During this semester, we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit CERN (French acronym that stands for “European Council for Nuclear Research”) in Geneva! Our professor, Luis Orozco (UMD, Physics), worked at CERN some years ago, so he contacted a few colleagues who were able to take time out of their busy schedules to show us what they were working on. We were first shown how the Large Hadron Collider (or the LHC) works. The LHC is the biggest particle accelerator in the world; its main purpose is to accelerate bunches of ions to incredibly high speeds, and then collide those ions with another bunch. Through these collisions, a number of new particles are created and detected. The detector was the main focus of our first tour. We learned it works in layers, with each layer specializing in detecting certain particles. Besides being very precise, these different stages help separate data, which is very important because they measure about 600 million collisions per second! The data then goes through a program that only keeps the most interesting information. Data sets that the program throws out contain information that the scientists at CERN don’t need, such as the creation of most antimatter. However, just because the scientists aren’t interested in the creation of antimatter doesn’t mean they don’t use these newly created particles.
The next two scientists that we met with work in the antimatter building, which we had no idea even existed. We learned that while the LHC is a huge experiment at CERN, there are a lot of smaller ones that use the particles created after the collisions. The antimatter department is concerned with catching the antimatter particles that leave the LHC, and doing different tests on them. Most of the labs that we visited were in the process of being repaired – the LHC is going to shut down for two years in a few months, and so everyone was doing last minute repairs in order to get data before this happens. We saw a smaller accelerator in the works, which would help focus the antimatter particles into a beam, an incredibly strong magnet, and a device that would help test gravity on antimatter. What was peculiar and striking was that this high-tech equipment is all covered in aluminum foil. The stuff you get at the store! Apparently, it’s really good at keeping off dust and insulating things …
Our trip was fascinating. We got to see what world-leading physicists do at this state-of-the-art facility, and we were lucky to have the great opportunity to talk with some of them personally and have a better understanding about the research on the nature of our universe.
Rachel Scrandis and Julia Codere, UMD