Man’s most complex machine to answer questions of the universe
by BETH ALTENA
Several years ago, the world media was filled with worries that Earth’s first particle collider would create a black hole and suck in the planet with everyone and everything on it. Last week, the Large Hadron Collider’s (LHC) first successful proton collision took place and Rockford graduate Burt DeWilde was there to see it happen. In fact, he is helping make it happen.
“We hope to fill the gaps in our current understanding and answer some of the ‘big’ questions, including: What is the origin of mass? Why is the universe made of matter and not anti-matter? What were conditions like in the first moments after the Big Bang,” DeWilde said of the experiments.
DeWilde said the machine is located 100 meters underground, in part because of concerns of radiation.
“The Earth’s crust acts as an excellent radiation shield, protecting everyone from the results of those powerful collisions,” he said. “Just in case, my renters insurance covers technological catastrophe. No worries here.”
In fact, the machine is safe. DeWilde said the worries caused by news coverage led scientists to study the situation and come to the conclusion that the LHC poses no danger to the Earth.
“For billions of years nature has been bombarding the atmosphere with high-energy particles called cosmic rays that have resulted in about as many collisions as a million LHC experiments,” DeWilde stated. “The fact that we are still here today is a very good reason—among others—to believe we’ll survive LHC as well.”
DeWilde is in Switzerland as a research assistant and PhD candidate. He works for CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research and is pursuing his thesis where the most breaking physics science is taking place. Specifically DeWilde works on a particle detector called ATLAS, which is the size of half the Notre Dame Cathedral and weighs as much as the Eiffel Tower.
“My research so far is focused on developing new and improved silicon sensors used to detect and track charged particles passing through the innermost layers of the detector,” De Wilde explained.
He said the machines are so complex scientists have to work on upgrades years in advance, before the machines are even operational.
He is also in the first stages of finding evidence of new, never-before-seen particles called leptoquarks. “Eventually I’ll be producing plots with which I can compare theoretical predictions with experimental reality—that’s the fun part of the job.”
A good education at Rockford Public Schools helped form DeWilde’s interest in science. “Teachers like Star Williams and Fred Reusch challenged and motivated me to succeed,” he said. He added that an amazing group of friends, “the family,” also offered strong support.
From Rockford, DeWilde went on to Kalamazoo College where he graduated summa cum laude in June 2007. He continued to Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York, where he has three years to go before earning his PhD.
DeWilde said he was drawn to physics by a desire to figure out where we came from and why things are the way they are. “I think it’s incredible that we can know anything about objects that are millions of times smaller than an atom, but here we are studying their properties and interactions to high precision. What’s more, we know that quantum fluxuations of such particles in the primordial universe eventually gave rise to the large scale structure of clusters and galaxies that we observe today. It really puts things into context.”
The particle collider works by accelerating two beams of subatomic particles called haldrons up to 99.9999 percent the speed of light. At specific locations around the LHC’s 17-mile rim, the particles are made to collide at high energies.
“The result is an explosion of new particles created by the conversion of energy into mass—ala Einstein’s famous E=mc2,” DeWilde explained. “Huge particle detectors measure properties of the new particles as well as their interaction. By studying billions of collisions, we are able to come up with a detailed description of the subatomic world.”
DeWilde said the project is a testament to global cooperation, and at any time there are several thousand high-energy physicists, engineers and technicians. “We come from all over the world to unlock the secrets of the universe and drink lots of coffee.”
It is not clear how the studies going on in particle collision may impact the daily lives of ordinary people, but DeWilde said they likely will. “Many benefits come in the form of spin-off technologies. Advanced medical imaging and cancer therapies, better processes for sterilizing food and scanning cargo ship containers, and the Internet have all come directly from particle physics research. Also, the cutting-edge tools required by and developed for particle physicists inevitably spread out into other fields of science, benefiting research in these fields, and in turn, the average person.”
“The LHC is the largest machine in the world,” DeWilde stated. “By some estimates, it is the most complicated thing ever built by humans. To hand the enormous amount of data—hundreds of MBs per second—physicists have linked together tens of thousands of computers around the world into the most powerful supercomputer in the world. We call it The Grid.”
Get involved in research opportunities and internships earlier rather than later, DeWilde advised others with interest in his field. He said now is a great time to study particle physics. “A word to the wise: study math until you no longer understand it. This will help you out so much later in your studies.” He also said to learn computer code, because students of particle physics will spend a lot of time with it.
Those interested in finding out more about the project can visit www.cern.ch or www.atlas.ch, and watch for more stories. “Big news is on the way!” DeWilde teased.