The Next Step in Particle Physics Involves the ‘Lego Game’ of the Universe
We may not know the meaning of life, but we are getting closer to knowing what it is made of. The answer to our huge questions starts small: particle physics.
Step back layer after layer, channel a lot of energy into research and take care to leave things as they were in the past; with that, the answers begin to reveal themselves, like insects wriggling under a long-forgotten rock. And seven years after discovering another metaphorical bug, physics professors in the northeast Emanuela Barberis and Toyoko Orimoto prepare to bring together people who want more.
Since the mid-20th century, particle physics experiments have fleshed out the Standard Model, which describes the building blocks of matter – particles like protons and electrons – and how those parts interact with each other – like photons. conferring the electromagnetic force, which holds the atoms together.
The standard model is, as Barberis puts it, “the set of Lego blocks of our universe.And, newly discovered in 2012, a particle called the Higgs boson completes this set.
Inside CERN, a research organization that runs the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, a massive machine called the Large Hadron Collider was blasting particles against each other, letting them crash down and measuring elements such as their momentum and energy levels.
Over the years, these extreme conditions produced observable results, such as the electrical charge of certain particles, which physicists were then able to incorporate into the Standard Model. In doing so, physicists began to learn more about the ingredients of our universe, even those that only existed for a moment, long before we were there to observe them.
“We are recreating conditions very close to the Big Bang,” says Barberis. “We’re producing particles that aren’t abundant in nature these days.”
But Barberis, Orimoto and their fellow physicists, including Northeastern’s George Alverson, Darien Woodand Louise Skinnarwho now all work on the Compact Muon Solenoid Experiment at CERN – keep moving, because there are only more questions to answer.
For example, the Standard Model does not account for gravity, an observable but hard-to-describe force at a level smaller than an atom. And then there’s dark matter and dark energy, which make up much of the universe, Orimoto says.
“The Standard Model only describes a small fraction of the universe we know,” she says.
To exploit these still unexplained phenomena, particle physicists need new strategies, new ideas and new plans. And, of course, a machine colliding with a billion particles every second at almost the speed of light needs a break. For this reason, in November 2018, the Large Hadron Collider was shut down for a hiatus.
“We are upgrading the experimental apparatus because this experiment has been going on for…”, begins Barberis.
“Decades,” concludes Orimoto.
“Until 2035, at least,” says Barberis. “So every once in a while we upgrade.”
Scientists also welcome these shutdowns, because constant large-scale testing generates a lot of data that then needs to be analyzed and discussed. Every two years, they meet at a symposium: the Meeting of the Division of Particles and Fields of the American Physical Society. This year, Barberis and Orimoto are your co-hosts. And Northeastern is your home base.
Participants will come not only from US research laboratories and universities, but also from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Justus Liebig University in Giessen and Universidad Nacional de Colombia. the five days of exchanges and discussionspunctuated by numerous coffee breaks, will also address challenges such as diversity in physics and the efforts of scientists to communicate their discoveries to the public.
There will also be a conference open to the public, the cornerstone of each conference. This year’s lecture, delivered by Dr. Katie Mack, will focus on dark matter (even though such a topic cannot be covered enough).
Like a field welcoming a new seed after a growing season of a familiar seed, or your skin drinking a face mask after a week of constant cosmetics, world-class physics instruments sometimes need a break to figure out what the universe is made. And, in a way, that’s where the real work begins.
“We have a little time to breathe,” says Orimoto, “but that doesn’t mean we’re taking a break.”
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