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Massive thoughts

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

This article appeared in symmetry on April 24, 2014.

The Higgs boson and the neutrino fascinate the general public and particle physicists alike. Why is that?

The Higgs boson and the neutrino fascinate the general public and particle physicists alike. Why is that?

If there are two particles that everyone has read about in the news lately, it’s the Higgs boson and the neutrino. Why do we continue to be fascinated by these two particles?

As just about everyone now knows, the Higgs boson is integrally connected to the field that gives particles their mass. But the excitement of this discovery isn’t over; now we need to figure out how this actually works and whether it explains everything about how particles get their mass. With time, this knowledge is likely to affect daily life.

One way it could possibly bridge the gap between fundamental research and the commercial market, I believe, is in batteries. The ultimate battery in nature is mass. The expression E=mc2 is a statement of that fact. During the early moments of the universe, all particles were massless and traveling at the speed of light. Once the Higgs mechanism turned on, particles suddenly began interacting with the field and, in this process, converted their energy into what we now refer to as mass. In a recent address to the Canadian Nuclear Society, I suggested that if engineers of the future could learn how to manipulate the Higgs field (to “turn it on and off”), then we would have developed the ultimate energy source and the best battery nature has created. This idea definitely belongs in the science-fiction category, but remember that progress in science is driven by thinking “outside the box!”

This sort of thinking comes from looking at the Higgs from another angle. According to the Standard Model, many particles come in left-handed and right-handed versions (in the former, the particle’s direction of spin matches its direction of motion, while in the latter, they are opposite).

Keeping this fact in mind, let’s look at the mass of the familiar electron as an example. When we say that the mass of the electron is created by interactions with the Higgs field, we can think of this as the Higgs field rapidly changing a left-handed electron into a right-handed electron, and vice versa. This switching back and forth is energy and, through E=mc2, energy is mass. A heavier particle like the top quark would experience this flipping at a much higher frequency than a lighter particle like the electron. As we learn more about how this process works, I encourage physicists to also seek applications of that knowledge.

And what about neutrinos? Do they get their mass from the Higgs field or in a completely different way? Once thought to be massless, neutrinos are now known to have a tiny mass. If the Higgs mechanism is responsible for that mass, there must exist both a left-handed and a right-handed neutrino. A good number of physicists think that both are out there, but we do not yet know. That knowledge may help us understand why the neutrino mass is tiny, as well as why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe—one of the most important questions facing our field of particle physics.

But since the neutrino is a neutral particle, the story gets more interesting. It may instead be possible that there is another type of mass. Referred to as a Majorana mass, it is not a mass described by the flipping of left- and right-handed neutrinos back and forth, but it is “intrinsic,” not derived from any kind of “motional energy.” I expect that the efforts by our field of particle physics, in the collective sense, will pursue the questions associated with both the Higgs boson and the neutrino with enthusiasm, and that the results will lead to advancements we can’t even imagine today.

Nigel Lockyer, Fermilab director

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Ten things you might not know about particle accelerators

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

A version of this article appeared in symmetry on April 14, 2014.

From accelerators unexpectedly beneath your feet to a ferret that once cleaned accelerator components, symmetry shares some lesser-known facts about particle accelerators. Image: Sandbox Studio, Chicago

From accelerators unexpectedly beneath your feet to a ferret that once cleaned accelerator components, symmetry shares some lesser-known facts about particle accelerators. Image: Sandbox Studio, Chicago

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN laboratory has made its way into popular culture: Comedian John Stewart jokes about it on The Daily Show, character Sheldon Cooper dreams about it on The Big Bang Theory and fictional villains steal fictional antimatter from it in Angels & Demons.

Despite their uptick in popularity, particle accelerators still have secrets to share. With input from scientists at laboratories and institutions worldwide, symmetry has compiled a list of 10 things you might not know about particle accelerators.

There are more than 30,000 accelerators in operation around the world.

Accelerators are all over the place, doing a variety of jobs. They may be best known for their role in particle physics research, but their other talents include: creating tumor-destroying beams to fight cancer; killing bacteria to prevent food-borne illnesses; developing better materials to produce more effective diapers and shrink wrap; and helping scientists improve fuel injection to make more efficient vehicles.

One of the longest modern buildings in the world was built for a particle accelerator.

Linear accelerators, or linacs for short, are designed to hurl a beam of particles in a straight line. In general, the longer the linac, the more powerful the particle punch. The linear accelerator at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, near San Francisco, is the largest on the planet.

SLAC’s klystron gallery, a building that houses components that power the accelerator, sits atop the accelerator. It’s one of the world’s longest modern buildings. Overall, it’s a little less than 2 miles long, a feature that prompts laboratory employees to hold an annual footrace around its perimeter.

Particle accelerators are the closest things we have to time machines, according to Stephen Hawking.

In 2010, physicist Stephen Hawking wrote an article for the UK paper the Daily Mail explaining how it might be possible to travel through time. We would just need a particle accelerator large enough to accelerate humans the way we accelerate particles, he said.

A person-accelerator with the capabilities of the Large Hadron Collider would move its passengers at close to the speed of light. Because of the effects of special relativity, a period of time that would appear to someone outside the machine to last several years would seem to the accelerating passengers to last only a few days. By the time they stepped off the LHC ride, they would be younger than the rest of us.

