Scientists at CERN — the European Organization for Nuclear Research — have developed technologies ranging from the World Wide Web to tools for detecting cancer.
But these applications are mere by-products of their true quest: to uncover the mysteries of the universe by researching particle physics. Carnegie Mellon scientists are playing a role in that.
From galaxies to butterflies, everything is made of extremely tiny particles. Studying these particles requires the use of huge machines that speed up the particles to very high energies and smash them together.
By accelerating and smashing particles, scientists are recreating the environment present during The Big Bang. What for? To understand the formation of stars, trees, Earth, everything around us — even us.
At CERN's accelerator in Geneva, Switzerland, a section of one of these huge machines — the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector — recently made a 10-hour journey into its experimental cavern.
The section, which contains the detector's solenoid magnet, weighs 1,950 metric tons — as much as five jumbo jets — and is 16 meters tall, 17 meters wide and 13 meters long. Carnegie Mellon physicists Tom Ferguson, Helmut Vogel and Roy Briere constructed a key element of the detector.
According to Austin Ball, CERN physicist and CMS technical coordinator, lowering the massive piece was a challenging feat of engineering with just 20 centimeters of leeway between the detector and the walls of the shaft.
"With the successful lowering of the largest piece of the CMS detector to its final position in the experimental area of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) accelerator, we have passed an important milestone in the construction of the CMS experiment," said Ferguson, a Carnegie Mellon professor of physics and a member of the CMS collaboration. "After more than 10 years of planning and construction, the beginning of actual physics is now in sight."
Physicists are preparing the CMS detector and its sister detector, ATLAS, to take data at CERN's LHC accelerator. The LHC will accelerate and collide beams of protons at the highest energy of any accelerator in the world, and the detectors will record some of the 800 million collisions that will occur every second.
By analyzing what happens in these high-energy collisions, scientists believe they might discover the origins of mass, shed light on dark matter, uncover hidden symmetries of the universe, and possibly find extra dimensions of space.
CERN is the world's largest particle physics laboratory. It sits on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland.