Fairfield Now - Winter 2008
The Biggest Science Project in the World
Fairfield Professor David Winn's research is an essential part of the Large Hadron Particle Collider Experiment in Switzerland
By Nina M. Riccio
The ATLAS detector contains a
series of ever-larger concentric
cylinders surrounding the point
where proton beams will collide.
You just can't talk about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) without using a host of superlatives: it's the biggest and most complex scientific instrument ever created, with enough electric cable to wrap around the earth seven times.
It's the world's largest particle accelerator, a 17-mile circular racetrack for protons that straddles the border between Switzerland and France.
When activated, it's the coldest place on Earth (or in space, for that matter), with a temperature hovering around absolute zero, the lowest temperature possible. The collider and the CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) laboratory that built it is so space-age, in fact, that it's appeared in several works of fiction, where it is often presented as populated by mad scientists intent on destroying the human race.
The reality, of course, is far less colorful, but no less space age. In these labs, 8,000 physicists from some 85 countries have collaborated for 14 years to create the mother of all science experiments - smashing the atom in order to study what might have happened in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, that cataclysmic atom-smashing event that brought us the universe so many millions of years ago.
There have been 1,600 scientists from the U.S. working on the LHC, and Fairfield is proud to claim one of that number as its own.
The main control room as it appeared on the September 10 test date.
Dr. David Winn, chair of the Physics Department, has done work in high-energy physics since graduate school and contributed to the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas before that project was cancelled in 1993. The cancellation was a tremendous disappointment, but Dr. Winn was ultimately able to transfer the research he had been doing to the CERN collider. His prototype design for a quartz fiber calorimeter, designed to measure the angles and energies of the particles emerging from the collisions of the counter-rotating beams of protons, was chosen for the international collider in Switzerland over several others submitted.
The Globe of Innovation, now part of the CERN complex, is a wooden dome originally built for Switzerland's Expo'02.
The calorimeter that Dr. Winn developed with input from Fairfield University students and other scientists consists of thousands of optic fibers inserted into copper plates. When the protons whirling around the accelerator collide, the energy they create is absorbed and light is generated within the fibers. Scientists are then able to measure the energy created by the experiment using Dr. Winn's invention, since the light is proportional to the amount of energy created.
Physics Department Chair,
Dr. David Winn
The construction of the CERN collider began in 1996, and after years of digging the world's biggest, roundest tunnel in the ground, it was ready this September 10 for its first trial run. The test: to find out whether or not beams of subatomic particles - called hadrons - could be successfully injected into the tunnel and to test the strength of the frigid, proton-guiding magnets inside. (If a magnet were to fail the proton beams could go off course and possibly burn a hole through the collider itself.)
However, a couple of weeks later, scientists were disappointed to discover a helium leak that effectively pushes subsequent experiments back to the early part of 2009. And it's these subsequent experiments that really have the science world abuzz. Once the collider is up and running again, scientists will send beams of protons whizzing in opposite directions around the tunnel at speeds just short of the speed of light. The goal: to have the protons collide a half a billion times, creating so much energy that new particles are actually, if momentarily, created.
"That's when the work really begins," Dr. Winn explained. "We look for patterns of data to determine how the particles are made and why they behave as they do. We hope the Higgs boson particle (the hypothetical particle that is thought to give others mass) is produced, along with dark matter, mini black holes, and extra dimensions. I expect that we'll gather approximately 200 million megabytes of information a second. It's a study of the forces of nature, its very smallest structures."
As for the often-quoted fear that these whirling protons can create a black hole (a gravitational field) that could actually suck in the Earth, Dr. Winn and the rest of the physicists at CERN scoff. While it's true that scientists want to create black holes, and then study them, there is no way they would have the mass or gravitational power to suck in a pebble, never mind a planet. "Any black holes created will disappear in a fraction of a second," said Dr. Winn. "And while black holes have never before been created in a laboratory setting, the collisions we are recreating occur in the atmosphere a billion times a year. It's just that we can't study them, because they occur in random places and at random times."
