In one of the largest international scientific collaborations the world has seen, over 1,500 scientists from around the globe — including 40 individuals from UCSB — have completed construction of a machine designed to reveal key mysteries about the universe and the basics of life.
Situated 300 feet beneath the city of Geneva, Switzerland, the Large Hadron Collider — the largest, most powerful experimental high energy particle accelerator ever created — is designed to detect new subatomic particles, and, in the process, answer some fundamental questions about the creation of the universe.
The apparatus aims to uncover these mysteries by using massive amounts of energy to launch particles through the collider — a 17-mile underground circular tunnel — at the rate of 11,000 laps per second. The goal in sending these particles around a loop at almost light speed is to smash particles together and recreate conditions that only existed naturally in the first seconds after the Big Bang. At the moment of impact, the Compact Muon Solenoid apparatus, the machine UCSB employees have labored countless hours over, should detect and analyze the collision.
On Sept. 10, after a decade and a half of work, UCSB researchers watched as the first phase of the CMS project was completed and became a part of scientific history.
UC in Geneva
According to Vice Chancellor of Research Michael Witherell, the UCSB participants involved in the project have played crucial roles in constructing, finalizing, and now operating the CMS. Witherell said these researchers will continue to be top players as the CMS begins to generate enormous quantities of scientific data.
“UCSB efforts are responsible for the construction of a full one-third of the whole CMS tracking system,” Witherell said. “What is even more interesting is the person in Geneva who is second in command of the whole CMS project, is our very own UCSB physicist Joseph Incandela.”
Witherell said the key to the Large Hadron Collider’s success, in layman’s terms, is the extreme amount of energy it uses to smash particles.
“The goal of particle physics is to understand the basic nature of matter, space and time,” Witherell said. “The highest energy collider in the world up to this point operates at two Tera-electron-volts; but this new one we have built far eclipses the old, because it operates at 14 TeV’s, which is an incredible difference. At this higher energy, certain things become clearer, so the next questions we have can be answered by this new machine operating at higher energy.”
Professor Incandela, a UCSB physicist currently stationed on site in Geneva, said the LHC, coupled with the Compact Muon Solenoid project, shows promise to produce results never-before seen by anyone in the world. However, Incandela said, because this machine is so innovative and evolutionary, it is difficult to deal with unforeseen problems that may arise. Nevertheless, Incandela reports, the CMS experiment is progressing successfully.
“It’s simply amazing to see this thing turn on,” Incandela said. “This is a machine that no one has ever attempted before, so there are problems that no one has even had to try to solve before. It’s such a complicated device, and it’s pushing the technology so hard, that there have been a few slight problems. They had a transformer go out recently, and there are some issues here and there, but overall the machine is really solid. There was never a doubt in my mind that it would eventually work, but even so, it has far exceeded my expectations.”
Physicists without Borders
In addition to revolutionary scientific accomplishments, Incandela said that with 37 countries officially represented in the CMS experiment, the international cooperation necessary to complete the construction of the apparatus is another remarkable feat.
“In terms of internationality, I don’t know if there is anything that has ever been done like this,” Incandela said. “Perhaps you could compare it to the building of the Hubble Telescope because it is of the same order of complexity, but its definitely one of the biggest international scientific achievements ever made. … You could say that this project really proves the point that people are people, no matter what they look like, how they were raised or where they come from.”
According to Incandela, the near future has the possibility of yielding extraordinary results, as the researchers and scientists in Geneva begin to test more extreme situations.
“It’s really, really remarkable that we can pull this off — we haven’t collided beams yet, but that’s only a little ways off, and this will give us the opportunity to find new particles we only suspect exist, but don’t yet have solid proof for. We are hoping that we can find some evidence for the particles that are related to, or are, dark matter themselves,” Incandela said. “I suspect that in the next two to three years, possibly even four or five, we will see some incredible results.”