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Aug 8 / Claude Pruneau

7 Tev, A New World Record – CERN, Geneva, Switzerland

On March 30, the largest particle accelerator ever built, LHC (Large Hadron Collider), achieved record-collision energies when the combined energy of two proton beams reached 7 Tev (tera electron volts). This is only “half” our targeted energy and the goal is to eventually reach the LHC’s design energy of 14 Tev! The current plan is to use 7 Tev another year after which time the LHC will be shutdown for maintenance and upgrades. Operations will resume later next year with proton collisions, and possibly, lead-ion collisions.

The LHC was, in large part, built and designed to achieve one thing: establish the existence of a particle named the Higgs boson. Theory predicts the Higgs boson, and discovery of the Higgs, may help to explain the rise of mass in the universe. The LHC will also permit, with the acceleration of heavy nuclear beams of lead, the study of primordial matter, i.e. matter that existed for a period of one micro-second immediately after the Big Bang.

The LHC is the premier accelerator in the world. The level of complexity of its design is unprecedented. Perhaps no single project, including the Apollo missions that brought men on the Moon, have had the technological scope of the LHC. In short, the LHC is a technological wonder. Having our Wayne State faculty and students participate in this endeavor brings great prestige to our University and plenty of opportunities for our students to get advanced degrees in Science.

At Wayne State, there are two groups involved in research at the LHC:

The first group to join the LHC is the heavy ion physics (nuclear physics) group composed of Professors Rene Bellwied, Thomas Cormier, Sergei Voloshin, and myself. We have three post-doctoral researchers involved in this effort: Drs. Bourisov, Pavlinov, and Timmins as well as several graduate students. Our goal is to study the matter produced in lead-on-lead nuclear collisions at an energy of 5.5 TeV per nucleon.(This is expected to happen in 2011). These collisions are so violent that they produce nuggets of matter with temperatures reaching one trillion (i.e. a million million) degrees. That is about one million times the temperature in the Sun’s core. At such tremendous temperatures, matter as we know it, essentially dissolves into its elementary constituents called quarks and gluons. Quarks and gluons are the stuff that permeated the Universe right after the Big Bang for a duration of about one micro-second. The goal of our research is to study the properties of this matter, such as the density and temperature achieved, the matter’s equation of state, its viscosity, and many other fundamental properties. Our group joined the ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) collaboration over six years ago for this single purpose. Our contribution to the ALICEexperiment amounts to the construction of a large detector called EMCal in the basement of the Physics building. EMCal is an electromagnetic calorimeter designed to make precise measurements of the energy of particles produced in nuclear collisions. The ALICE experiment will provide wonderful opportunities for our students and post-doctoral researchers to become specialists in advanced detector and accelerator technologies, sophisticated data analysis techniques, as well as discover new physics.

The second group to join the LHC from our Department is the group of Professors Robert Harr, Paul Karchin, Mark Mattson, and Caroline Milstene. They also have postdocs and graduate students involved in their research. This group is involved in the experiment called CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid experiment). The primary goal of the CMS collaboration, i.e. the reason they designed and built this truly gigantic detector, is to search for the Higgs boson I mentioned above. The Higgs boson is required in the framework of the so called Standard Model of Particle Physics to explain why all particles, and consequently, everything around us – including ourselves – have mass. In the context of the standard model, essentially all known properties of matter and the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear forces) can be described and understood. The standard model is, in fact, extremely successful and permits predictions with astounding precision. But unfortunately, it is incomplete. Indeed, the standard model alone cannot explain why particles (e.g. electrons, protons, neutrons – the stuff we are made of) have a non-zero mass. Sound weird? Well, perhaps it is. However, a physicist by the name of Peter Higgs (in truth, there were a few others involved) discovered that a certain theoretical construction could explain mass. This theoreticalconstruction is called Higgs mechanism. It requires the existence of a new particle which physicists have now taken to call the Higgs boson. Discovering this new particle is one of the most important goals of the CMS experiment. CMS also has many other goals such as the search for particles predicted in the context of other theories, including particles of dark matter – the stuff that makes up 25% of matter in our Universe, but as of yet, nobody knows what it is. As for the ALICE experiment, Wayne State students involved in the CMS experiment will get to learn about new technologies, new physics, and hopefully discover the Higgs boson or the nature of Dark Matter.

While the physics studied at the LHC will not have immediate consequences in our daily lives, it will provide for new insight into the fundamental understanding of matter, fundamental forces, and in fact, the whole universe. March 30th was an important step toward accomplishing the goals and dreams of the LHC and more is yet to come!!!!

Who would have guessed, that the discovery of radioactivity and the element Polonium by Marie Curie at the end of the 19th century, would lead to nuclear power, nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (used every day to diagnose illnesses and save lives), and many other applications that enrich and better our lives. And today we can only speculate what futureresearch at the LHC will bring to mankind over the next 10, 20 or 50 years. Surely the past does not warrant the future, but I believe we can expect great things to come out of this research. At the very least, the LHC will bring a new understanding of the fundamental properties of our Universe, the stuff from which all matter emerged 13.7 billion years (+ or – 1%, as measured by the WMAP experiment) ago and evolved to create solar systems, planets, life and consciousness. Surely, that’s worth a great deal!!!