The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Prof. Ter Veldhuis, Physics, on the Large Hadron Collider, 'exotic' particles, dark matter and fear

By Hazel Schaeffer

TMW: On March 30, 2010 , the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) began collisions in its Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on the Franco-Swiss border in an attempt to locate the Higgs boson or “god particle.” What is this particle, and why is it so important to detect? Prof. Ter Veldhuis: It’s a very important particle. We have a pretty good understanding of all observed elementary particles, but in order to make a consistent mathematical model to describe them it turns out that there needs to be one more particle that’s never been observed thus far, and that’s called the Higgs boson.

I think the term “God particle” first appeared in the title of Leon Lederman’s popular book about particle physics. In my opinion it is bit unfortunate, because the Higgs boson is part of scientific theory and it has nothing to do with religion. I think perhaps he called the Higgs boson [the god particle] because it gives mass to all other particles that we know. One remarkable thing about these small elementary particles is that their properties also explain how the vast universe works and how it evolves.

Have you been following CERN’s research closely? As a physicist, what most excites you about the experiment?

Yes, I have. It’s very integral to my own research. I’m a theoretical particle physicist and some of the mathematical models I have constructed to describe particle physics will be tested at CERN. At the same time, their experimental data, when it becomes available, will give me guidance to try to develop new theories that explain the new experimental results. It will probably take a couple of years before the experimental collaborations publish their first papers.

One of the goals of the collider is to recreate the conditions just after the Big Bang, why are physicists interested in this?

Well the Universe is our home; it’s the place where we live, and I personally have a great curiosity about how it evolves and about how it works. I think that many others share that sentiment as well, and I think that is why it’s important to do these types of experiments.

[One] thing [the LHC] can do is look for dark matter particles. One of the most interesting developments in physics over the past 10, 20 years is the realization that most of the matter in the Universe is not the nuclear matter that we are familiar with and that we are all made of, but something else. But very little is know about the properties of this matter, so another purpose of the LHC is to try and produce these dark matter particles in a laboratory.

How would you describe the workings of the LHC to someone without a physics background?

The LHC is a particle accelerator. It takes protons, the nuclei of hydrogen atoms, and accelerates them to very high velocities, almost the speed of light. Then they make these protons collide head on, and if you do that you get a lot of energy in a very small volume [of space]. Under these conditions it is possible to create very exotic particles-particles that we do not see around us now, but may have existed in the very early stages of the Universe.

Is the LHC potentially extremely dangerous? Do you think it is unethical and unsafe to play with a particle that scientists know so little about?

I think it’s as safe as it can be. According to our current understanding of physics it’s not dangerous, but of course when you go into a regime where nobody has gone before, there could be unpredicted events. In fact, that is the reason to do the experiment. High energy physics has always been like that, it is nothing new or specific to the LHC. The accelerator is built deep underground so there are no effects of radiation to people who live near it.

I think it’s common for people to be afraid of very new things. The likelihood that a black hole will be produced at the LHC is extremely small if our understanding of physics is correct. Even if a small black hole were created it probably would not have the disastrous consequences that some people feared.

I think we should take people’s concerns seriously. We should try as physicists, as much as we possibly can, to inform our audience about what we are doing and what the potential consequences might be. I think when people are familiar with what is being done at CERN, they will not be afraid and be excited instead.

I’ve heard one theory that someone from the future is sabotaging the LHC?

I think that’s an interesting story but I don’t take it very seriously. Maybe somebody could make a nice movie about it.

How did CERN get to be at the forefront of this research?

Traditionally it has been the place in Europe where particle physics has been done. The U.S. has also played a leading role in particle physics, but for the next 10 years the focus of particle physics will be on Europe because [the LHC] will be the leading experiment.

Does CERN’s project have implications for America’s role in physics research? Considering that in 1993 the U.S. was going to build a similar system in Texas, until congress cut the funding, could the project represents the decline of America’s dominance in physics?