Hawking wasn’t actually proposing we try to build such a machine. But he was pointing out a way that time travel already happens today. For example, particles called pi mesons are normally short-lived; they disintegrate after mere millionths of a second. But when they are accelerated to nearly the speed of light, their lifetimes expand dramatically. It seems that these particles are traveling in time, or at least experiencing time more slowly relative to other particles.

The highest temperature recorded by a manmade device was achieved in a particle accelerator.

In 2012, Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider achieved a Guinness World Record for producing the world’s hottest manmade temperature, a blazing 7.2 trillion degrees Fahrenheit. But the Long Island-based lab did more than heat things up. It created a small amount of quark-gluon plasma, a state of matter thought to have dominated the universe’s earliest moments. This plasma is so hot that it causes elementary particles called quarks, which generally exist in nature only bound to other quarks, to break apart from one another.

Scientists at CERN have since also created quark-gluon plasma, at an even higher temperature, in the Large Hadron Collider.

The inside of the Large Hadron Collider is colder than outer space.

In order to conduct electricity without resistance, the Large Hadron Collider’s electromagnets are cooled down to cryogenic temperatures. The LHC is the largest cryogenic system in the world, and it operates at a frosty minus 456.3 degrees Fahrenheit. It is one of the coldest places on Earth, and it’s even a few degrees colder than outer space, which tends to rest at about minus 454.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

Nature produces particle accelerators much more powerful than anything made on Earth.

We can build some pretty impressive particle accelerators on Earth, but when it comes to achieving high energies, we’ve got nothing on particle accelerators that exist naturally in space.

The most energetic cosmic ray ever observed was a proton accelerated to an energy of 300 million trillion electronvolts. No known source within our galaxy is powerful enough to have caused such an acceleration. Even the shockwave from the explosion of a star, which can send particles flying much more forcefully than a manmade accelerator, doesn’t quite have enough oomph. Scientists are still investigating the source of such ultra-high-energy cosmic rays.

Particle accelerators don’t just accelerate particles; they also make them more massive.

As Einstein predicted in his theory of relativity, no particle that has mass can travel as fast as the speed of light—about 186,000 miles per second. No matter how much energy one adds to an object with mass, its speed cannot reach that limit.

In modern accelerators, particles are sped up to very nearly the speed of light. For example, the main injector at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory accelerates protons to 0.99997 times the speed of light. As the speed of a particle gets closer and closer to the speed of light, an accelerator gives more and more of its boost to the particle’s kinetic energy.

Since, as Einstein told us, an object’s energy is equal to its mass times the speed of light squared (E=mc2), adding energy is, in effect, also increasing the particles’ mass. Said another way: Where there is more “E,” there must be more “m.” As an object with mass approaches, but never reaches, the speed of light, its effective mass gets larger and larger.

The diameter of the first circular accelerator was shorter than 5 inches; the diameter of the Large Hadron Collider is more than 5 miles.

In 1930, inspired by the ideas of Norwegian engineer Rolf Widerøe, 27-year-old physicist Ernest Lawrence created the first circular particle accelerator at the University of California, Berkeley, with graduate student M. Stanley Livingston. It accelerated hydrogen ions up to energies of 80,000 electronvolts within a chamber less than 5 inches across.

In 1931, Lawrence and Livingston set to work on an 11-inch accelerator. The machine managed to accelerate protons to just over 1 million electronvolts, a fact that Livingston reported to Lawrence by telegram with the added comment, “Whoopee!” Lawrence went on to build even larger accelerators—and to found Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore laboratories.

Particle accelerators have come a long way since then, creating brighter beams of particles with greater energies than previously imagined possible. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is more than 5 miles in diameter (17 miles in circumference). After this year’s upgrades, the LHC will be able to accelerate protons to 6.5 trillion electronvolts.

In the 1970s, scientists at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory employed a ferret named Felicia to clean accelerator parts.

From 1971 until 1999, Fermilab’s Meson Laboratory was a key part of high-energy physics experiments at the laboratory. To learn more about the forces that hold our universe together, scientists there studied subatomic particles called mesons and protons. Operators would send beams of particles from an accelerator to the Meson Lab via a miles-long underground beam line.

To ensure hundreds of feet of vacuum piping were clear of debris before connecting them and turning on the particle beam, the laboratory enlisted the help of one Felicia the ferret.

Ferrets have an affinity for burrowing and clambering through holes, making them the perfect species for this job. Felicia’s task was to pull a rag dipped in cleaning solution on a string through long sections of pipe.

Although Felicia’s work was eventually taken over by a specially designed robot, she played a unique and vital role in the construction process—and in return asked only for a steady diet of chicken livers, fish heads and hamburger meat.

Particle accelerators show up in unlikely places.

Scientists tend to construct large particle accelerators underground. This protects them from being bumped and destabilized, but can also make them a little harder to find.

For example, motorists driving down Interstate 280 in northern California may not notice it, but the main accelerator at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory runs underground just beneath their wheels.

Residents in villages in the Swiss-French countryside live atop the highest-energy particle collider in the world, the Large Hadron Collider.

And for decades, teams at Cornell University have played soccer, football and lacrosse on Robison Alumni Fields 40 feet above the Cornell Electron Storage Ring, or CESR. Scientists use the circular particle accelerator to study compact particle beams and to produce X-ray light for experiments in biology, materials science and physics.

Sarah Witman

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Searching for the holographic universe

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

A version of this article appeared in symmetry on April 8, 2014.

