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Iowa scientists take on more 'God particle' research

Dozens of UI, ISU researchers help a second run at revealing new discoveries

Iowa students and engineers appear dwarfed by the Forward Calorimetry detector, shown here in the foreground. It was designed and partially built at Iowa. This picture shows the detector installation in the CMS Cavern — the so-called collision hall at the facility in Switzerland. Credit: University of Iowa.
Iowa students and engineers appear dwarfed by the Forward Calorimetry detector, shown here in the foreground. It was designed and partially built at Iowa. This picture shows the detector installation in the CMS Cavern — the so-called collision hall at the facility in Switzerland. Credit: University of Iowa.
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IOWA CITY — After aiding in discovery of the “God particle” that scientists say could unlock mysteries shrouding the origins of the universe, researchers with the University of Iowa and Iowa State University are involved in a second experiment they hope will reveal more revolutionary science.

Scientists this week at a laboratory in Switzerland are launching the restart procedure for the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator, known as the Large Hadron Collider, in an effort to solve some of the universe's biggest mysteries. The machine works by shooting two high-energy particle beams at one another at nearly the speed of light until they collide.

The experiment could take weeks, or even months, before producing data for analysis, said UI physics professor Yasar Onel, who recently returned from Europe after helping prepare the collider to restart.

“This is the beginning of a long process,” he said.

Since shutting down the equipment in 2013, after it led scientists to discover the Higgs boson particle and won its predictors a Nobel Prize in physics, the equipment has undergone numerous upgrades and repairs — including several involving UI and ISU researchers.

The machine now is prepared to collide protons at the unprecedented energy level of 13 trillion electron volts, up from 8 trillion in the first experiment, according to Onel.

The first experiment ended scientists' 50-year hunt for the Higgs particle, which had been predicted by Francois Englert and Peter W. Higgs in their theory on how particles acquire mass.

“It's very exciting because we have never been in this energy range in the whole world,” Onel said. “We are hopeful for new discoveries.”

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The Higgs particle, sometimes referred to as the “God particle,” is linked to all matter in the universe and is a cornerstone for the current standard model of physics. The Swiss collider, which runs its experiments about 100 yards below ground, is made up of four particle detectors, including ones called ATLAS and CMS — or Compact Muon Solenoid.

A team of about 25 UI researchers worked on the CMS detector, building some parts of it at the university before shipping them to Switzerland. About a dozen ISU researchers worked with the ATLAS detector, which is about 148 feet long and 82 feet high and weighs about 7,000 tons.

The CMS detector is about 69 feet long and 49 feet high but weighs more than 14,000 tons — about twice that of the metal in the Eiffel Tower.

Experts liken it to a massive 100-megapixel camera capable of taking 40 million pictures a second. The detector requires more than 3,000 physicists to operate and analyze its data.

Onel said researchers have been working on the project for about 20 years, and they hope the second running of the collider will answer questions like, “What is the nature of dark matter?”

Matter particles, the ones that can be seen, make up about 4 percent of the universe, Onel said.

“Then there are particles we cannot observe, and we know the universe is full of them,” he said. “But we do not understand why we can't see them.”

The upcoming research also could help scientists determine why gravity is so much weaker than other forces, and why the Higgs particle is so “light,” according to Onel.

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“We think that there should be new physics at this energy scale,” he said. “But we don't know what it is yet. We might be able to discover anything from supersymmetric particles to dark matter to extra dimensions.”

Jim Cochran, ISU professor of physics and astronomy, said he expects the upcoming research will shed light on the topic of dark matter. But, he said, with unprecedented energy levels in play, scientists are keeping their minds open.

“If we could find something new, that would be a huge deal,” he said.

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