Victoria Farncombe speaks to the Birmingham team involved in processing the data gleaned from the world’s biggest atom-smasher at CERN in Switzerland.
Less than three weeks ago, in an underground tunnel 100metres below Switzerland, scientists working on the Big Bang experiment made a giant leap forward in their bid to understand the origins of the universe by colliding particles at record energies.
At this stage, the results are not particularly headline grabbing. It’s next February when the atoms are set to be smashed together at a much higher energy in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that the biggest questions in science may finally be answered.
But, closer to home, it was a proud moment for research students at the University of Birmingham who have played such an integral role in collating the data.
To understand their involvement, it helps to untangle the structure at the European Organisation of Nuclear Research (CERN) which is home to the LHC.
Put simply, there are four machines located at strategic points along the LHC which record what happens when the particles collide. While each of the machines do roughly the same thing, each has a speciality and each uses slightly different technology.
Birmingham students created key electronic components for both ALICE, the machine involved in understanding how the world began and, to a lesser extent, ATLAS, which has been designed to detect dark matter and extra dimensions.
So far, the experiments have only been performed at relatively low energies to make sure everything is in working order.
Even so, when the protons were first whizzed into each other on November 23, there was an in-house race to see which team could publish its results first.
And, thanks mainly to the hard work of students at Birmingham who worked through the night to analyse the data, it was ALICE who pipped the other three to the post.
Dr David Evans, who is heading up the Birmingham operation and is a member of the ALICE board, said: “There’s friendly rivalry at CERN and we wanted to be first. My students worked round the clock to do that, so I’m rather proud. We’re leading the way. It’s round one to ALICE.”
The ALICE collaboration involves more than 1,000 scientists from 94 institutes in 28 countries. Although the Birmingham team is only 15 strong, because it designed the ‘electronic brain’ of ALICE, it has liaised with every single other group there, spreading the university’s reputation for building high-tech electronics across the globe.
“It’s put Birmingham on the map,” explained Dr Evans. “There’s 1,000 people in ALICE. If you ask them have you heard of Birmingham, they’ll say, ‘Yes, they built the trigger.’
“Everyone knows us. Our reputation is spreading.
“Nationally, it works for us too because we’re the only UK university involved in ALICE. So if something good happens, we get the credit.”
It’s thanks in part to this new-found reputation that Birmingham has recently been chosen as the next host city for a leading physics convention which takes place every 18 months.
The International Conference on Strangeness in Quark Matter comes to Birmingham in 2013 – perfect timing because, if everything goes to plan, that conference will be the first place to showcase the results of the incredible experiments pencilled in at the LHC next year. “It couldn’t come at a better time,” said Dr Evans.
Up until now, only protons have been collided in the LHC. Next summer, lead ions will be injected into the tunnel, generating temperatures 100 times hotter than the centre of the sun.
The team at CERN believe this will melt the incredibly strong glue binding the components of atoms together making a primordial soup not seen in 13.7 billion years, when the Universe began.
Meanwhile, earlier in the year, the energy at which protons are collided will be cranked up to such a level as to uncover more of nature’s secrets such as: are there actually 10 dimensions instead of the four we know today; why can we only account for four per cent of the universe; and why do some particles have no mass at all?
Dr Evans, who completed his first degree at Oxford University before researching his PhD in particle physics at Birmingham, admitted the countdown for the experiments to start was like waiting for a Christmas that only comes once every 20 years.
“It’s taken 20 years to get where we are with the LHC,” he said. “We’re on the edge of new discoveries. The next five years could be the most exciting of my life.
“We know we’re going to discover new physics. What we don’t know is what that physics will be. That’s what makes it so exciting.
“From experiments of the past, we can expect completely unexpected discoveries which could lead us in completely new directions.
“The physics text books in 10 years time may have to be rewritten in some parts and that’s fabulous. I’m very excited.”
When not grappling with life’s biggest questions, Dr David Evans is head of first years at the university’s School of Physics and Astronomy.
That he mentors some of the brightest students in the country is yet another way the university’s involvement with CERN is benefitting Birmingham.
“We are the only university in the UK involved in ALICE so that’s a huge selling point for Birmingham University,” said Dr Evans. “We have very high quality students coming to Birmingham. Our first years have three A grades at A-level.
“If we ask them why did you want to do a degree in physics here, it’s because of the exciting physics we’re involved with. We are attracting the brightest brains to come to Birmingham. That’s good for the city, especially as many will stay here.
“In all sorts of ways, Birmingham is benefiting from the university’s involvement at CERN,” he added.