On Tuesday, the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, is set to come back online after a three-year break during which the massive machine, located at CERN in Switzerland, was upgraded and renovated.
Peter Onyisi, an associate professor in the department of physics at UT Austin, is among the many scientists who rely on the LHC to perform basic research into the nature of the universe; he is a member of the ATLAS Experiment, a team that’s using the LHC to explore high energy physics. Listen to his interview with Texas Standard above or read more below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: For those of us who are not particle physicists, can you describe what the Large Hadron Collider actually is and how scientists like yourself use it?
Peter Onyisi: Well, it’s a gigantic particle accelerator. Some of the listeners may remember things like cathode ray televisions – you can imagine it as a really, really scaled up version of that, using essentially the core of a hydrogen atom and stripping that into the proton that’s at the core of the hydrogen atom and then colliding those at very, very high speed.
And the idea is to put an enormous amount of energy into these protons as they’re whizzing around the ring. And then when they collide, they’re able to turn that energy that we’ve given them into new particles that don’t exist in the day-to-day life of normal reality, but that are part of mathematical theories that explain the fundamental nature of the universe.
About 10 years ago, you were part of the team that discovered the Higgs boson particle, using the Large Hadron Collider – why was this discovery was so important, and how physicists are putting that knowledge to work now?
Yes, it was me and a few hundred of my closest friends. So, a very, very collaborative experiment. The important thing about this particular particle is [it’s] something that we expected to exist, but we didn’t really know the details of what it would look like. We didn’t know how heavy it would be, for example. But this thing was predicted by the overarching theory, which goes by the great name of the Standard Model, which incorporates basically what we know for sure about the behavior of ordinary matter and the forces other than gravity. And this was really sort of the thing that linked all these bits together.
Everything in the Standard Model connects in some way to this this Higgs boson and the related Higgs field. And not having seen it, we had seen everything else in this picture. We figured, well, this thing works so well. The thing that’s at the core of this, this model must be there or something is really wrong with the models.
With the ATLAS Experiment, what are some of the questions you’re trying to answer?
So with the ATLAS Experiment, we try to answer as many fundamental questions as possible. So, for example, we know that, in fact, most of the matter in the universe is not like our kind of matter. It behaves in sort of the same ways, but it’s not like our stuff. And in fact, we pass through it essentially unimpeded. But there’s a possibility that we could make some of it with the particle collisions here. And that would be really exciting.
Does anything you’re doing translate rather immediately into a discovery that we might be able to apply in everyday life? Or is most of this dealing with the larger theoretical questions about the nature of the universe?
So our prime motivator is these theoretical questions about the nature of the universe, indeed. It’s the same kind of world as, you know, ‘are there aliens out there?’ I mean, the existence of aliens in another galaxy probably doesn’t directly affect us, but it changes the way we look at the world. And, at least for us, understanding the fundamental structure of reality is a pretty exciting thing to go after.
That said, we do actually have quite a few spinoffs, because we do a lot of things in order to get what we do done. So, for example, we have enormous installations of superconductors which can carry electricity without the kinds of heat losses that would normally occur with normal conductors. And these are very exciting in terms of being able to efficiently transfer electricity over very long distances that in fact are in some cases are being used in electrical grids now.
And, of course, we always like to point out that CERN was the birthplace of the World Wide Web, because physicists needed a way to link information to other information. And so, every Web page you go to, in a very real sense, it comes out of work that was done in order to support the work that we do.