Physics reaches milestone

Photo Courtesy of CERN / McClatchy Tribune

Fresno State helped make history over the summer as five physics students traveled to Geneva, Switzerland to participate in the landmark ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) project.

ATLAS is one of six proton detectors in the $10 billion LHC (Large Hadron Collider) in Geneva, Switzerland. The project is a collaborative effort of 37 countries and more than 165 universities to simulate the conditions that many scientists believe were responsible for the creation of matter.

The students from Fresno State spent six weeks in Geneva at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. During their stay, they learned the fundamentals of the operation and contributed to the volumes of data that are used in the experiment on a daily basis.

During his time at CERN, physics and math major Lawrence Carlson created an interface that allowed scientists to monitor environmental variables at the project’s core, where the most crucial reactions take place. What continued to amaze him, in now his second visit to the complex, was how little national boundaries counted in matters of science.

“You learn very quickly that scientists and people in general can work together,” said Carlson, referring to the 2,000 plus physicists working on ATLAS. “It can be done, … you cheer for other people’s successes. It would be nice to see this type of teamwork in other fields.”

Photo illustration / McClatchy Tribune

Yongsheng Gao, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics at Fresno State, made it possible for the university to be represented at CERN alongside such schools as Harvard, Yale and UC Berkeley.

After having done work of his own at CERN a year before, Gao was hired on at Fresno State in 2002 with the specific goal of getting Fresno State involved with the project.

“It takes about $10,000 every year, so we were very lucky we got approval,” Gao said. Aside from the annual membership fee, he estimated at least $1500 per student for travel and amenities to attend. He is currently preparing to submit next year’s proposal.

Another associate professor of physics, Raymond Hall, Ph.D., has worked very closely with Gao on the program. Aside from offering his expertise on the subject and helping students write class proposals, he is also familiar with LHC’s older, yet smaller counterpart Fermilab, which is based near Chicago. It was at this complex that the idea of particle collision was first conceived.

“Fermilab is trying very hard to discover something before LHC, so there’s a bit of a rivalry going on,” Hall said. “But that experiment is kind of winding down.”

The entire LHC particle accelerator project was envisioned in 1992 to improve upon earlier particle accelerators. It is essentially a massive science experiment in which proton beams are directed by 17,900 magnets through a circular tunnel 100 meters underground and 27 kilometers in circumference.

The protons reach immense speeds as they travel and eventually collide with opposing beams to release energy and create new particles, some of which have never been recorded.

Releasing its first proton streams on Sept. 10, ATLAS and the five other detectors will continue to monitor particle behavior for quarks, photons and even black holes.

Unlike the large, destructive black holes most of us are familiar with in science fiction, Gao said that “a micro black hole is very different,” has “energy less than a mosquito” and are so unstable that they collapse as soon as they are formed.

The second beam was scheduled for release yesterday, but a helium leak in the tunnel forced a delay that is projected to last the next few months. According to an article on BBC News’ Web site, the accident occurred after a final test of the electrical circuits when 100 of the super-cooled magnets inside the tunnel heated beyond capacity.

CERN spokesman James Gillies said that the damaged section must be warmed up to 273 degrees Celsius before the system can be repaired. There is also a danger of helium vaporizing and circulating through the air, but so far no LHC personnel have been exposed to harm.

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