"I am frankly humbled." - CERN Scientist Working on the Large Hadron Collider
Conor Fitzpatrick is looking for something amazing.
The Irish experimental particle physicist will be checking data from the CERN large hadron collider, which had its first successful beam test in their giant underground facility on September 10.
Fitzpatrick is one of thousands of physicists who will spend years experimenting with the massive collider. As an undergraduate student, he spent the last two years studying and working on the Hybrid Photon Detectors that make up part of one of many experiments being run.
"The nice thing about Experimental Particle Physics is that you tend to do a share of many different kinds of work," says Fitzpatrick. "Learning electronic engineering, computing, and getting your hands dirty bolting the experiment together. It gives you a lot of variety, and even more options as to what you want to learn."
He's working out of Edinburgh university right now, but will be back at the CERN laboratory under the French/Swiss border once his 'shift' comes up. At the moment he is analyzing simulated data to make sure their hardware and software is working properly for when they start getting real data.
So what does he think about all the 'end of the world' publicity? Well, it has a lot to do with how scientists think, he says.
"Scientists in any field are wary of saying that something is impossible, because nature doesn't work that way- we rely heavily on statistics to back our claims up," wrote Fitzpatrick in an email. "The issue is that when we don't say something is impossible, people tend to turn it around and assume that because it isn't impossible, that means it is absolutely possible. This is not true. Certain persons have used this to their advantage to cause a great deal of fear and misunderstanding."
Fitzpatrick hopes scientists will be working on the Collider for years, maybe even a decade or more, and says he and his 700 colleagues, as well as the thousands of other physicists working on the project were ecstatic when the collider started up without a hitch.
"Getting beam yesterday was a tremendous achievement for the accelerator division, and gave the experiments plenty of calibration data to keep busy with," says Fitzpatrick. "Although there were no collisions as such, as the beam progressed through the LHC it was stopped at collamators (essentially camera irises that can be open, closed, or anywhere in-between). When the beam hits these collamators it sends a shower of particles further down the beampipe, and these lit up our detector like a christmas tree."
"We got plenty of data from that, and while it doesn't let us do anything new in terms of physics, it does let us calibrate our detectors and check for faults."
You can read the transcript of the full interview right here:
Who are you?
I'm Conor Fitzpatrick, Born in Northern Ireland, I recently finished my MPhys at Edinburgh University. My MPhys thesis was on the LHCb experiment at CERN, and I've started my PhD also at Edinburgh, also on the LHCb experiment.
What other projects have you been involved in, other than the LHC?
This is my first one- it is a terrific time to start out in High Energy Physics (What Particle Physics is commonly referred to as).
How long have you been working at CERN? On this particular project?
I've been working on this experiment for a little over 2 years. I started out as an undergraduate looking to get work experience over the summer, and was tasked with testing prototype detector components for a subdetector of the LHCb called the RICH. Since then I was hooked, and last summer spent several months at CERN doing further work with the LHCb.
What is it you're trying to do exactly?
The LHCb experiment is studying CP violation in the B meson system, with the intention of gaining a deeper understanding into why our universe is overwhelmingly composed of matter as opposed to antimatter. B mesons are a type of particle that exhibit very unusual behavior- The entirety of particle physics from an experimentalists' viewpoint is following rules (conservation laws), some of which are intuitive, some of which aren't. CP violation is a specific breaking of one of these rules that allows matter to turn into antimatter and vice-versa, but also allows for the possibility that it isn't an equal rate from matter to antimatter, something that was considered impossible until the sixties. We think it may be able to explain why our universe is matter dominated, because our best theories of the Big Bang tell us matter and antimatter were created in equal amounts.
What's a bit of your day-to-day life like?
My day is mostly spent in front of a computer, performing analyses on simulated data- we don't have any real data yet and won't until mid to late october. In the meantime we write all the software and tools we need to perform the real analyses, training ourselves and our code on what we think the real data is going to look like. It may sound a little pointless, but the level of complexity we are dealing with means that we rely heavily on simulation to understand our detector, and to work out how good our real measurements are likely to be. It also allows us to see if our computing infrastructure is up to scratch, as everything we do to simulated data is as taxing to our hardware as the real thing will be.
Earlier in the lifetime of the experiment things were much more hardware oriented- building and testing detector components, installing equipment and plugging in cables... lots of cables! Later, we will be fully immersed in analysis, writing papers on what we find, replacing faulty hardware, etc. The nice thing about Experimental Particle Physics is that you tend to do a share of many different kinds of work, learning electronic engineering, computing, and getting your hands dirty bolting the experiment together. It gives you a lot of variety, and even more options as to what you want to learn.
