Graduate Student Duff Neill Receives 2008 LHC Theory Initiative Award-Dept of Physics - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Graduate Student Duff Neill Receives 2008 LHC Theory Initiative Award

Duff Neill spends his days looking for a needle in a haystack. Or, more specifically, he's calculating how to recognize the needle. Neill, a third-year physics graduate student, makes theoretical Calculations to help physicists interpret the data that will emerge from the high-energy proton collisions at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's most powerful particle accelerator. When it is restarted next year, beams of protons will zip around the 17-mile track at nearly the speed of light, crashing into each other with unprecedented energies.

"The environment in which collisions take place is exceedingly complex," Neill says.  "Protons create a mess when they collide, with particles flying off in every direction.  You have to filter the noise so that you can see the more subtle effects."

At the LHC, some 600 million proton-proton collisions will take place every second, generating roughly 15 million gigabytes of data a year. Scientists from around the world will analyze the data, sifting through the myriad particles produced by the collisions in search of answers to some of physics' greatest mysteries, like the elusive Higgs boson, extra dimensions and dark matter particles, just to name a few.

Neill is one of six postdoctoral fellows and graduate students who received 2008 LHC Theory Initiative Awards. Administered by The Johns Hopkins University and funded by the National Science Foundation, the LHC Theory Initiative awards provide selected young theorists with funds to underwrite the costs of their research, computing and travel needs. Neill was one of two recipients of a $5,000 LHC Theory Initiative Graduate Travel Award.

"These fellowships will stimulate the work of theoretical physicists who will help interpret the data that will emerge from the Large Hadron Collider," said Jonathan Bagger, a member of the LHC Theory Initiative and chair of the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy at The Johns Hopkins University, in a statement announcing the fellowships.

Neill is fine-tuning theoretical predictions about what will happen during the proton-proton collisions in the LHC. These predictions should help scientists in their quest for the elusive Higgs boson, a fundamental particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics but never seen, which physicists believe may be linked with the way particles acquire mass.

Theoretical predictions like those Neill is working on can estimate how many Higgs particles will be produced in any given collision. Things get tricky, however, because each collision produces many particles -- not just Higgs bosons -- that must be accounted for in order to reconstruct the whole process.

Neill and his advisor, Professor Ira Rothstein, represent a small contingent of theoretical physicists in the United States doing LHC-related research with Effective Field Theory.  Neill hopes that the LHC award will allow him to visit CERN, the LHC's home at the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, and to travel to various conferences to expand his knowledge on Effective Field Theory and other techniques, which will get him even closer to finding that elusive needle in the haystack.