC that will gather data from the collisions and, it is hoped, point scientists toward new discoveries. Aside from working on physics simulations for the experiments ATLAS will undertake, Tufts and other BMC scientists constructed a key part of the ATLAS detector: the monitored drift tube (MDT) end-cap muon detector. The MDT incorporates thousands of small, custom machine parts developed in a precision machine shop located at Tufts' Science and Technology Center.

Another component of the project is distributed computing, which entails tapping a network of computers to process significant amounts of data. Tufts, along with Caltech, developed the MONARC model for worldwide distributed computing, which will help process the data that will be generated by LHC experiments.

While the first circulation of beams around the chamber is a milestone for the LHC, the real test will come with the first beam collisions in the months to come. Sliwa says it could take years to accumulate a data set significant enough to draw meaningful conclusions. Alternatively, "there may be something spectacular happening even in the next few months."

"One cannot really predict this. We don't know," says Sliwa. "That's why it's so exciting."


Prof. Austin Napier highlights the ATLAS Detector at the grand opening of the Center for Scientific Visualization earlier this year.

The LHC project is critical to the advancement of particle physics. Since what Sliwa calls a "golden time" in the 1970s, when significant discoveries in particle physics were happening almost yearly, researchers have been craving more data to make the next big leap.

Particle physics operates under a set of theories called the Standard Model. However, scientists have been working for 20 years to find deviations from the model, which Sliwa calls a "primitive approximation." Experiments conducted in the LHC could move physicists to their next golden era by providing enough data to help them determine which theories are viable and which are not. Proving that something doesn't exist can be as, if not more, important than proving something does.

"We need some guidelines for which direction the better theory should come from," says Sliwa. "The only guidelines can come from experiments, at this moment." The facts, he says, will trump the "aesthetics" of theories that now may seem appealing, but are unproven.

Sliwa, who has been at Tufts since 1989, believes that the university's participation in the LHC project benefits faculty, graduate students and undergraduates alike by generating excitement around cutting-edge research. Indeed, throughout the LHC project's 14-year lifetime, graduates and undergraduates have had the opportunity to contribute to it.

"For young people, to learn that not everything is cast in stone is very exciting," he says. "It opens their eyes and minds to the possibility that if they engage in research, they may actually be the first ones to see something."

Profile by Georgiana Cohen, Web Communications. LHC photos courtesy of the ATLAS Experiment at CERN. Napier photo by Joanie Tobin, University Photography.

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