MSU contributions make CERN spin
EAST LANSING, Mich. – When the world’s most powerful particle accelerator kicked into high gear today, a number of Michigan State University students and faculty were on hand to watch scientific history being made.
Meanwhile, an equal number of faculty and alumni were also paying close attention, knowing they had played a role – or will play a future role – in the success of this project.
Known as the Large Hadron Collider, the accelerator is located within the European Centre for Nuclear Research, or CERN, as it is known by its French acronym. CERN is located along the border between Switzerland and France, on the outskirts of Geneva.
Scientists predict the accelerator’s very-high-energy proton collisions will yield extraordinary discoveries about the nature of the physical universe.
“We have a variety of questions we’d like to undertake,” said Raymond Brock, an MSU professor of physics and astronomy who has spent much of his time the past several years working on the accelerator. “They all pretty much boil down to understanding the earliest bits of time in the universe.”
For more than 15 years, MSU has been working on the design and construction of what’s known as the ATLAS project, which is a massive detector located in CERN that will collect and measure the subatomic debris that results from the collisions of the protons.
Specifically, MSU has constructed a significant portion of the 2,000-ton “Tilecal” hadron calorimeter, consisting of detectors within the ATLAS experiment designed to measure the energies of the particles produced in these high-energy collisions.
The Tilecal modules, each weighing “only” nine tons, were instrumented and tested at MSU between 1999 and 2003 before being shipped to CERN for installation in the experiment. The effort involved a large number of MSU undergraduates, in addition to MSU physicists and technical personnel. MSU physicists and technicians then spent considerable time at CERN during the past five years for the installation and commissioning of these detectors.
“This is the dream of every physicist,” said MSU professor Joey Huston, who was involved in the construction of the detectors, “to be present when a new energy regime opens up, potentially offering answers to some of the most important scientific questions of our time.”
In addition, MSU will be one of a number of sites around the country that will be charged with analyzing the mountains of data that will flow from the accelerator.
“The data that will come from these experiments are so enormous – like a fire hose of data – that no single site on earth can do the necessary calculations,” Brock said.
By the time the accelerator is up to full speed, Brock said, the computer lab located in MSU’s Biomedical and Physical Sciences Building will be bulging with more than 1,500 computers, running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In all, over the past 15 years, as many as 50 MSU faculty, post-doctoral fellows and graduate and undergraduate students have spent time at CERN.
“For us,” said Brock, “the primary purpose is to learn something.”
“This is unknown territory,” Huston added. “We’re expecting the answers to some of our most pressing scientific questions, but we’re also hoping and expecting to be surprised by something completely new.”
Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.