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Northeastern faculty conducting research with CERN

by Emily Ashbolt, Biomedical Physics, 2017

What does it take to push the boundaries on the known facts of what the universe is made up of?

Sharp minds, for sure. But a lot of technology, no small amount of planning, and a surprising number of breaks are also needed.

The European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN (the acronym coming from the French “Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire”), has been making groundbreaking discoveries in nuclear and particle physics since its establishment in 1952. The instruments at CERN are particle accelerators and detectors, including the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). These machines smash beams of particles together at extremely high energies and record what occurs.

Ever since the beginning, when European scientists came together at the end of WWII and broke ground on the Franco-Swiss border, CERN has been an example of what can happen if people put their differences aside and work for a common goal. In the case of CERN, the differences are scientists of all different ages from every continent, and the goal is ultimate scientific advancement.

But cooperation is not the only skill necessary to keep breaking ground – it also takes meticulous organization.

The 26 experiments currently running at CERN have timelines that span from years to decades, including a project that Northeastern University is involved in, Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), referring to key design aspects of the particle detector.

The challenge that the LHC must face is how such large, complex experiments can span such a long periods of time when the technology required to meet their goals might not even be invented yet. To combat this, the LHC has a schedule stretching out 20 years in advance, to 2035, outlining when it will be running and when it will be on a shutdown — periods of time, lasting about 18 months, when the systems can be updated and parts of the detector that are normally inaccessible can be repaired and upgraded.

These shutdowns are an integral part of keeping the projects running smoothly. While some aspects of CERN projects, such as advanced computer software, can be updated while the system is working, Toyoko Orimoto, assistant professor of physics at Northeastern, sees the shutdown time as valuable because it also allows the scientists time to catch up on all of the knowledge they might have garnered from experiments up until that time.

“[Being at CERN when the LHC is running] is great, but it can also be very demanding – everyone is trying to ensure that the detector is running smoothly, in addition to analyzing the data as it arrives,” Orimoto explained. During the shutdown period, scientists get to update as much as the machinery does. “The scientists can make new tools, continue analyzing and publishing data, focus on projects that we didn’t have the time for during running periods,” Orimoto continued. Such a point is evidenced by the fact that publication rates out of CERN remained constant, even during the last shutdown.

Midyear of 2015 brought the startup of Run 2 of the LHC, which is now producing 13 TeV proton collisions, the highest particle collisions ever created in a laboratory. Scientists at CERN are coming down off of the wave that was the discovery of the Higgs Boson, the last puzzle piece in the Standard Model, which explains the universe’s building blocks. The mission for this Run after last run’s victory? “New Physics!” exclaims Orimoto. “The last run was about completing the Standard Model. But there is a lot that the Standard Model doesn’t explain. There really is the need for new physics. We are looking for the next big discovery — dark matter, maybe other dimensions, leptoquarks.”

The Northeastern CMS group receives support from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, and includes four professors: Orimoto, Darien Wood, George Alverson, and Emanuela Barberis, as well as post-docs, graduate students, and co-op students. The CMS group at Northeastern is looking forward to analyzing Run 2 data, in order to show these science fiction topics as science fact. Many of the Northeastern CMS graduate students and post-docs are based at CERN, having helped upgrade the detector during the shutdown. Two new co-op students are also joining the team for the fall cycle: rising senior physics undergrad Nick Deporzio and rising fourth-year combined physics and mathematics undergrad Alex Coda. The two co-ops will be working on coding and detector development under Professors Barberis, Orimoto, and Wood.

With scientists (and particles) gathering momentum once again, it is an exciting time to be at CERN. Only time will tell what kind of new physics might be discovered.

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