Physicist Aaron Chou keeps the Holometer experiment—which looks for a phenomenon whose implications border on the unreal—grounded in the realities of day-to-day operations. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Physicist Aaron Chou keeps the Holometer experiment—which looks for a phenomenon whose implications border on the unreal—grounded in the realities of day-to-day operations. Photo: Reidar Hahn

The beauty of the small operation—the mom-and-pop restaurant or the do-it-yourself home repair—is that pragmatism begets creativity. The industrious individual who makes do with limited resources is compelled onto paths of ingenuity, inventing rather than following rules to address the project’s peculiarities.

As project manager for the Holometer experiment at Fermilab, physicist Aaron Chou runs a show that, though grandiose in goal, is remarkably humble in setup. Operated out of a trailer by a small team with a small budget, it has the feel more of a scrappy startup than of an undertaking that could make humanity completely rethink our universe.

The experiment is based on the proposition that our familiar, three-dimensional universe is a manifestation of a two-dimensional, digitized space-time. In other words, all that we see around us is no more than a hologram of a more fundamental, lower-dimensional reality.

If this were the case, then space-time would not be smooth; instead, if you zoomed in on it far enough, you would begin to see the smallest quantum bits—much as a digital photo eventually reveals its fundamental pixels.

In 2009, the GEO600 experiment, which searches for gravitational waves emanating from black holes, was plagued by unaccountable noise. This noise could, in theory, be a telltale sign of the universe’s smallest quantum bits. The Holometer experiment seeks to measure space-time with far more precision than any experiment before—and potentially observe effects from those fundamental bits.

Such an endeavor is thrilling—but also risky. Discovery would change the most basic assumptions we make about the universe. But there also might not be any holographic noise to find. So for Chou, managing the Holometer means building and operating the apparatus on the cheap—not shoddily, but with utmost economy.

Thus Chou and his team take every opportunity to make rather than purchase, to pick up rather than wait for delivery, to seize the opportunity and take that measurement when all the right people are available.

“It’s kind of like solving a Rubik’s cube,” Chou says. “You have an overview of every aspect of the measurement that you’re trying to make. You have to be able to tell the instant something doesn’t look right, and tell that it conflicts with some other assumption you had. And the instant you have a conflict, you have to figure out a way to resolve it. It’s a lot of fun.”

Chou is one of the experiment’s 1.5 full-time staff members; a complement of students rounds out a team of 10. Although Chou is essentially the overseer, he runs the experiment from down in the trenches.

Aaron Chou, project manager 
for Fermilab’s Holometer, tests the experiment’s instrumentation. Photo: Reidar Hahn

Aaron Chou, project manager 
for Fermilab’s Holometer, tests the experiment’s instrumentation. Photo: Reidar Hahn

The Holometer experimental area, for example, is a couple of aboveground, dirt-covered tunnels whose walls don’t altogether keep out the water after a heavy rain. So any time the area needs the attention of a wet-dry vacuum, he and his team are down on the ground, cheerfully squeegeeing, mopping and vacuuming away.

“That’s why I wear such shabby clothes,” he says. “This is not the type of experiment where you sit behind the computer and analyze data or control things remotely all day long. It’s really crawling-around-on-the-floor kind of work, which I actually find to be kind of a relief, because I spent more than a decade sitting in front of a computer for more well-established experiments where the installation took 10 years and most of the resulting experiment is done from behind a keyboard.”

As a graduate student at Stanford University, Chou worked on the SLD experiment at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, writing software to help look for parity violation in Z bosons. As a Fermilab postdoc on the Pierre Auger experiment, he analyzed data on ultra-high-energy cosmic rays.

Now Chou and his team are down in the dirt, hunting for the universe’s quantum bits. In length terms, these bits are expected to be on the smallest scale of the universe, the Planck scale: 1.6 x 10-35 meters. That’s roughly 10 trillion trillion times smaller than an atom; no existing instrument can directly probe objects that small. If humanity could build a particle collider the size of the Milky Way, we might be able to investigate Planck-scale bits directly.

The Holometer instead will look for a jitter arising from the cosmos’ minuscule quanta. In the experiment’s dimly lit tunnels, the team built two interferometers, L-shaped configurations of tubes. Beginning at the L’s vertex, a laser beam travels down each of the L’s 40-meter arms simultaneously, bounces off the mirrors at the ends and recombines at the starting point. Since the laser beam’s paths down each arm of the L are the same length, absent a holographic jitter, the beam should cancel itself out as it recombines. If it doesn’t, it could be evidence of the jitter, a disruption in the laser beam’s flight.

And why are there two interferometers? The two beam spots’ particular brightening and dimming will match if it’s the looked-for signal.

“Real signals have to be in sync,” Chou says. “Random fluctuations won’t be heard by both instruments.”

Should the humble Holometer find a jitter when it looks for the signal—researchers will soon begin the initial search and expect results by 2015—the reward to physics would be extraordinarily high, especially given the scrimping behind the experiment and the fact that no one had to build an impossibly high-energy, Milky Way-sized collider. The data would support the idea that the universe we see around us is only a hologram. It would also help bring together the two thus-far-irreconcilable principles of quantum mechanics and relativity.

“Right now, so little experimental data exists about this high-energy scale that theorists are unable to construct any meaningful models other than those based on speculation,” Chou says. “Our experiment is really a mission of exploration—to obtain data about an extremely high-energy scale that is otherwise inaccessible.”

What’s more, when the Holometer is up and running, it will be able to look for other phenomena that manifest themselves in the form of high-frequency gravitational waves, including topological defects in our cosmos—areas of tension between large regions in space-time that were formed by the big bang.

