Published December 15, 2021
UB physicists have received $1.65 million from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to support their work with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is scheduled to come back online in 2022 after a planned shutdown period devoted to upgrades and maintenance.
“It is exciting because it allows us to continue research that helps to answer these basic questions: What is the universe made of, and how do the most fundamental particles interact with each other?” says Ia Iashvili, professor of physics, College of Arts and Sciences.
Iashvili is principal investigator on the new NSF grant. Her colleagues in the physics department, Professor Avto Kharchilava and Associate Professor Salvatore Rappoccio, are co-principal investigators.
The LHC is the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, consisting of “a 27-kilometer ring of superconducting magnets with a number of accelerating structures to boost the energy of the particles along the way,” according to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), where the collider is located.
Thousands of scientists work together on LHC experiments, smashing beams of protons into one another at near-light speeds to produce various subatomic particles (including, perhaps most famously, the Higgs boson).
UB physicists have been part of this international collaboration for a long time, as Kharchilava outlined in a magazine article in The Innovation Platform earlier this year. Years ago, Iashvili and Kharchilava helped to build the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), one of the particle detectors that researchers use to observe the results of proton-proton collisions at the LHC.
The new NSF grant supports UB’s continuing contributions to CMS activities. This encompasses research that will occur during the LHC run beginning in 2022, as well as work that will help prepare the CMS to handle conditions at the High-Luminosity LHC, an anticipated substantial upgrade of the collider.
Experimental goals include conducting more precise measurements of known particles and forces, and performing searches for yet undiscovered particles.
As Iashvili explains, “These are particles predicted by theories beyond the Standard Model. The Standard Model is basically our working theory in particle physics, and it has been very successful because it describes interactions between particles and their properties, but we know it’s not complete. For example, it doesn’t explain matter-anti-matter asymmetry. It doesn’t tell us, ‘Why do we have dark matter or dark energy?’ There are other open questions. The Standard Model of particle physics is a beautiful theory, but it is understood to be only a low-energy approximation of a more complete theory.”
Students will play an active role in the research — a chance to work at the frontier of high-energy physics.
One team member, AC Williams, a UB PhD candidate in physics, is stationed at CERN as the LHC gears up for its next run. Williams, whose research interests include the hunt for dark matter, is the recipient of a fellowship through the NSF Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate program, which seeks to improve access to STEM education for underrepresented minorities.
UB physicists will also partner with UB’s Women in Science and Engineering initiative (WiSE) and engage high school teachers and students in hands-on science through the QuarkNet and Science Olympiad programs.
“We have master classes where high school students are brought into contact with the type of research we do,” Iashvili says. “They learn about high-energy research and analyze some CMS data, and they get pretty excited about this because the fundamental nature of this research is very appealing to them. It’s exciting to try to answer this question: What is the universe made of?”
“Education of the younger generation is one of the most important responsibilities of scientists,” Rappoccio adds. “We have a responsibility to ensure more equitable access to scientific endeavors for people from all backgrounds, especially those from underrepresented groups who have traditionally been excluded from academia.”