By Najib Aminy and William Dunn

 

Three-thousand eight-hundred and sixteen miles east of Stony Brook University, just outside Geneva, Switzerland, CERN scientists are accelerating atoms at 99.9995% the speed of light through the Large Hadron Collider in what is the largest and most expensive scientific project ever to take place in human history. Thirteen miles east of Stony Brook University, Brookhaven scientists are working on a precursor model of the LHC, called the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. In both projects, Stony Brook has contributed significantly with numerous personnel working at each location.

Part of the 2.4 mile-circumference wide tunnel of RHIC at Brookhaven

Part of the 2.4 mile-circumference wide tunnel of RHIC at Brookhaven

Within a particle accelerator such as LHC and RHIC, two beams of particles are accelerated to velocities approaching the speed of light. Upon reaching these speeds, the two beams will collide resulting in a small-scale Big Bang phenomenon. As Brookhaven Scientist and part-time Stony Brook Physics professor Todd Satogata said, “the energy generated through a particle collision is comparable to the collision of two mosquitoes.” However, the relative energy density—the amount of energy in a given space—for a particle collision is exponentially greater than two mosquitoes colliding due to the massive amounts of energy in such a small area.

Within each project, different experiments are run to analyze all aspects of particle collisions. These experiments will allow scientists to understand “what the world is made out of,” as ATLAS Operations Deputy Manager Howard Gordon said. Stony Brook is most involved with the ATLAS experiment, a detector responsible for tracking particles resulting from collisions, in the LHC. ATLAS’ design was based primarily on Brookhaven’s own STAR project at the RHIC, which serves a similar purpose. In participating in both RHIC and the LHC, Stony Brook has joined the collaborative world effort in answering some of the most fundamental questions posed to the Standard Physics Model.

This model could be proven true or flawed with the detection of the Higgs Boson. If detected, the model will prove true; if absent, scientists will be forced to readjust the accepted understanding of physics. Also called the GOD particle, the Higgs Boson is believed to be responsible for allocating mass to an atom due to the properties of the strong force. Stony Brook’s own Physic’s staff member, Dmitri Tysbychev, who is currently working at CERN, said, “if the Higgs Boson is present, the LHC will pick it up.”The LHC is the first particle accelerator capable of detecting the Higgs Boson due to its sheer size and its ability to produce velocities closer to the speed of light then ever before. “We will be able to detect whether Higgs exists or not because of the luminosity and the high momentum quark collisions taking place,” said ATLAS Operations Deputy Program Manager Howard Gordon of Brookhaven National Labs. Luminosity is the number of collisions, which is increased due to a larger ring size at CERN than compared to smaller accelerators.

If the Higgs particle was to be detected, it would be either at ATLAS or a similar experiment, called CMS, that track particles after collision. ATLAS and CMS serve to record and track the result of particle collisions. Brookhaven scientist Gene van Buren explained the purpose of ATLAS as “lighting a firecracker and putting the firecracker back together.” By analyzing the pieces of the fire cracker immediately after the explosion properties about the whole firecracker can be determined, added van Buren. Both Stony Brook and Brookhaven play a large role in the ATLAS experiment such as data acquisition and upgrading research and development. Currently, Tysbychev and other Stony Brook staff members are working on conditioning and calibrating detectors in ensuring that they operate smoothly.

A large part of ATLAS’ design and function was due in part to Brookhaven’s STAR experiment at the RHIC. The concept, simple in theory, though highly complex in practice is designed to record a digital photograph of particles immediately after collisions. According to van Buren, the STAR takes a thousand photos per second, tracking post-collision particle trajectories. The ATLAS and CMS detector serve the same function; only the ATLAS and CMS are more advanced, bigger and capable of recording faster collisions.

Critics of the LHC have sparked controversy citing the possibility of creating black holes that could destroy the world. When asked about black holes, Gordon confirmed that the LHC will be accelerating particles fast enough to create black holes. But Gordon cited Cambridge professor Steven Hawkins’ theory on black holes, stating that a black hole needs excessive amounts of energy to sustain itself. In addition, the mass of the colliding atoms would be so small that the hole would only exist for a few moments and disappear within a fraction of a second. Should a black hole form, it would be “conjectured to produce spectacular signatures and would not be confused with standard interactions,” said Gordon.

The STAR detector at Brookhaven. The construction of the ATLAS at LHC was heavily based on this model.

The STAR detector at Brookhaven. The construction of the ATLAS at LHC was heavily based on this model.

The LHC fired up in early September but due to a leak in the helium pipes, the collider will be inactive while repairs are being made. The LHC is to start up again in early spring during the same time in which RHIC will be reactivated. This delay has increased anticipation for the results of LHC and the possible answers to the fundamental questions of the Standard Physics Model, and more exciting, to the new questions that may be posed. As Van Buren said, what goes on in both RHIC and the LHC “is important because it helps scientists understand the Universe. This understanding can be put to [more practical] use down the road.”

Only thirteen miles away, scientists are engaged in this cutting edge research in hopes of making the unknown known. Stony Brook, in conjunction with Brookhaven, have established their roles in the scientific world with its involvement in such groundbreaking research and look to pave the way to the evolution of physics. As Satogata said, “it is important for locals to know what is in their backyard such as this world class facility.”