“Whenever you design a new apparatus, what you’re doing is building something that’s more sensitive to some aspect of nature than anything that has ever been built before,” Chou says. “We may discover evidence of holographic jitter. But even if we don’t, if we’re smart about how we use our newly built apparatus, we may still be able to discover new aspects of our universe.”

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30 years of inter-American collaboration

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

This article originally appeared in symmetry on March 31, 2014.

Three decades ago in March, scientists from Latin America came to do research at Fermilab, forming the ties of a lasting collaboration.

Three decades ago in March, scientists from Latin America came to do research at Fermilab, forming the ties of a lasting collaboration.

In 1983, Fermilab Director Leon Lederman put his money on the table at the second Pan American Symposium on Elementary Particles and Technology in Rio de Janeiro. His daring proposition: If the Brazilian Research Council would not at the time fund that nation’s physicists to do research at Fermilab, he would pay the salaries himself.

His parlay worked. A year later, 30 years ago this month, four physicists from Brazil took paid leave to work on the E691 fixed-target experiment at Fermilab. They were Fermilab’s first Latin American scientists and the beginning of its relationship with the region.

“Lederman made the bold offer in that meeting,” says Carlos Escobar, one of the four trailblazing Brazilians who crossed over the Equator to Fermilab. “That was the deciding factor.”

Mexico soon followed, spearheaded by then Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México professor Clicerio Avilez. The university sent two scientists and a graduate student, the first Latin American student to get his PhD for work done at Fermilab.

Since then, the collaboration between Fermilab and Latin American institutions has grown to also include Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Twenty-one Latin American institutions participate in the collaboration, which consists of theorists and members of eight experiments: CMS, DAMIC, DZero, LBNE, MINERvA and MINOS, as well as on the Dark Energy Survey and the Pierre Auger Observatory—both of which reside in South America. That’s in addition to the nine fixed-target experiments that completed their runs in the 1990s.

Lederman began planting the seeds of collaboration in 1979, noting that Latin American nations boasted strong scientific groups and an impressive history of innovation.

“Latin America represented a huge potential treasure of human resources which would, I was sure, eventually be devoted to scientific research to the benefit of the nations of South and Central America and, indeed, the world,” he wrote in a 2006 paper.

Since those days, the collaboration with Fermilab, as well as steadily gaining economic strength and higher publicity for science, have placed particle physics research south of the Rio Grande on firmer ground. Fermilab not only provided scientists with particle physics experiments to work on, it also hosted workshops that were attended by Latin American engineers, physicists, technicians and students.

“When I first started, there were only two groups in Mexico cultivating theoretical high-energy physics, and none tilling the field of experimental high-energy physics,” says Julian Felix Valdez, a University of Guanajuato professor whose connection with Fermilab began in 1990, when he was a graduate student. Then, he says, things changed as Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and Instituto Politécnico Nacional began sending students to Fermilab.

“Thirty years later, there are groups in experimental high-energy physics at eight Mexican universities, as well as other groups emerging at other Mexican universities,” Felix Valdez says. He estimates about 100 Mexican scientists work on particle physics at home and an additional 30 abroad.

The flow of students hasn’t abated, and most now come to Fermilab to work on neutrino research. For future generations, it could mean working on Fermilab’s Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment.

“There’s a good stream of people. Once the connection’s established, it doesn’t sever. It keeps flowing,” says Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú master’s student Maria Jose Bustamante, who is on the MINERvA neutrino experiment. “Of course you need an institution to do that.”

Enlisting more institutions to invigorate the flow is perhaps still the biggest challenge facing the collaboration today. To that end, Fermilab’s fifth director, Pier Oddone, and his deputy, Young-Kee Kim, picked up where Lederman left off, says MINERvA scientist Jorge Morfin, one of the founding members of the Latin American collaboration. Oddone and Kim helped formalize the Latin American Initiative in 2010, suggesting more written agreements between Fermilab and Latin American institutions and funding agencies.

“No one on MINERvA would doubt that the contribution of these Latin American students has been significant. This has been a real working benefit for the experiment here at Fermilab,” Morfin says. The number of students that work or have worked on MINERvA totals 24 master’s students, nine doctoral students and two postdocs. “Now they can work on experiments throughout the world. It’s been a nice return, a give and take,” he says.

Collaboration also provides opportunities for visiting scientists to bring technologies from their home countries to Fermilab. Escobar notes that Brazilian companies provided several pieces of instrumentation for Fermilab experiments, including drift chambers and detectors for DZero. It goes the other way, too: Scientists take new technologies developed at Fermilab back to industries at home.

“People see the local industries benefit from this kind of collaboration with a place that does fundamental research,” Morfin says. “It translates into actual progress for local industries and local technology.”

To see another 30 years of flourishing high-energy physics in the western hemisphere requires an investment in physics from both sides of the Equator, Felix Valdez says.

“Physics—especially high-energy physics—is an international task,” he says.

Leah Hesla

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Particle detector connects two generations of ironworkers

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

This article appeared in Fermilab Today on March 26, 2014.

