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Vivek Jain | USLHC | USA

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An “X-ray” of a detector– Part II

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

In a previous post, I had described how we use photons to map the material in a detector. Here I will mention a complementary way using particles such protons, pions, neutrons, etc. (these particles are collectively known as hadrons).

Hadrons interact with matter differently than photons; the latter interact purely via the electromagnetic force, whereas the former do so mainly via the strong force. The likelihood of hadrons interacting in matter is quantified by a property called the “interaction length; more about this later.

Just as a photon can convert when it travels through material, a hadron can interact and produce what we call a “secondary interaction”. In a way, this is the same idea as when the two proton beams at the LHC collide. Let’s say I have a proton that was created in the primary collision. As it travels out through the detector, it can interact with another proton in a nucleus in, say, the silicon detector. At times, this secondary interaction will have two or more charged particles emerging from it; at other times, one may have only one charged particle coming, e.g., one pion and two neutrons, or, the initial proton may just suffer a small deflection, etc.

If the secondary interaction has two or more charged particles coming out of it, we can use our software to check if the daughter particles come from the same spatial point. If they do, we have a vertex describing the location of the secondary interaction. The spatial distribution of these secondary vertices will give us a map of the material in the detector. I am currently working on this project and preliminary results are very promising.

As I wrote in the previous post, the likelihood of photon conversions in a material can be quantified by a property called “radiation length”; this depends on the intrinsic properties of the material such as atomic number, i.e., number of protons in the atom, and also atomic mass, which is proportional to the number of protons and neutrons in the atom. Since photons interact via the electromagnetic force, “radiation length” has to depend on the charge of the nucleus, i.e., the atomic number. In contrast, the strong force makes no distinction between a proton and a neutron, thus, “interaction length” has no dependence on the atomic number, but only on the atomic mass. The latter length also has some dependence on the energy of the incident particle. Although, we can derive from one from the other, it can be tricky. Since every material in our simulation package has to be described with a radiation and an interaction length, material maps made using photons and hadrons serve as very good checks on our understanding.

— Vivek Jain, Indiana University


Travels to the edge of time

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

As many of you may know, the ATLAS detector (and for that matter CMS) is physically huge. It weighs about 7000 tons, and measures approximately 45 meters in length and 20 meters in diameter. It is the size of a small ship, one packed with sensitive silicon sensors, sophisticated electronics, and powerful on-board computers.

When the proton beams start to collide at the LHC, we will be re-creating conditions that existed about 10-12 second after the big bang (of course, a lot of the interesting stuff had already happened in the first 10-37 second). All the heavy particles that we will create in these collisions existed freely in the aftermath of the big bang.

Although, these collisions will be taking place in the laboratory, one can imagine a ship travelling back to the beginning of time, and sending information about what is going on there.

— Vivek Jain, Indiana University


What’s Missing Energy?

Friday, July 10th, 2009

You may have come across the concept of “missing energy” in some of the previous posts (Adam’s from June 25, and Monica’s from last year)? What is it? Is it a signature for physics or is that we can’t count properly?

Basically, the idea is the following. When two protons collide, it is actually a part of each one of them that causes the high-energy collision, while the rest of the proton sort of “falls apart” (the latter, aka “the underlying event”, produces lower energy stuff). These two parts (quarks and gluons, generically known as “partons”) have an unknown fraction of the proton energy (or momentum) along the beam direction. However, in a plane perpendicular to this high-energy proton beam these partons have negligible energy; they are essentially moving along the beam direction. Stand in front of a wall and imagine one beam coming out of the wall and the other going into it, and the collision occurs at the surface of the wall. This collision is like a bubbling cauldron (of energy) that spews out particles every which way; hence, they have a momentum component in this transverse plane as well as along the beam direction.

From the principle of energy conservation, since the initial state (two colliding partons) has zero energy in this transverse plane, the final state (a mish-mash of electrons, pions, photons, neutrons, protons, kaons, muons, etc.) should also have zero energy. If we do a vector sum of the energy of all the final state particles in this transverse plane, we should get zero. (For instance, if the collision produces two electrons that are going in opposite directions in this plane, the vector sum of their momentum will add to zero.) If this sum is non-zero, we call it “missing energy”. So what? Does this tell us anything?

Some particles do not produce any detectable signal as they travel through the detector; neutrinos are the most common type. If they have high enough energy, events containing them will have a detectable amount of missing energy. Energetic neutrinos are typically produced in the decay of a W boson or a Top quark; lower energy neutrinos are produced in the decay of Tau leptons or particles containing a Charm or a Bottom quark; even lower energy neutrinos are produced in some decays of pions and kaons. In fact, we are able to use this feature to reconstruct a Top quark.

Most garden-variety events, other than those listed above, typically have very little missing energy. But, what about new phenomena? Well, it turns out that most models of Supersymmetry (see Seth’s post from June 28 ) posit a particle that behaves very much like a neutrino as it travels through the detector, and these can be very heavy (100 to 200 times the mass of a proton). In these models, such particles are produced copiously, thus events containing them will have lots of missing energy, much more than in events mentioned above. In fact, this is one of the unique signatures of these models. Also, there are other new Physics effects for which missing energy is a good discriminant.

