Out of the wreckage: finding a new particle at the beginning of time

Curiosity may have gotten the cat into trouble, but it is a must for a particle physicist. Certainly without this key trait what is known about our subatomic world and the fundamental structure of matter might still be a mystery. Fortunately, inquisitive physicists like Manuella Vincter are always trying to learn more about how our universe works—even if they have to stage a major crash to do so.

The Tier II Canada Research Chair in Particle Physics at Carleton University, Vincter currently works on ATLAS, a large-scale experiment located at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. Scientists from 35 countries are developing an underground accelerator/detector complex that is approximately the size of a five-storey building.

Construction and installation will be finished in 2008 and the apparatus, called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), will be able to collide protons head-on very close to the speed of light. The hope is that the experiments will enhance our understanding of the origins of matter.

Vincter has been a member of the international team for 10 years and is excited that the accelerator will be ready soon. “Since the late 1960s, quarks and leptons have been postulated to be fundamental particles of matter and we even know how they interact with each other. However, although we have a theory as to how they get their mass, we have not yet produced any physical evidence. The ATLAS experiments could give us the proof we need.”

The ATLAS research attempts to recreate a point in time that occurred less than a billionth of a second after the big bang. Scientific models suggest that in the intense physical heat of this moment, certain particles may have formed that might be pivotal to the subsequent formation of all other matter. Vincter and her colleagues, including Carleton professors Gerald Oakham and David Asner, are hoping to detect
a particle called the Higgs boson, which, if produced, would prove how mass is gained.

The theory of mass hypothesizes that in addition to the electromagnetic and gravitational fields, there is another field called the Higgs that is present in all space. As particles move through this field, they interact with it, thereby acquiring mass. Scientists further argue that if all fields have particles associated specifically with them, then the presence of the Higgs boson would mean, de facto, that this mass-generating field is real.

To test the theory, the ATLAS team will shoot off two sets of protons at an extremely intense energy of 14 trillion electron volts, a heat that approaches the temperature of the big bang. One set will move clockwise around the LHC ring, the other set will go counter clockwise and they will crash head-on in the centre of the ATLAS detector. Vincter predicts that the Higgs particle might be observable in the debris of the collision and, if it is, its presence will prove that the Higgs field theory is correct. This would be a major scientific breakthrough. The last piece of ATLAS went down in the cavern at the end of February 2008 and the first data are expected this fall.

Vincter revels in being able to do such pure research. “As Einstein predicted, E=mc2 means that if you have enough energy, you will create mass. At ATLAS, I have the chance to see if he was right. I am also motivated by the fact that we may see things we cannot explain and that there is always something to discover.”

Research snapshot

Purpose
To examine the fundamental structure of matter including proton structure.

Scope
To create and observe particles such as the Higgs boson.

Thesis
That phenomena such as the Higgs boson exist and can be created by proton collisions happening at the speed of light.

Outcome
A greater understanding of the origins of mass.

This entry was written by Martha Attridge Bufton and posted in the issue. Tags applied to this article are: , , . Leave a comment, bookmark the permalink or share the following short URL for this article via social media: http://carletonnow.carleton.ca/?p=5868

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