Tom Wicks, rigging superintendent at Joliet Steel & Construction, stands next to the stripped-down CDF detector at Fermilab. His mother, Lois Anderson, helped build the detector as an ironworker nearly 30 years ago. Photo: Amanda Solliday

Tom Wicks, rigging superintendent at Joliet Steel & Construction, stands next to the stripped-down CDF detector at Fermilab. His mother, Lois Anderson, helped build the detector as an ironworker nearly 30 years ago. Photo: Amanda Solliday

One day when Tom Wicks was a child, he biked over to see his mom, Lois Anderson, working at an office in Aurora, Ill. She was at the top of the building, welding and torching as ironworkers do.

“That’s when my son told me, ‘I want to do that,’” Anderson said.

Both mother and son have worked as ironworkers on Fermilab experiments throughout their careers. Anderson, known as “Sarge” during business hours and the only female on her crew for decades, began ironworking at CDF — one of two detectors located on the Tevatron ring — when it was “a hole in the ground” in the early 1980s. Anderson and Wicks, rigging superintendent at Joliet Steel & Construction, worked together on the last upgrade of the detector in 2001.

Now Wicks is dismantling much of the roughly 4,000-ton particle detector that he, his mother and his stepfather helped build.

“She likes to tease me about it. ‘All that work we’ve put into it, and now you’re tearing it apart?’” Wicks said.

CDF ran for more than two decades, collecting data from proton-antiproton collisions from 1985 until the Tevatron shut down in 2011. Scientists at CDF and its sister detector DZero discovered the last quark predicted by the Standard Model, the top quark. Both collaborations still analyze valuable data collected from the detectors.

In its heyday, the large orange and blue CDF detector drew crowds when upgrades required rolling the machine from the collision tunnel to an open assembly hall.

“During the last upgrade, it was like a football game,” Wicks said. “There were so many people watching, you couldn’t get a space along the rail to watch us do it.”

Wicks and his crew began working with Fermilab staff to remove equipment from the CDF detector in March 2013. They will likely finish next month, leaving intact the multmillion-dollar solenoid magnet at the core of the detector.

John Wackerlin, a fellow ironworker and foreman at Walbridge, led one of the teams tasked with decommissioning the experiment. Like Wicks, he’s laying to rest something his family helped build. His father, Bob Wackerlin, welded together the structure that houses the 30-foot-tall detector.

The elder Wackerlin’s work at Fermilab started even before CDF. When his wife was pregnant with John, Bob Wackerlin worked underground in the 4-mile Tevatron tunnel while it was still being dug. He retired after 42 years as an ironworker and said he’s proud of his family’s connection to the laboratory.

“I’ve worked in just about every building on this site,” Bob Wackerlin said. “Fermilab projects are some of the best jobs that come across our ironworkers union. It’s employed a lot of people over the years.”

His son added, “Working with physicists and the talent and brainpower here — it’s unreal.”

Although CDF is turned off and its many wires and cables scrapped, much of the detector will find a home in future experiments. The solenoid magnet, for example, could be reused in another particle experiment, said Fermilab scientist Jonathan Lewis. Scientists are recycling parts of the detector for other high-energy physics projects at Fermilab, and electronics, phototubes and assorted pieces of CDF have also been shipped to other labs and universities in the United States, Europe and Japan.

Both families see this as progress.

“Once you’ve learned something from one experiment, it makes way for new experiments,” John Wackerlin said. “So now we can go on to even bigger and better things. I’m excited about it.”

Amanda Solliday

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LHC and Tevatron share first joint result

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

This article appeared in symmetry on March 19, 2014.

An international team of scientists from Fermilab’s Tevatron and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has produced the world’s best value for the mass of the top quark.

An international team of scientists from Fermilab’s Tevatron and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has produced the world’s best value for the mass of the top quark.

Scientists working on the world’s leading particle collider experiments have joined forces, combined their data and produced the first joint result from Fermilab’s Tevatron and CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. These machines are the past and current holders of the record for most powerful particle collider on Earth.

Scientists from the four experiments involved—ATLAS, CDF, CMS and DZero—announced their joint findings on the mass of the top quark today at the Rencontres de Moriond international physics conference in Italy.

Together the four experiments pooled their data analysis power to arrive at a new world’s best value for the mass of the top quark of 173.34 ± 0.76 GeV/c2.

Experiments at the LHC at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland and the Tevatron collider at Fermilab in Illinois, USA are the only ones that have ever seen top quarks—the heaviest elementary particles ever observed. The top quark’s huge mass (more than 100 times that of the proton) makes it one of the most important tools in the physicists’ quest to understand the nature of the universe.

The new precise value of the top-quark mass will allow scientists to test further the mathematical framework that describes the quantum connections between the top quark, the Higgs particle and the carrier of the electroweak force, the W boson. Theorists will explore how the new, more precise value will change predictions regarding the stability of the Higgs field and its effects on the evolution of the universe. It will also allow scientists to look for inconsistencies in the Standard Model of particle physics—searching for hints of new physics that will lead to a better understanding of the nature of the universe.

“The combining together of data from CERN and Fermilab to make a precision top quark mass result is a strong indication of its importance to understanding nature,” says Fermilab director Nigel Lockyer. “It’s a great example of the international collaboration in our field.”

Courtesy of: Fermilab and CERN

Courtesy of: Fermilab and CERN

A total of more than six thousand scientists from more than 50 countries participate in the four experimental collaborations. The CDF and DZero experiments discovered the top quark in 1995, and the Tevatron produced about 300,000 top quark events during its 25-year lifetime, completed in 2011. Since it started collider physics operations in 2009, the LHC has produced close to 18 million events with top quarks, making it the world’s leading top quark factory.

