Researchers close in on origin of the universe

Most people might not wake up every day and wonder, “Where did the universe come from?” But for professor Raymond Brock, it’s a question always on his mind.

The answer might be closer than expected, thanks to the work of researchers including those from MSU.

Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, near Geneva are on the hunt for the Higgs boson particle, the key to potentially figuring out how the universe came about and how particles obtain their mass.

In mid-December 2011, Brock, an MSU professor of physics and astronomy, was at the LHC for a series of talks as the data collected following the smashing together of protons was made public.

The answer to the universe’s beginning was so far inconclusive, and the mysterious particle remained elusive, but that doesn’t mean experiments to find it are over.

“(We’re) trying to discover this particle, but at the same time, we’re excluding places that it might hide,” said Wade Fisher, an MSU physics professor.

The LHC is located at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN. The large collider there and a smaller one located at Fermilab outside of Chicago create conditions similar to those following the Big Bang of the universe, Fisher said.

To aid in the search, two different yet similar experiments, called ATLAS and CMS, at the LHC currently are being conducted to find the particle, he said.

Brock has worked on the ATLAS detector, a more than 7,000-ton machine that collects data following the collisions at the LHC. About 30 MSU-affiliated people — including faculty and students — are working on the research, six of whom are living in Switzerland for this experiment, he said.

In the U.S., Fisher also has conducted research at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill.

If either ATLAS or CMS finds something promising and the other verifies the information, the Higgs boson “God particle” to explain the origins of the universe might be found.

But Brock wouldn’t call it that.

He said the name brands the particle as having something to do with religion when it does not.

Although the data released still is being pored over, he said scientists are preparing for the next set of particle collisions slated to begin in March. The electronics within the LHC need to be repaired and upgraded to collect even more data.

James Koll, a physics graduate student, said he’s travelled back and forth from the U.S. to Geneva to work on ATLAS for the past three years. During this time, he said he’s been analyzing the experiment’s data by inserting it into computer programs he helped write.

“We have data from the collisions at the ATLAS detector, and we have simulations that we do that predict the things we expect,” Koll said. “Working on ATLAS is very exciting, and I’m certainly looking forward to some conclusion.”

Until Higgs boson is found, Brock said the work he and his colleagues have done might one day identify more than just the particle. And the universe likely won’t leave his thoughts.

“(It’s) an extreme end about how one could spend one’s day, but it’s really a privilege to have a career that allows me to do these kinds of things,” he said.

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