I think the focus of high energy physics will be on the experiment in Europe for now, but these experiments are so expensive that it does not make sense for any one country to build an accelerator by itself. They have to be built in an international context and with international collaboration so I don’t think [it matters so much] that this particular machine has been built in Europe. A lot of American universities and laboratories are also involved in this [experiment and research].

Hopefully, the results of the LHC experiments are so interesting and provoke more questions that maybe one of the next generations of accelerators will be built in the U.S. I live in the U.S., I’m originally from Holland but I chose to live here. I think it is important for the U.S. to pursue this research and I would be very excited if a new accelerator were built here.

There are a lot of developments in science [and technology] that originated in very fundamental experiments. For example, to build an accelerator like the LHC you need to develop very powerful magnets to bend the protons and build advanced computer systems to handle the data. I believe that the investment which a country makes in fundamental science will pay off over the long run, so I think it is good for the U.S. to continue its research in this area.

Also, there is a danger that once you stop doing research in this area you lose the science know-how-the expertise that has been built up over many years. If you stop doing these experiments you will lose that and it will be very hard to regain it. There is also a danger that the accelerator physicists who have been involved in the U.S. program will move to Europe and as a consequence it will be very hard to train the next generation of accelerator physicists here. I therefore think [the U.S.] has to continue [with the research].

What is the projected timetable for CERN experiments with the LHC?

They just started there first real run and they are going to continue this for a year and half to two years. After that they will upgrade and maintain the accelerator and the detectors. Then they will start the experiment again at a higher energy so the particles will go even faster. I expect it will run for the next 10 years.

Collisions in the LHC have taken place at only a fraction of the designed energy. Why hasn’t it been used at full force?

The LHC is a very complicated machine. They had this mishap a year ago-an explosion in one of the magnets. I think they decided to be more careful at this time.

Can you tell me a little about particle physics at Macalester?

I think Macalester is progressive for offering theoretical particle physics at the college. We are in the company of other top science colleges like Williams and Harvey Mudd.

I teach a class on particle physics . and
I do research in theoretical particles physics with students over the summer. Last year Jeff Gustafson ’09 worked on a project with me where we were thinking about [whether we] can probe with an experiment like the LHC the existence of additional space-time dimensions. Our world is four-dimensional. We have three space dimensions and one time dimension. But theoretical physicists think that maybe-at a fundamental level-there are more dimensions. It turns out that if that’s the case, then there should be new particles associated with those higher dimensions. So in our four-dimensional world we should have additional particles hint at the existence of higher dimensions. Gustafson made a mathematical model that describes a certain type of those particles and he also figured out how those particles can be looked for at the LHC.

What type of research are you doing at Purdue University for your sabbatical?

It is purely theoretical research with the high-energy theory group here. In very broad strokes, we construct mathematical models in order to describe and predict the results of particle physics experiments. [As a group] we sit around and talk a lot. I think communication is kind of the equivalent for theoretical physicists what experimental equipment is for experimental physicists. We also have a reading group where we study recent interesting journal articles. In a completely new research direction for me, we also try to apply some new mathematical techniques that were recently developed in particle physics to solid-state physics systems. It turns out there are many parallels.

Purdue has a large experimental high-energy physics group as well. They work at the LHC so I take advantage by talking with these people a lot. Purdue professors and their post-docs and students actually spend time at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. They do shifts and make sure that the detectors work properly. By talking to these people, you get first hand knowledge about what’s going on. There’s no data yet, but hopefully by making connections with these people, when they actually have data, I will be in a very good position to learn about it and get the inside information and use it quickly to see to see if my proposed models are consistent, and if not, whether they are fixable, whether they are disproved.

Having this opportunity to be on sabbatical at this university will have a great positive effect for me personally but also for Macalester because it allows me to work with other expert theoretical particle physicists, make connections with experimentalists, and obtain first hand information about what’s going on at the LHC. It trickles down. Later on, students who work with me will have the opportunity to work on models that are closely related to the latest experimental results as well.

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