“Collaborative competition is the name of the game,” says CERN’s Director General Rolf Heuer. “Competition between experimental collaborations and labs spurs us on, but collaboration such as this underpins the global particle physics endeavor and is essential in advancing our knowledge of the universe we live in.”

Each of the four collaborations previously released their individual top-quark mass measurements. Combining them together required close collaboration between the four experiments, understanding in detail each other’s techniques and uncertainties. Each experiment measured the top-quark mass using several different methods by analyzing different top quark decay channels, using sophisticated analysis techniques developed and improved over more than 20 years of top quark research beginning at the Tevatron and continuing at the LHC. The joint measurement has been submitted to the arXiv.

A version of this article was originally issued by Fermilab and CERN as a press release.

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CDMS result covers new ground in search for dark matter

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

This article appeared in symmetry on February 28, 2014.

The Cryogenic Dark Matter Search has set more stringent limits on light dark matter.

The Cryogenic Dark Matter Search has set more stringent limits on light dark matter.

Scientists looking for dark matter face a serious challenge: No one knows what dark matter particles look like. So their search covers a wide range of possible traits—different masses, different probabilities of interacting with regular matter.

Today, scientists on the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search experiment, or CDMS, announced they have shifted the border of this search down to a dark-matter particle mass and rate of interaction that has never been probed.

“We’re pushing CDMS to as low mass as we can,” says Fermilab physicist Dan Bauer, the project manager for CDMS. “We’re proving the particle detector technology here.”

Their result, which does not claim any hints of dark matter particles, contradicts a result announced in January by another dark matter experiment, CoGeNT, which uses particle detectors made of germanium, the same material as used by CDMS.

To search for dark matter, CDMS scientists cool their detectors to very low temperatures in order to detect the very small energies deposited by the collisions of dark matter particles with the germanium. They operate their detectors half of a mile underground in a former iron ore mine in northern Minnesota. The mine provides shielding from cosmic rays that could clutter the detector as it waits for passing dark matter particles.

Today’s result carves out interesting new dark matter territory for masses below 6 billion electronvolts. The dark matter experiment Large Underground Xenon, or LUX, recently ruled out a wide range of masses and interaction rates above that with the announcement of its first result in October 2013.

Scientists have expressed an increasing amount of interest of late in the search for low-mass dark matter particles, with CDMS and three other experiments—DAMA, CoGeNT and CRESST—all finding their data compatible with the existence of dark matter particles between 5 billion and 20 billion electronvolts. But such light dark-matter particles are hard to pin down. The lower the mass of the dark-matter particles, the less energy they leave in detectors, and the more likely it is that background noise will drown out any signals.

Even more confounding is the fact that scientists don’t know whether dark matter particles interact in the same way in detectors built with different materials. In addition to germanium, scientists use argon, xenon, silicon and other materials to search for dark matter in more than a dozen experiments around the world.

“It’s important to look in as many materials as possible to try to understand whether dark matter interacts in this more complicated way,” says Adam Anderson, a graduate student at MIT who worked on the latest CDMS analysis as part of his thesis. “Some materials might have very weak interactions. If you only picked one, you might miss it.”

Scientists around the world seem to be taking that advice, building different types of detectors and constantly improving their methods.

“Progress is extremely fast,” Anderson says. “The sensitivity of these experiments is increasing by an order of magnitude every few years.”

Kathryn Jepsen

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Scientists complete the top quark puzzle

Monday, February 24th, 2014

This Fermilab press release was published on February 24.

Matteo Cremonesi, left, of the University of Oxford and the CDF collaboration and Reinhard Schwienhorst of Michigan State University and the DZero collaboration present their joint discovery at a forum at Fermilab on Friday, Feb. 21. The two collaborations have observed the production of single top quarks in the s-channel, as seen in data collected from the Tevatron. Photo: Cindy Arnold

Matteo Cremonesi, left, of the University of Oxford and the CDF collaboration and Reinhard Schweinhorst of Michigan State University and the DZero collaboration present their joint discovery at a forum at Fermilab on Friday, Feb. 21. The two collaborations have observed the production of single top quarks in the s-channel, as seen in data collected from the Tevatron. Photo: Cindy Arnold

Scientists on the CDF and DZero experiments at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory have announced that they have found the final predicted way of creating a top quark, completing a picture of this particle nearly 20 years in the making.

The two collaborations jointly announced on Friday, Feb. 21, that they had observed one of the rarest methods of producing the elementary particle – creating a single top quark through the weak nuclear force, in what is called the s-channel. For this analysis, scientists from the CDF and DZero collaborations sifted through data from more than 500 trillion proton-antiproton collisions produced by the Tevatron from 2001 to 2011. They identified about 40 particle collisions in which the weak nuclear force produced single top quarks in conjunction with single bottom quarks.

Top quarks are the heaviest and among the most puzzling elementary particles. They weigh even more than the Higgs boson – as much as an atom of gold – and only two machines have ever produced them: Fermilab’s Tevatron and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. There are several ways to produce them, as predicted by the theoretical framework known as the Standard Model, and the most common one was the first one discovered: a collision in which the strong nuclear force creates a pair consisting of a top quark and its antimatter cousin, the anti-top quark.

Collisions that produce a single top quark through the weak nuclear force are rarer, and the process scientists on the Tevatron experiments have just announced is the most challenging of these to detect. This method of producing single top quarks is among the rarest interactions allowed by the laws of physics. The detection of this process was one of the ultimate goals of the Tevatron, which for 25 years was the most powerful particle collider in the world.

