Graduate Student Duff Neill Receives Theoretical Physics Fellowship-Mellon College of Science - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Graduate Student Duff Neill Receives Theoretical Physics Fellowship

The famous physicist Neils Bohr once said: Predictions are rather difficult, especially if they concern the future. Graduate student Duff Neill couldn’t agree more. The 4th year PhD candidate in the Department of Physics is working feverishly to predict the behavior of subatomic particles that are being produced at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland.

At the LHC, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, beams of protons are crashing into each other with unprecedented energies, ultimately resulting in some 600 million proton-proton collisions every second. Neill is formulating precise theoretical predictions to help scientists from around the world interpret the data being generated by the collisions as they search of answers to some of physics’ greatest mysteries.

“It is really exciting and fascinating work because I’m focusing on a problem that is meaningful to the experiments taking place at the LHC and that is relevant to something happening in the physical world,” said Neill.

Neill recently received a 2010 LHC Theory Initiative Award in support of his work. Administered by The Johns Hopkins University and funded by the National Science Foundation, the LHC Theory Initiative awards the $40,000 fellowship to promising young theorists working on LHC-related physics. Neill is one of two graduate students nationwide to receive the award.

“It is quite an honor to get this award,” said Neill. “I have the good fortune of being in a very supportive research group that has given me the opportunity to learn a lot.”

With the help of his advisor Professor Ira Rothstein, Neill has been advancing his knowledge of Effective Field Theory to obtain precise calculations of some of the fundamental physical processes underlying the experiments at the LHC. Such theoretical predictions are needed to understand the complex interactions among subatomic particles produced during proton-proton collisions. Because protons are not fundamental particles, but are composed of subatomic particles called quarks and gluons, they create a mess when they collide, with particles flying off in every direction.

“To make sense of the data from the LHC, you must be able to predict precisely how these quarks and gluons will interact when they are liberated during the collision,” said Neill. “My research is focused on understanding these interactions.”

Specifically, Neill is formulating accurate predictions of how the Higgs boson, an elusive particle predicted but never seen, will be produced at the LHC. Theoretical predictions like those Neill is working on can estimate how many Higgs particles will be produced in any given collision. Using Effective Field Theory, he can forecast all the parameters of a collision, giving experimenters the information they need to either find something specific or identify an unexpected result.

Because the LHC is operating at unprecedented energies, it may be impossible to predict what type of new physics may unfold. Neill remains pragmatic. “There is something undiscovered there, but first we have to master what we already know.”

By: Amy Pavlak