Iowa State physicists celebrate a new era in high-energy physics research

AMES, Iowa - Just take a look at that board full of electronics, said W. Thomas Meyer during a recent tour of his lab on the fourth floor of Iowa State University's Zaffarano Physics Addition.

There are actually five computers on that thin, 15.75-inch square, said Meyer, an Iowa State adjunct research professor of physics and astronomy. Hundreds of the readout boards are used by physicists to process signals from one of the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, the multibillion-dollar machine that accelerates particles to nearly the speed of light around 17-miles of underground tunnel near Geneva, Switzerland, and crashes them together. Then Meyer explained how special software allows experimental physicists to coordinate all those boards and the information they're sorting and collecting.

And those tools, he said, represent more than a decade of his life's work to help physicists solve a few more mysteries of the universe. Meyer was part of the team that designed the readout boards and wrote the controlling software.

So Meyer will be paying attention on Tuesday, March 30, when the European Organization for Nuclear Research (also known as CERN) will make the first attempt to collide proton beams in the Large Hadron Collider at a total energy of 7 trillion electron volts. That far surpasses the collider's own world record of collisions at 2.36 trillion electron volts.

"With two beams at 3.5 TeV (tera [or trillion] electron volts), we're on the verge of launching the LHC physics program," said Steve Myers, CERN's director for accelerators and technology in a statement. "But we've still got a lot of work to do before collisions. Just lining the beams up is a challenge in itself: It's a bit like firing needles across the Atlantic and getting them to collide half way."

Iowa State's department of physics and astronomy will mark Tuesday's launch of the collider's new physics program with several events: A webcast of the high-energy physics at CERN will be 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Room 18 of Physics Hall. Post-doctoral researchers and physics students will analyze the collision data as it comes in and will monitor the performance of the ATLAS detector, one of two giant, general purpose detectors at the collider that measure the paths, energies and identities of the particles created when protons or lead ions collide. There is also a poster and a live display outside Room 30 of Physics Hall showing data from the ATLAS experiment. And the ISU Physics and Astronomy Club will display research posters in the lower level of the Memorial Union.

Meyer and Iowa State physicists have been working on the ATLAS experiment since 1999. Supported by a research contract with the U.S. Department of Energy, the Iowa Staters have focused on the experiment's pixel detector. The pixel detector is a subunit deep within the ATLAS experiment that uses 80 million pixels to make precise measurements as close to the particle collisions as possible.

Meyer said the pixel detector is like a digital camera that can snap 40 million pictures every second.

And now that the pixel detector will be taking data at the highest energies ever, Meyer isn't going to let his April 6 retirement from Iowa State stop his physics work.

"Now that our experiment is just turning on, I'm not going to turn my back and walk away," he said.

After a physics career filled with 75 trips to Europe (plus one to Asia), he'll likely be sticking closer to home. But, thanks to the World Wide Web invented at CERN in 1989 to help physicists around the globe share their data, he'll still be able to work on the experiment.

Meyer is already helping with a planned 2018 upgrade to the pixel detector. (Because it is so close to the particle beams and the radiation they produce, Meyer said the pixel detector will be damaged over time. And because the detectors are so complex, it's already time to start planning for a new and improved model.)

And what about the Large Hadron Collider's search for the Higgs boson, a particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics? The model theorizes that space is filled with a Higgs field and particles acquire their masses by interacting with the field. Detection and study of the Higgs could answer basic questions about why matter has mass and how particles acquire mass.

"I would be very surprised," Meyer said, "if we don't see the Higgs over the next year or two."