“This is an important discovery that provides a valuable addition to the picture of the Standard Model universe,” said James Siegrist, DOE associate director of science for high energy physics. “It completes a portrait of one of the fundamental particles of our universe by showing us one of the rarest ways to create them.”

Searching for single top quarks is like looking for a needle in billions of haystacks. Only one in every 50 billion Tevatron collisions produced a single s-channel top quark, and the CDF and DZero collaborations only selected a small fraction of those to separate them from background, which is why the number of observed occurrences of this particular channel is so small. However, the statistical significance of the CDF and DZero data exceeds that required to claim a discovery.

“Kudos to the CDF and DZero collaborations for their work in discovering this process,” said Saul Gonzalez, program director for the National Science Foundation. “Researchers from around the world, including dozens of universities in the United States, contributed to this important find.”

The CDF and DZero experiments first observed particle collisions that created single top quarks through a different process of the weak nuclear force in 2009. This observation was later confirmed by scientists using the Large Hadron Collider.

Scientists from 27 countries collaborated on the Tevatron CDF and DZero experiments and continue to study the reams of data produced during the collider’s run, using ever more sophisticated techniques and computing methods.

“I’m pleased that the CDF and DZero collaborations have brought their study of the top quark full circle,” said Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer. “The legacy of the Tevatron is indelible, and this discovery makes the breadth of that research even more remarkable.”

Fermilab is America’s national laboratory for particle physics research. A U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science laboratory, Fermilab is located near Chicago, Illinois, and operated under contract by the Fermi Research Alliance, LLC. Visit Fermilab’s website at www.fnal.gov and follow us on Twitter at @FermilabToday.

The DOE Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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A second chance at sight

Monday, February 17th, 2014

This article appeared in symmetry on February 4, 2014.

Silicon microstrip detectors, a staple in particle physics experiments, provide information that may be critical to restoring vision to some who lost it.

Silicon microstrip detectors, a staple in particle physics experiments, provide information that may be critical to restoring vision to some who lost it.

In 1995, physicist Alan Litke co-wrote a particularly prescient article for Scientific American about potential uses for an emerging technology called the silicon microstrip detector. With its unprecedented precision, this technology was already helping scientists search for the top quark and, Litke wrote, it could help discover the elusive Higgs boson. He further speculated that it could perhaps also begin to uncover some of the many mysteries of the brain.

As the article went to press, physicists at Fermilab announced the discovery of the top quark, using those very same silicon detectors. In 2012, the world celebrated the discovery of the Higgs boson, aided by silicon microstrip detectors at CERN. Now Litke’s third premonition is also coming true: His work with silicon microstrip detectors and slices of retinal tissue is leading to developments in neurobiology that are starting to help people with certain kinds of damage to their vision to see.

“The starting point and the motivation was fundamental physics,” says Litke, who splits his time between University of California, Santa Cruz, and CERN. “But once you have this wonderful technology, you can think about applying it to many other fields.”

Silicon microstrip detectors use a thin slab of silicon, implanted with an array of diode strips, to detect charged particles. As a particle passes through the silicon, a localized current is generated. This current can be detected on the nearby strips and measured with high spatial resolution and accuracy.

Litke and collaborators with expertise in, and inspiration from, the development of silicon microstrip detectors, fabricated two-dimensional arrays of microscopic electrodes to study the complex circuitry of the retina. In the experiments, a slice of retinal tissue is placed on top of one of the arrays. Then a movie—a variety of visual stimuli including flashing checkerboards and moving bars—is focused on the input neurons of the retina, and the electrical signals generated by hundreds of the retina’s output neurons are simultaneously recorded. This electrical activity is what would normally be sent as signals to the brain and translated into visual perceptions.

This process allowed Litke and his collaborators to help decipher the retina’s coded messages to the brain and to create a functional connectivity map of the retina, showing the strengths of connections between the input and output neurons. That in itself was important to neurobiology, but Litke wanted to take this research further, to not just record neural activity but also to stimulate it. Litke and his team designed a system in which they stimulate retinal and brain tissue with precise electrical signals and study the kinds of signals the tissue produces in response.

Such observations have led to an outpouring of new neurobiology and biomedical applications, including studies for the design of a retinal prosthesis, a device that can restore sight. In a disease like retinitis pigmentosa or age-related macular degeneration, the eye’s output system to the brain is fine, but the input system has degraded.

In one version of a retinal prosthesis, a patient could wear a small video camera—something similar to Google Glass. A small computer would process the collected images and generate a pattern of electrical signals that would, in turn, stimulate the retina’s output neurons. In this way, the pattern of electrical signals that a naturally functioning eye would create could be replicated. The studies with the stimulation/recording system are being carried out in collaboration with neurobiologist E. J. Chichilnisky (Salk Institute and Stanford University) and physicist Pawel Hottowy (AGH University of Science and Technology, Krakow). The interdisciplinary and international character of the research highlights its origins in high energy physics.

In another approach, the degraded input neurons—the neurons that convert light into electrical signals—are functionally replaced by a two-dimensional array of silicon photodiodes. Daniel Palanker, an associate professor at Stanford University, has been using Litke’s arrays, in collaboration with Alexander Sher, an assistant professor at UCSC, who completed his postdoctoral work with Litke, to study how a prosthesis of this type would interact with a retina. Palanker and Sher are also researching retinal plasticity and have discovered that, in patients whose eyes have been treated with lasers, which can cause scar tissue, healthy cells sometimes migrate into an area where cells have died.

