Courtesy Photo.

A group of Cal Poly students are working in Europe to find the missing link in particle physics, while operating the world’s largest science experiment.

The project is trying to recreate the scenario of how the universe started, but on a smaller scale, Cal Poly physics professor Thomas Gutierrez said.

“They are trying to reverse-engineer the universe,” Gutierrez said.

The main tool used by Cal Poly students is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a machine designed to help researchers find the Higgs boson particle, otherwise known as the “God particle.” It is thought to be the key to several physics theories but is difficult to find. To do so, two particles must be slammed together, with high energy, in a 17-mile long complex, said Jennifer Klay physics professor and adviser for the Cal Poly-European Organization for Nuclear Research project.

The sole purpose of the project is to get faster collisions at higher frequencies, and collisions with the speed and energy that the Collider provides, might reveal the Higgs boson, Klay said.

According to Gutierrez and Klay, all particles known today are the manifestation of the theoretical Higgs boson particle.

“Higgs boson is a theoretical particle that gives all other particles mass,” Klay said.

Klay worked on “A Large Ion Collider Experiment,” which is a part of the bigger LHC located on the French-Swiss border. According to the experiment’s website, there are 33 countries, 115 organizations and more than 1,000 members involved.

Every summer between two and four students from Cal Poly earn a spot to work in Geneva, Klay said.

Physics, materials engineering and mathematics majors from Cal Poly have all worked on the Collision Experiment, which gives them the opportunity to travel to another continent and work with some of the world’s top scientists.

“Along with getting to see a part of the world I’d never seen before, I got to (be) a part of the biggest science experiment in the world,” physics senior Tyler Williams said.

Language is not a barrier because English is the main language for particle physics, even on an international project like LHC.

The minimum requirements for students wanting to work with the Collider experiment include knowing how to work with computer algorithms, a good understanding of programming and having taken CSC 101, 234 and 235, Klay said.

Additionally, there are assessments to see if potential students can perform specific programming tasks within a given time period, Klay said.

Every student technician has an eight-hour shift. Their responsibilities come with the utmost attention to detail. Some of the tasks they perform are the collection and storage of large amounts of data. Sometimes there would be three petabytes of data, Klay said, or more than 3 million gigabytes worth of data.

While the technicians are collecting the data, they must check the quality of it to make sure it is useful to the research and accurate, Klay said.

Williams said he worked the 12 to 8 a.m., or 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. shifts.

“Most nights were relatively quiet, and my tasks changed depending on what substation I was at,” he said.

A typical day for Kevin Coulombe, a graduate physics student, would include student lectures and seminars in the morning, detector shifts run all day and on-call detector meetings at 5 p.m.

The main goal of the Collider is to find the Higgs boson, but many advances in experimental tools were developed to make this project happen.

Many innovations in technology and science have helped to make this project possible, and those innovations will affect everyday life, Klay said.

This article was written by Sebastian Silveira

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