The buzz over the big machine
A remarkable machine—the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)—will soon come to life in a 27-km tunnel located deep beneath the Jura mountains outside of Geneva, Switzerland. Sometime in late summer or early fall of this year, the first beam of protons will begin circulating in the largest particle accelerator ever built by the international high-energy physics community. Its completion and initial commissioning constitute the culmination of a decade-long, $4 billion (current-dollar cost) project, funded by more than 30 countries, at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), headquartered in Geneva.
For more than a century, physicists have used directed beams of subatomic particles to explore the fundamental constituents of the physical world. Indeed, the notion of particles smaller than atoms was confirmed by J. J. Thomson, who discovered the electron in 1897 in his Cambridge University laboratory. Thomson produced a primitive beam of electrons in a glass tube no bigger than the first television receiver tubes. Several years later Ernest Rutherford discovered the atomic nucleus in the same laboratory. Rutherford measured the deflection through a gold foil of a beam of alpha particles (each a tiny parcel consisting of two protons and two neutrons) emitted by a sample of radium. From those primitive experiments, physicists have designed, built, and employed a century-long series of "atom smashers," or particle accelerators, to explore the constituents of matter—the family of subatomic particles that have been discovered since Thomson's time. The machines have also given us a glimpse of the early universe evolving from the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago.
The LHC is no doubt one of the most complex machines ever built. The accelerator requires 1600 precision superconducting magnets, which are cooled to near absolute zero (1.8 K) to conserve power, along the 27-km beam path. The heart of this machine is house-sized detector assemblies that straddle the beamlines at strategic locations, where the counterrotating beams are guided to collision points, enabling effective collision energies of up to 7 teravolts. As impressive as the machine hardware, is the infrastructure required for the collider to collect, distribute, and analyze the experiments that will begin next year. That infrastructure has been under development for the same length of time as the hardware. The more than 5000 scientists, from several hundred research institutions and dozens of countries, have put together the largest grid computing network this side of the Googleplex to analyze the LHC data over the next decade. The architecture behind the grid computing network is just one of the technical spinoffs from the development of LHC that will benefit many other fields of science. The LHC is expected to generate about 15 petabytes of data per year, the equivalent of a stack of CDs 20 km high.
Why should anyone beyond the high-energy physics community care about the impending start-up of this mega science project? The many answers to this question span the economics of frontier science, the politics of international collaborations, the engineering of unique hardware, and the nature of information networks that can handle the envisioned data loads.
I had the opportunity to attend an April 16–18 meeting of the public information officers from the major high-energy physics labs. The discussions were dominated by the approaching start-up of the LHC. The excitement is not limited to the environs of CERN. The largest contingent of scientists and engineers who will participate in the LHC collaboration comes from the US, and many of them have dedicated more than a decade of their professional lives to this project. Many in the physics community are aware that the US (and UK) endeavors in high-energy physics are under stress, particularly as a result of budget cuts in 2008. Nonetheless, the buzz in the community is increasingly audible. Will this exploration machine discover the keystone particle, the Higgs boson, that is responsible for our understanding of the fundamental nature of mass? Will the LHC show us the signs of things we've never seen before, such as supersymmetric particles or extraspatial dimensions beyond the three dimensions of everyday life? Will the LHC's most important result be raising the bar for sustained international collaboration in science?
Many in the AIP community are contributing to the LHC's most important product—the publication and dissemination of information first, on the impressive engineering of the machine, the detectors, and the grid computing networks, and again when the first physics results come in and are interpreted for the world. Stay tuned as the buzz at CERN gets louder.
In our sights
Abuse monitoring for Scitation and AIP's other online offerings presents many challenges, ranging from defining what constitutes abuse to determining the correct course of action once abuse is detected. AIP monitors both automated activities, such as web crawlers, web robots, and spambots (which scan our services to seek information), and normal user activities. Normal user activities can include the downloading of large amounts of data with the help of auto-downloading plug-ins and web browsers that can download numerous instances of the same published article in a short time frame. AIP has established policies and procedures to help reduce the frequency and amount of abuse. The dynamic nature of what causes abuse, however, makes effective and substantive monitoring difficult. Read more about abuse monitoring in the Technology Blog.
Finding order in the universe in St. Louis, Missouri
Try your hand at physics Jeopardy! At the recent American Physical Society (APS) April meeting, some 30 high-school students knew the correct response to the following clue:
Answer: He is the author of The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos.
For the question, read on.
The April APS meeting boasted probably the largest-ever presence of undergraduates, with approximately 100 officially registered. The successful turnout resulted from APS's efforts, in partnership with the Society of Physics Students (SPS), to make its meetings more student-friendly.
There were about 40 undergraduate research presenters, equally divided between oral sessions and posters. Topics ranged from "Searching for Water on the Moon," to "Measuring Coefficients of Friction for Materials Commonly Used in Theatre," to "Resolution Studies of the Higgs' Particle."
Kendra Rand and Jerry Hobbs of AIP joined GM's Michael Drake and others as presenters at the Future Physicists Day, a new event at the April meeting that attracted about 35 high-school students, mostly women, to join the undergraduates. Events included talks on physics career paths, hands-on science demos on optics and medical imaging, and SPS physics Jeopardy! Who is physicist Brian Greene? was the correct "question" to the answer above.
At the same meeting, James Stith, AIP Vice President of Physics Resources, presented James Trefil, a physics professor at George Mason University, with the 2007 AIP Award for Science Writing by a Scientist. Trefil's award-winning article, "Where Is the Universe Heading?," illuminates the latest concepts in cosmology, particularly dark matter and dark energy, and discusses what new cosmology tells us about the fate of the universe. The article was published in the magazine Astronomy.
Furthermore, AIP provided media services to APS: AIP wrote news releases, invited reporters, set up press conferences, and assisted with the meeting's on-site newsroom. AIP Inside Science News Service will release a story later this week on space debris, which related to one of the press conferences.
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