Red Bulletin Magazine International

Red Bulletin: To Boldly Keep Going

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The Big Bang, antimatter, the God particle: the work of 10,000 physicists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research near Geneva, is a global topic of conversation. But just what do those guys do all day?

For starters: a crash course in particle physics
The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) operates the world’s most powerful particle accelerator 100m below ground on the Swiss-French border. In the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), protons or lead ions, depending on operating mode, are fired at one other in a ring-shaped tunnel at close to the speed of light. This creates new particles, which are analysed by four enormous detectors, known as CMS, ATLAS, ALICE and LHCb. The LHC physicists’ chief goal is to look for the Higgs boson, more commonly known as the God particle, which, in theory, gives mass to all matter in the universe – to the planets, to humans, to the magazine you now hold in your hands.

Joe Incandela  (USA)
Came to physics from fine arts, and became spokesperson for the research team at the CMS detector in 2012.

How do you catch the God particle?
“We don’t actually use the term ‘God particle’ here at CERN. We physicists prefer to say Higgs boson, even if it sounds less exciting. The Higgs is the only elementary particle that has never been detected in experiments. It is the last missing building block in the Standard Model of physics. To put it simply, we want to come up with it by making protons collide. We might discover something fundamental and timeless from it. The Higgs gives mass, so everyone here wants to know what it’s “made of”. These are philosophical questions, too. Particle physics is contributing to our culture, and I feel a responsibility as the spokesperson for CMS. The detector is a sort of digital camera consisting of almost a million measuring channels, which all need to work when it comes to the crunch. The CERN spirit helps, because particle physicists tend to work together as equals. There are 3,000 scientists working on the CMS detector, but they all have a say. When my period as spokesperson comes to an end, I’ll be a regular scientist again, just like them.”

Fabiola Gianotti  (Italy)
Studied music (piano) before a career in physics, and has been the ATLAS experiment spokeswoman since 2008.

What do we know about the universe?
“Research has shown that about 25 per cent of our universe is made up of so-called dark matter – matter which we cannot yet define, as it consists of neither molecules nor atoms. The ATLAS detector is looking for these particles in addition to the Higgs boson. I think 2012 is going to be quite a year in research terms. We now know the approximate mass range where the Higgs is, and want to attack it in the months to come, so that by December we can say we have solved one of the greatest questions in physics. In the next few years we’ll also be doubling the particle beam’s energy, so that we can produce yet more heavy particles and gather yet more data. I became a physicist because there’s always a problem to solve or a mystery to grapple with. Physics is a science that provides answers. Within the ATLAS experiment, there are physicists from Israel working with colleagues from Muslim countries and scientists from mainland China working with colleagues from Taiwan. It works because they are all motivated by the same scientific questions. At CERN, the person who has the best idea wins, regardless of whether he or she is a famous researcher or a student.”

Read the full story in May's issue of The Red Bulletin.

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