What is everyone's mood like?
Right now, ecstatic. Getting beam yesterday was a tremendous achievement for the accelerator division, and gave the experiments plenty of calibration data to keep busy with. Although there were no collisions as such, as the beam progressed through the LHC it was stopped at collamators (essentially camera irises that can be open, closed, or anywhere in-between). When the beam hits these collamators it sends a shower of particles further down the beampipe,and these lit up our detector like a christmas tree. We got plenty of data from that, and while it doesn't let us do anything new in terms of physics, it does let us calibrate our detectors and check for faults.
What do you think of the recent attention this project has been given?
I think it is excellent- The negative publicity has brought the journalists out to actually ask questions of people in a position to provide intelligent answers. It has given us an opportunity to show the public that what we are doing is neither dangerous nor pointless. I've seen a few people consider physics as a career as a result, which is great in my books.
What do you think about the 'end of the world' stuff we've seen flying around? What would you say to those people?
I think it is tragic that people in a position to educate others should decide to instill fear for the purpose of publicity. Explaining science to people without a scientific background isn't particularly difficult, but it becomes difficult when people have a preconception that we are lying to them or that we ourselves don't have an understanding of what is going on.
Scientists in any field are wary of saying that something is impossible, because nature doesn't work that way- we rely heavily on statistics to back our claims up. The issue is that when we don't say something is impossible, people tend to turn it around and assume that because it isn't impossible, that means it is absolutely possible. This is not true. Certain persons have used this to their advantage to cause a great deal of fear and misunderstanding.
I would say to the public: You have nothing to fear from the LHC. If you are in school, talk to your science teacher, if not, speak with someone who has a background in physics, but more importantly; don't believe the sensationalism- read the counterarguments and question everything yourselves rather than relying on the opinions of others. If you do that, you are yourself a scientist. Particle physics is fascinating enough without wild claims, as I think a lot of people found out when they tuned in to the LHC switch on yesterday.
How do you feel about being involved with the project?
I am frankly humbled by the experience. Every day I come into work, I am surrounded by some of the hardest working, most dedicated, and above all helpful people I have had the pleasure of meeting. The nature of these experiments means that no single person could even come close to doing all the work, so the achievements are shared. It leads to a wonderfully collaborative environment in which everyone is contributing to a common goal. The experiment I'm on has almost 700 people working in 48 locations throughout the world. While it can be pretty hectic, the social atmosphere is great and at the end of a long day I can go home knowing that I am contributing to humankinds' understanding of the universe. In addition, I get to play with some of the most extreme equipment ever built, right at the cutting edge of technology.
Aren't you crazy busy right now?
I certainly am- but I'm not at CERN right now, and disappointed that I'm not! I'm not due to go 'on shift', (monitoring live data in the LHCb control room) for quite a while. Right now I'm at my home institute working on what is known as a sensitivity study, using the simulated data we have to see how well we can measure a specific quantity. It means I am performing an analysis very similar to the ones we will work on later when we have real data. The result I get from the simulated data tells us if we will be accurate enough after a year or two. At the moment, this value has been measured before, but the error on that measurement is huge. The LHC creates many more particles though, which narrows down our errors. By how much? That is the question I'm trying to answer.
What is your next project after this? (or how long will this keep you busy)
I'll be on the LHCb for at least another 3 and a half years. After that, there are plans for upgrading the LHCb, and the other 3 detectors currently on the LHC. It depends very much on the funding situation right now, as a number of countries are cutting back on funding for scientific research. It is unlikely that another collider will be built anytime soon, so CERN is looking like the place where the world's particle physicists will be working for the next decade or so.
It is also very dependent on what results we get- if we find something truly amazing at the LHC, it opens the floodgates for a whole new set of experiments, theories, and technologies. If we answer all the questions we set out to ask, but find nothing unique, myself and a lot of other physicists may find ourselves out of the job! I find this unlikely though, as we still have a lot of holes to fill in our current understanding of nature at both the small (subatomic) and large (astrophysical) scales.
Thanks a ton to Conor for responding so quickly!
When in operation, about seven thousand scientists from eighty countries will have access to the LHC. It is theorized that the collider will produce the elusive Higgs boson, the last unobserved particle among those predicted by the Standard Model. The verification of the existence of the Higgs boson would shed light on the mechanism of electroweak symmetry breaking, through which the particles of the Standard Model are thought to acquire their mass. In addition to the Higgs boson, other particles predicted by possible extensions of the Standard Model might be produced at the LHC. More generally, physicists hope that the LHC will enhance their ability to answer the following questions: