Inside the particle physics conference shaping a decade of research – NBC Los Angeles

Imagine a particle physicist. What do they look like when they do their research?

According to Dr. Jonathan Lee Feng, professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine, there is a certain popular image of what a scientist looks like when making his discoveries.

“I think a lot of lay people think that scientific progress is something achieved by a genius sitting at their table, having a kind of ‘Eureka’ moment,” Feng said in a phone interview with NBC4.

But this idea is not entirely accurate.

“Science is now very social and based on interactions,” he explained – and those interactions and collaborations are happening at conferences like Snowmass, which will be held in Seattle July 17-26 this year.

Particle physics is the study of the tiny particles that form the building blocks of all known matter in the universe. If you’re a particle physicist, you might study quarks, which make up protons and neutrons, or leptons, a kind of particle that includes electrons. These particles, put together, create atoms, which make up everything else.

Snowmass, also known as Snowmass Community Planning Exercise, is an academic conference for US particle physicists and some of the international particle physicists with whom they collaborate. At the conference, they propose new research topics, areas of study, and potential experiments, with the goal of building the next stage of American research in particle physics.

But that description alone doesn’t quite capture the magnitude of the event.

The conference is sponsored and organized by a subset of the American Physical Society — “a nonprofit organization working to advance knowledge in physics,” according to its website.

It’s a kind of professional society for physicists, with “more than 50,000 members, including physicists from academia, national laboratories, and industry in the United States and around the world.”

Within the wider APS, the Particle and Field Division is a group of scientists that focuses solely on what most people call particle physics, the field perhaps best known for creating the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

Or, as the DPF puts it, they focus on “the study of fundamental particles and fields, their structure, their interactions and interrelationships, the design and development of high-energy accelerators, and the design and development of instrumentation techniques for high energy physics.”

Basically, if you’re a researcher in the field of particle physics, you’ve probably heard of the Snowmass conference.

“It’s basically a chance for the whole community of particle physicists, in this case, to come together and take stock of where we are,” Feng said, and to use this assessment of the American research that already exists to “make a plan for where to go.”

This plan is made on a large scale of time.

The first Snowmass conference was held in 1982, in the town of Snowmass, Colorado – hence its name. The conference is held again about every ten years, according to Dr. Sekhar Chivukula, a UC San Diego professor, DPF president-elect and one of the Snowmass organizers.

“After a period of study by subgroups of scientists studying various subfields, we come together in subfields to work to create a unified vision for the future,” Chivukula said in an email.

It’s a very collaborative process, which actually begins years before the date of the conference, according to Dr. Pedro Ochoa-Ricoux, an associate professor at UC Irvine.

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“Snowmass is a process,” he said in a phone call, and the conference “is the culmination of the process.”

The process begins with letters of interest that are solicited from particle physicists across the United States – “short and sweet” two-page explanations of what researchers are interested in and why they think it is important, said Ochoa-Ricoux.

These letters of interest lead to what are called “white papers”, which are reports or guides that present a simplified version of a complex research idea.

Instead of the broader summary in letters of interest, white papers contain a specific physics problem to be solved, details of what the problem is, how the authors think it might be solved, and the benefits and the downsides of why this research method is better than other hypothetical methods, Ochoa-Ricoux said.

White papers essentially serve as arguments for a particular experience or idea that the authors believe should attract attention at the conference.

These papers are then shared with the “frontier” group, or group of researchers from a particle physics field of study, to be reviewed, considered, and selected for the next step.

“The whole Snowmass process is divided into 10 boundaries,” Ochoa-Ricoux said, because particle physics as a field of physics is so large that it needs to be divided.

For example, the energy frontier focuses on understanding heavy particles, new types of particle interactions, and the mystery of dark matter – which particle physicists still don’t have much information about, despite the fact that it makes up about 85% of the matter in the universe, according to Feng.

“We have no idea what it is,” Feng said. “We would desperately like some clues on this.”

And the search for clues means many potential research projects.

Within the boundaries are different thematic clusters, further dividing the research areas, but the end result of all the sub-clusters, articles, discussions and reviews leads to a larger report.

The endgame for Snowmass is a report, Ochoa-Ricoux said, with a section from each of the 10 frontiers made up of pieces from each of the theme groups.

“It’s a bottom-up process,” he said.

It starts with a larger group of physicists and students, and progresses to people at the top of the field.

“It’s really a very American thing, kind of a democratic thing, an idea that everyone should kind of have a say in it,” Feng said. “There’s a lot of emphasis on making sure everyone, maybe early-career physicists, maybe graduate students” is included in the process.

Their work concludes with a series of reports “detailing the current state of the field and the most exciting experimental and theoretical opportunities for progress,” Chivukula said. And these reports help determine where the limited funding available can best be used to advance the vast field of particle physics.

Snowmass essentially sets the menu from which US funding agencies, such as the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, select future projects, Feng explained.

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“We have a bunch of big plans,” Feng said.

The biggest ones that take more people, equipment, time and funding are starters, the smaller projects are desserts, and the weirdest but interesting ideas are appetizers – but you won’t be able to eat it all or pay everything. On the menu.

“So someone basically has to choose from the menu,” Feng said. “What are we going to order?” »

Snowmass reports go to what’s called the P5 – the Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel – which prioritizes ideas that all conference attendees, leading researchers and white paper authors have presented, and ” forms a blueprint for what can actually be built in the next five, 10, 15 years,” Feng said.

This recommendation is sent to the DOE and the NSF, which implement the suggestions in the form of grants and budget proposals to the US government.

Once the whole process is complete, particle physicists know where the field will go for the next 10 years or so – until the next Snowmass conference.

“These reports will be used by the agencies to make the budget proposals to Congress over the next decade,” Chivukula said. “This joint effort by the particle physics community in coordination with government agencies has been extremely effective in creating and maintaining a state-of-the-art particle physics program in the United States.”

But beyond the money, the conference helps shape particle physics as a field by bringing together scientists from fields of study that might not otherwise interact.

“You emerge with a better overall view of the field,” Feng said, not just your own “sub-sub-specialty.”

Ochoa-Ricoux, for example, is one of the frontier-convening researchers studying neutrinos – “a peculiar elementary particle without electrical charge, with ghostly properties”, which can move through entire planets and out of the other side, he explained. .

But he’s chairing a session at Snowmass between that frontier and the one focusing on accelerators, to see what the two groups can work on together.

“It’s a chance for all of us to come together,” he said.

The conference is also a “fantastic resource” for graduate students who are just beginning to orient themselves in the field, Ochoa-Ricoux said, who are trying to understand “who we are, what we do and why.”

“We try to answer some of the most fundamental questions you can ask yourself. “What is the world made of? How does the world work at its most basic level?” he said. “Not only is it fun and exciting, it’s important.”

And beyond the science, it’s an exciting opportunity to meet fellow scientists in person — made even more meaningful by the COVID delays.

“Our original plan was for the Snowmass process to begin in the summer of 2020 and have a community-wide meeting during the summer of 2021,” Chivukula said. “The COVID pandemic has made face-to-face encounters impossible, and has also been particularly challenging for community members with young children.”

So they paused work from January 2021 to August 2021 and are finally meeting in person in 2022.

“I am very happy to be back in person! said Chivukula.

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