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Another Big Bang

Particle collision advances could help explain origins of universe

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March 31, 2010 | by Megan Fellman
Video produced by Matt Paolelli

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University physicists celebrated with the world Tuesday (March 30) when sub-atomic particles moving near the speed of light collided at unprecedented energies at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland.

An intense search for insights into the beginning of the universe has begun. And Northwestern scientists are playing a significant role in a world-wide particle physics research program that will go on for decades. 

Tuesday was a very happy day for us,” said Michael Schmitt, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “The Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment recorded the first proton-proton collisions at an energy of seven trillion electron volts -- a factor of 3.5 higher than the Tevatron at Fermilab.”

Schmitt and Mayda M. Velasco, associate professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern, co-lead Northwestern’s high-energy research group. Both have leadership roles at CMS, the general-purpose particle physics detector Northwestern is using. Each oversees a sub-detector; Schmitt works with the endcap muon system, and Velasco, who was in Geneva for Tuesday’s collisions, focuses on the hadronic calorimeter.

The hunt for dark matter, new forces, new dimensions and the elusive Higgs boson requires significant muscle. The underground ring of the Large Hadron Collider in the Swiss-French countryside is so large -- 16 miles around -- it could easily encircle the city of Chicago, Schmitt says. The Compact Muon Solenoid site is roughly three stories tall.

Northwestern scientists, including Professor Emeritus Bruno Gobbi, have been involved since 1995 helping to design and build the CMS detector. Now Schmitt, Velasco and their group will help operate the detector and analyze the collision data that will be collected in the coming years.

Schmitt and Velasco have set up a remote operations center in the Technological Institute that enables their group to interact in real time with colleagues in Geneva. Using powerful computers at the University and Fermilab, the Northwestern researchers can analyze the data promptly and send reports back to the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN).

The Northwestern team collaborates with scientists from 23 countries representing dozens of institutions at CMS. “We are a group of international scientists leading an organized and coordinated effort to investigate many different aspects of particle physics,” Schmitt said. “We expect to make some important discoveries in the next few years.”

Close to 8,000 scientists are involved at the Large Hadron Collider, which was built by CERN, with nearly 3,000 of the scientists associated with the CMS detector.