A look inside the Compact Muon Solenoid, one of the LHC's four detectors and the one on which Dr. Winn worked.
No doubt many of Dr. Winn's students will be following the news from CERN with great interest - over the years, 23 of them, members of the Fairfield High Energy group, have collaborated on building and testing the calorimeter prototype.
Inside the Compact Muon Solenoid.
"They did much more than simply act as technicians," said Dr. Winn. "They did engineering, tested and analyzed data, and helped build the prototype in the machine shop."
The major work for Dr. Winn's prototype was built in the early 1990s, and when his design was chosen, he and the students from Fairfield who had worked on it in the Rudolph F. Bannow Science Center on campus and at other labs were "super-elated", recalled Christopher Sanzeni '95, one of Dr. Winn's team. "We had worked side by side with other teams at Brookhaven (Laboratory in New York), and they were going in different directions with their designs. But it was a competition, and of course we wanted our design chosen."
"In so many ways, our experience working on the calorimeter design was far broader than it would have been at a large, research-rich institution, where graduate students would have been doing all the major work," agreed Dr. Kenneth Segall '93, now a physics professor at Colgate University. "Dr. Winn had a lot of different projects going on at the time, and he put the onus on us to make things happen. We were put in charge rather than being delegated responsibilities. And we really benefited."
A three-dimensional depiction of one of the detectors; Dr. Winn's calorimeter is at the extreme right. That piece alone was the result of a collaboration of four U.S. institutes, including Fairfield, and physicists from Hungary, Turkey, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan.
The practical applications for all this lofty science are still to be determined, but that doesn't bother Dr. Winn, who added: "Almost all invention has come from the fruits of experimentation."
The cryo-magnet inside the LHC tunnel. It's essential for each magnet to be precisely placed, or the proton beams will veer off course.
As an example, he cites the MRI machines used in hospitals around the world; they are "direct copies" of machines created years ago for particle accelerator technology. The Internet was created by CERN in the 1980s as a way for scientists from all corners of the world to communicate as they collaborated, Dr. Winn continued.
The outer barrel of the Compact Muon Solenoid, which will explore the energy region where physicists believe they will find answers to questions at the heart of particle physics.
Recently, having recognized that thousands of scientists from all corners of the world would need to collaborate on 15 petabytes (that's 15 million gigabytes) of data annually, CERN set to work years ago to create the Grid - a dedicated data storage and analysis infrastructure. It's likely that this infrastructure will someday have applications in other areas of computer networking as well.
It's obvious that Dr. Winn has passed his passion for his work on to his former students, who are eagerly following the updates from Switzerland.
"I know some of these people in high energy physics, and I can feel their excitement," says Dr. Segall. "So often, Congress and various administrations won't fund research unless there is a tangible goal, but that's not how science works. In the Cold War era, we basically funded scientists to stay in the lab and do their thing, and the result was fiber optics, lasers, MRIs, the transistors that led to computers, and on and on. We don't do that anymore, and the world of high-energy physics has suffered because of it."
The particle collider, Dr. Segall continued, is now the biggest public physics research going. "The excitement it has generated has really raised the profile of the science again."
Fairfield's New Sciences Institute
Hoping to encourage more hands-on research like that conducted by Dr. Winn and his students over the years, the University has recently created The Sciences Institute, an endowed program in the College of Arts and Sciences that supports innovative teaching, curriculum development, research, and lectures in the sciences. One purpose of the endowment is to give grants to support faculty-student research, including stipends for students and faculty for summer research collaborations and seed grants for new research. The Sciences Institute will also fund programs that cultivate the appreciation for science in the University and the community at large.
"This endowment will be an important part of our emphasis on faculty-student research in the sciences," said Dr. Orin Grossman, academic vice president. "I want to thank Interim Dean Ray Poincelot who was the driving force in establishing this new initiative."
The Institute begins with a $250,000 endowment, expected to grow over time. The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Robbin Crabtree, in consultation with a rotating faculty advisory committee, will review of applications and disperse funds beginning in spring 2009.