However, understanding missing energy is a tricky business; you have to know the dead regions of the detector as well as the noisy ones. Imagine that one part of the detector is not working. Any particle that goes into that region is not measured. If you follow the prescription outlined above, you will get that these events have missing energy; there was stuff there but we didn’t see it. Or, electronic components in one section of the detector are very noisy, so we may think that there is lot of stuff going into that region. Once again, these events will appear to have missing energy. We also have to make a lot of fine corrections to particle energies to determine missing energy accurately. But, if we do it properly, there is a huge payoff in being able to detect new phenomena! Happy hunting.



Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

Outreach activities are an important part of what we do. Not only do they inform the public what their tax dollars are being spent on and allow it to ask questions, but also reaches out to students when they are still thinking about a career; either when they are undergraduates or even earlier in high school.

Research is built around the concept of “apprenticeship”, and having good, motivated students is crucial. They do a lot of the “grunt work”, e.g., building and calibrating the detector, writing software, etc., but they also analyze data that lead to publications, and their dissertations ; undergraduates can also make important contributions.

One way to work with undergraduates is to be a host for a student in the REU program (Research Experience for Undergraduates). An undergraduate typically spends ten weeks during the summer with a research group at a university different from where they are enrolled as a student. This summer a colleague and I are hosting a student from Missouri University of Science & Technology; last year we worked with one from Vanderbilt University. He is reading ATLAS documentation to understand how “Missing Energy” is determined, learning how to use software tools, making plots, giving talks in local group meetings, etc. In other words, getting a first hand look at how research is done.

Another outreach activity I have been involved with since last year is called “Adopt-a-Physicist”. It is coordinated through the American Institute of Physics. Basically, one is “adopted” by high school students from around the country for a period of two weeks, and they ask questions (on a web-based forum) about whatever strikes their fancy, e.g., what my research is all about, what the life of a scientist is like, what my daily activities are, how much I get paid (not as much as I would like! Even Physicists like to own Porsches!), whether I have pets, etc. The adoptees have a Physics degree but are not necessarily in research. It is a very good way for students to learn the benefits of getting a science education. I received the following from one teacher whose class had adopted me,  “…thanks for increasing their interest in a science related career. This interaction with you has definitely changed their view about scientists and they realized that scientists are real people leading a life a similar to theirs…” Maybe one or more of them will end up doing research. At the very least, it broadens their perception about science and scientists.


An “X-ray” of a detector– Part I

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Hi everyone, This is my first post on these blogs, and I’ll start off by talking about the ATLAS detector. Let me know what you think. Hope you like it!

Vivian wrote in a previous post,

We simulate how the particles would interact in our detector. To do this we have to have a very complete implementation in software of our detector, including the positions of all the components…Even parts like the cables that bring signals from the inside of the detector out to the electronics that register the data have to be in the simulation since there is some probability that a particle will interact in the cables!

It would be bad if there was material in the detector that we didn’t know about, which threw our measurements off, or, for that matter a bug in the simulation software that did strange things with material description, leading to the interpretation of some garden variety physics effect as a new phenomenon! One can see the headlines, “Oops. Scientists retract discovery of the Higgs boson”.

We carefully account for everything that is installed, down to its weight, composition, position, etc. Remember, the ATLAS detector weighs about 7000 tons and has an extremely large number of individual components that need to be accounted for, so this is a non-trivial task. Another problem is that when you have compound materials, e.g., cables that contain plastic, wires, etc., and we have miles and miles of them snaking their way through and around the detector, it is not easy to accurately describe their properties and precisely know all of their positions. It is also possible to make a mistake while entering this information into a database, e.g., forgetting to enter some support structure or using an incorrect or approximate description, etc.

Since physicists are skeptical by nature, we want an independent way to verify the material. So, how to do this? It turns out that we can use (real) data to “X-ray’ the detector.

This “X-ray” uses a unique property of the photon (aka “the light particle”). As a high energy photon nears a nucleus in the material it is traveling through, it can convert to an electron-positron pair. This effect is known as “photon conversion”. It is the main process by which high-energy photons lose energy as they travel through matter, and the likelihood of a photon converting depends on the material, both the amount and its intrinsic properties, that it is passing through.

In order to convert at all, (a) energy conservation requires that the photon have at least as much energy as the combined mass of the electron and the positron, and, (b) a photon, being massless, has to be near a nucleus.

The likelihood of photon conversions is quantified by a property of the material called the “radiation length” (this quantity also determines how electrons lose energy as they travel through matter); among other things, this variable depends on the atomic weight and atomic number of the element. When you have a compound material, it can be hard to estimate a value for the radiation length, and conversions provide us with an independent measure.

So, when photons encounter denser material, they undergo more conversions, and if we detect these electron-positron pairs, we can get an “X-ray” of the material in the detector. And there will be plenty of high-energy photons in our data.

Using our software, we first identify electron and positron candidates and then check if they come from a common point in space; the latter step also needs sophisticated algorithms. If they do meet at a common point in space, we form a vertex (in 3 dimensions). By looking at the position and the number of these vertices, in both simulation and data, we can decide how well the former mimics the latter.

We are also working on a complementary way to map the material using pions, protons, neutrons, kaons, etc. More about that and other details in a later post!