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Lancaster Scientists take part in Big Bang experiments

12/01/2009 09:44:03

Large Hadron Collider (LHC)
Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

Lancaster University Physicists are celebrating their work on two landmark experiments which are attempting to understand the building blocks of the universe.

Lancaster scientists were in Switzerland over the weekend observing the successful switch on of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - the world’s biggest science experiment. Shortly after 2pm on Monday, 23 November, engineers operating the LHC successfully smashed together proton beams in the machine for the very first time. These were observed in the ATLAS detector which was developed by a team including Lancaster Physicists.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, 24 November, Lancaster Particle Physicists working on the T2K (Tokai-to-Kamioka) neutrino experiment in Japan celebrated as the ‘near’ detector observed its first neutrinos - fundamental particles about which much is still to be learned. The University’s particle physics group built a 6 ton particle detector being used in Japan. The detector is a key component of the T2K research which hopes to unlock some of the deepest mysteries of the universe.

Lancaster’s Physics Department was the top ranked physics department in the UK in the 2008 research assessment exercise.

Its Head of Department Professor Peter Ratoff (also a member of the T2K collaboration) said: “This has been an extraordinary week for Particle Physics. Lancaster University has been heavily involved in both these international collaborations for many years.

“The data from these two experiments will address fundamental questions such as, why is there so much more matter than antimatter in the universe? On T2K, we are trying to understand nature’s most enigmatic particles, neutrinos, and their role in shaping the early universe.”

Professor Roger Jones, Head of the Lancaster ATLAS group, said: “The next step for ATLAS is to increase the energy of the collisions to look for really new effects, and hunt for the Higgs boson and Dark Matter particles.

“Things are progressing very quickly, and the Lancaster team is charged with producing some of the very first physics plots and results from the experiments.

“We are all very excited, but ATLAS is like a very big baby starting to explore the world, and we are expecting a lot of sleepless nights!”

Lancaster and the LHC

Lancaster University Physics Department has a leading role in this project, being a major player in the largest LHC experiment (ATLAS). The Department has also helped construct the powerful computing systems used to analyse the data from the experiment and part of this system is hosted at Lancaster.

The LHC, 100m below ground, is the most powerful particle accelerator ever built by man. The experiment aims to re-create the conditions just after the Big Bang in an attempt to answer fundamental mysteries of the Universe - from antimatter to dark matter and the existence of extra dimensions.

Once the experiment is underway the total data produced by the ATLAS experiment each year will be 30 million Gigabytes, the equivalent of 600,000 top of the range iPods, which would cover over 500 tennis courts. The University has a large ‘farm’ of computers - equivalent to about 600 high spec PCs - to help this work. It also has lots of disks to store the data.

Lancaster is leading the studies of so-called ‘beauty’ particles in ATLAS, which is one route to find the explanation of the missing antimatter and of the dark matter. The University is also studying the heaviest of the subatomic constituents, the top quark, and trying to uncover so called ‘hidden’ super-symmetry.

Lancaster and T2K

T2K – an international experiment led by Japan and part funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) - will probe the strange properties of the enigmatic neutrino to unprecedented precision, by firing the most intense neutrino beam ever designed from the east coast of Japan (Tokai), all the way under the country, to a detector near Japan’s west coast (Kamioka).

Neutrino oscillations are one of the frontiers of current particle physics and the T2K project will move us one step closer to understanding the role of the neutrino in the early Universe and may even shed light on the mystery of why there is more matter than anti-matter in the universe.

Both projects hope to address the fascinating question of the origin of mass. In the case of ATLAS it could be by the observation of the long-sought Higgs Boson which is believed to be intimately related to the mechanism by which particles such as the electron acquire mass.

On the other hand, the mass of neutrinos is thought to be generated by a quite different process and a favourite candidate for this is the ‘see-saw’ mechanism which involves a very, very heavy neutrino that we are unlikely to ever observe and the much lighter neutrino that we can study.