The quest to resolve some of physics’ most fundamental doubts took three students in June to CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, the home of the world’s largest proton smasher. They didn’t go just for a tour, but for 20 days of work toward improving a vital particle physics experiment called the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS).
The high-energy, high-priced project – one of two large detectors at CERN where beams of protons collide at nearly light speed – has already added to our understanding of how the universe is made. Numerous research institutions are now behind a push to upgrade the experiment, positioning it to yield answers to questions that have stumped and divided physicists for half a century.
Cal Lutheran physics majors Johann Dias, Hend Kordy and William Parquette have a role in this effort through a collaboration by assistant professor of physics Sebastian Carron Montero with UC Santa Barbara’s High Energy Physics Group, which has funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. His immediate goal within this group is to upgrade one section of the onion-layered CMS by replacing its light-sensitive components with a series of silicon-based detectors to enable more precise particle energy measurements.
“The way you get to these big goals is you chip away little by little. So, we prove the detector; we prove the data analysis,” said Carron Montero over a video link from Switzerland. “What I’m excited about is to have the undergraduate students be a part of that big, big goal.”
Ultimately, the experiment has the potential to settle such questions as which elementary particles make up dark matter, which is thought to account for most of the matter in the universe, and how the four known forces in the universe may be related.
The students prepared for their trip by taking Carron Montero’s courses on quantum mechanics and particle physics and accompanying him to a clean room at UCSB to work on detector prototypes. Parquette, a senior, got a head start, and Kordy, a junior with a double major in computer science, spent a lot of time with the prototypes due to her short commute to UCSB from Goleta.
Thrust among world-renowned scientists and advanced students, the physics majors have learned to appreciate what it takes to compete at the highest, most creative levels of a field. In addition, Dias, a junior, has developed a sense of awe of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which is one of the temples of big science.
“It’s no wonder this has to be publicly funded,” wrote Dias in an email. “CERN is one of the largest facilities I have ever seen…. To give you an idea, one of their ‘smaller’ facilities, where we ran beam tests a couple weeks ago, could easily fit four entire Costcos inside of its space. It had a huge crane lifting car-sized cement blocks around. It’s absolutely jaw-dropping.”
The students stayed in subsidized housing at CERN and attended CMS Week, a workshop covering all aspectsof the experiment. Their work was supported by the Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship and made possible by the collaborative spirit of UCSB physicist Joseph Incandela and his group.
Carron Montero visits Geneva two or three times a year to contribute to the international undertaking. From Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, he had worked on silicon-based detector projects and data analysis methods that played a role in the landmark 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson, an elementary particle that was theorized in the 1970s.
In California, he started assembling High Granularity Calorimeter prototypes in his garage before he and Cal Lutheran undergraduates helped to manufacture several of them at UCSB. Junior Johanna Paine assisted with these efforts.
“I tell my students that it really does not matter where they come from or even how many resources they have at their disposal,” writes Carron Montero, who was born in Asuncion, Paraguay. “They can still aspire to ask the most fundamental questions in science. If they really work hard they can be at the cutting edge of physics, or any other field. They are bounded only by their own ambition.” —Kevin Matthews