“I’m not sure we would be able to get this kind of information without these arrays,” Palanker says. “We use them all the time. It’s absolutely brilliant technology.”

Litke’s physics-inspired technology is continuing to play a role in the development of neurobiology. In 2013, President Obama announced the BRAIN—Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies—Initiative, with the aim of mapping the entire neural circuitry of the human brain. A Nature Methods paper laying out the initiative’s scientific priorities noted that “advances in the last decade have made it possible to measure neural activities in large ensembles of neurons,” citing Litke’s arrays.

“The technology has enabled initial studies that now have contributed to this BRAIN Initiative,” Litke says. “That comes from the Higgs boson. That’s an amazing chain.”

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NOvA experiment sees first long-distance neutrinos

Friday, February 14th, 2014

Fermilab released this press release on Feb. 11, 2014.

Workers at the NOvA hall in northern Minnesota assemble the final block of the far detector in early February 2014, with the nearly completed detector in the background. Each block of the detector measures about 50 feet by 50 feet by 6 feet and is made up of 384 plastic PVC modules, assembled flat on a massive pivoting machine. Photo courtesy of NOvA collaboration

Workers at the NOvA hall in northern Minnesota assemble the final block of the far detector in early February 2014, with the nearly completed detector in the background. Each block of the detector measures about 50 feet by 50 feet by 6 feet and is made up of 384 plastic PVC modules, assembled flat on a massive pivoting machine. Photo courtesy of NOvA collaboration

Scientists on the world’s longest-distance neutrino experiment announced today that they have seen their first neutrinos.

The NOvA experiment consists of two huge particle detectors placed 500 miles apart, and its job is to explore the properties of an intense beam of ghostly particles called neutrinos. Neutrinos are abundant in nature, but they very rarely interact with other matter. Studying them could yield crucial information about the early moments of the universe.

“NOvA represents a new generation of neutrino experiments,” said Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer. “We are proud to reach this important milestone on our way to learning more about these fundamental particles.”

Scientists generate a beam of the particles for the NOvA experiment using one of the world’s largest accelerators, located at the Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago. They aim this beam in the direction of the two particle detectors, one near the source at Fermilab and the other in Ash River, Minn., near the Canadian border. The detector in Ash River is operated by the University of Minnesota under a cooperative agreement with the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

Billions of those particles are sent through the earth every two seconds, aimed at the massive detectors. Once the experiment is fully operational, scientists will catch a precious few each day.

Neutrinos are curious particles. They come in three types, called flavors, and change between them as they travel. The two detectors of the NOvA experiment are placed so far apart to give the neutrinos the time to oscillate from one flavor to another while traveling at nearly the speed of light. Even though only a fraction of the experiment’s larger detector, called the far detector, is fully built, filled with scintillator and wired with electronics at this point, the experiment has already used it to record signals from its first neutrinos.

“That the first neutrinos have been detected even before the NOvA far detector installation is complete is a real tribute to everyone involved. That includes the staff at Fermilab, Ash River Lab and the University of Minnesota module facility, the NOvA scientists, and all of the professionals and students building this detector,” said University of Minnesota physicist Marvin Marshak, Ash River Laboratory director. “This early result suggests that the NOvA collaboration will make important contributions to our knowledge of these particles in the not so distant future.”

Once completed, NOvA’s near and far detectors will weigh 300 and 14,000 tons, respectively. Crews will put into place the last module of the far detector early this spring and will finish outfitting both detectors with electronics in the summer.

“The first neutrinos mean we’re on our way,” said Harvard physicist Gary Feldman, who has been a co-leader of the experiment from the beginning. “We started meeting more than 10 years ago to discuss how to design this experiment, so we are eager to get under way.”

The NOvA collaboration is made up of 208 scientists from 38 institutions in the United States, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Greece, India, Russia and the United Kingdom. The experiment receives funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and other funding agencies.

The NOvA experiment is scheduled to run for six years. Because neutrinos interact with matter so rarely, scientists expect to catch just about 5,000 neutrinos or antineutrinos during that time. Scientists can study the timing, direction and energy of the particles that interact in their detectors to determine whether they came from Fermilab or elsewhere.

Fermilab creates a beam of neutrinos by smashing protons into a graphite target, which releases a variety of particles. Scientists use magnets to steer the charged particles that emerge from the energy of the collision into a beam. Some of those particles decay into neutrinos, and the scientists filter the non-neutrinos from the beam.

Fermilab started sending a beam of neutrinos through the detectors in September, after 16 months of work by about 300 people to upgrade the lab’s accelerator complex.

“It is great to see the first neutrinos from the upgraded complex,” said Fermilab physicist Paul Derwent, who led the accelerator upgrade project. “It is the culmination of a lot of hard work to get the program up and running again.”

Different types of neutrinos have different masses, but scientists do not know how these masses compare to one another. A goal of the NOvA experiment is to determine the order of the neutrino masses, known as the mass hierarchy, which will help scientists narrow their list of possible theories about how neutrinos work.

“Seeing neutrinos in the first modules of the detector in Minnesota is a major milestone,” said Fermilab physicist Rick Tesarek, deputy project leader for NOvA. “Now we can start doing physics.”

Note: NOvA stands for NuMI Off-Axis Electron Neutrino Appearance. NuMI is itself an acronym, standing for Neutrinos from the Main Injector, Fermilab’s flagship accelerator.

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