Inside Rensselaer
Students Spend Summer Unlocking Secrets of the Universe at CERN
* Students at CERN
Rensselaer students Matthew Pevarnik (left) and Samuel Punshon-Smith spent part of this summer working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)
in the foothills of the Swiss Alps.

Mini black holes, dark matter, new dimensions, hundreds of microscopic universes, and a very important character named the Higgs Boson. This isn’t the stuff of a cheesy science fiction paperback. Physicists around the world believe these interstellar secrets and more could be discovered with one scientific experiment. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in the foothills of the Swiss Alps is perhaps the largest scientific experiment of our time, and two Rensselaer undergraduates are currently at the center of the experiment that could reveal the origins of theuniverse.

Samuel Punshon-Smith and Matthew Pevarnik, both undergraduate physics majors, arrived in Switzerland in early July to begin what they both expected to be a whirlwind dip into the amazing arena of particle physics. These two accomplished students are working with elite research teams from dozens of nations around the world.

“The physics takes precedence over any ethnicity or political background,” Pevarnik said. “Everyone is united to solve some of the world’s most complicated questions.”

The Experiment That Could Recreate the Universe

In 2008 scientists around the world will hold their collective breath as the LHC churns to life more than 450 feet under the fields of Switzerland, shooting particles at nearly light speed. Two beams of super-condensed particles will spin around more than 16 miles of complex piping, electronics, and superconducting magnets in a vacuum comparable to outer space. Only 20 collisions are expected to happen among 200 billion particles. Those collisions will occur with the force of a car hitting a brick wall at nearly 1,000 mph and physicists hypothesize that these extreme fender-benders on the nanoscale will create new forms of matter and even reveal secrets that have plagued humanity: How do particles acquire mass? How do you create something out of nothing? How do you jumpstart the construction of the universe?

These mini Big Bangs will occur more than 600 million times per second. The data produced each year would fill 14 miles of CDs. In order to process and analyze this data, CERN is constructing four particle detectors. Each of the detector teams is in a race to discover the “God Particle,” more humbly known as the Higgs Boson. This particular deity is believed to give all other particles, including itself, mass. But, capturing the Higgs is just one of the possible outcomes that the detector teams could find.

“The idea of a God Particle is a beautiful one,” Punshon-Smith said. “I think most physicists would be disappointed if it wasn’t found, but there is expected to be much more than the Higgs particle discovered. They are also looking for supersymmetric particles and even extra dimensions.”

Opposing Teams

The two students are members of opposed detector teams and join a few dozen students from around the world to work on getting the detectors up and computing. Punshon-Smith is working on the ATLAS detector while Pevarnik is working on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) team.

The two both joke about the friendly competition between the teams that are rushing to make the biggest discovery on the experiment and in all likelihood capture a few Nobel Prizes.

“Of course each of the detector [teams] is secretly hoping their detector is the one to make the big discovery,” Pevarnik said. “But I don’t think any of the teams would be disappointed if the other discovered something before them, since we are all working toward the same goal.”

“There is a lot of joking though,” he continues. “When I go to visit Sam, people keep saying, ‘Quick, cover your screens, he’s stealing all our secrets.’”

There is no doubt that a lot is at stake. The two huge detectors are among the most complex and expensive machines of our time. They are built for precision and storing immense amounts of data on the trajectories, energy, and mass of the particles passing through the LHC. And they are truly engineering marvels to behold with layers of dense metal and tens-of-thousands of crystals and silicon sensors.

“After going through a series of tunnels and elevators, I was shocked when I suddenly came upon ATLAS,” Punshon-Smith said of the detector. “I knew it was big, but I had never understood the sheer complexity and precision of such a machine.”

In a Class of Their Own

* Students at CERN
An office complex at CERN.
Both students enjoy a whole lot more than physics when they are out of the labs.

Punshon-Smith grew up in Ellicott City, Md., just outside of Baltimore. He is president of the Class of 2010 and an avid downhill skier. He loves travel, adding Switzerland and France to his passport that contains stamps from Britain and Germany. He is an outspoken advocate for human rights as a leader of Amnesty International clubs throughout high school and college. He is a Residence Assistant and member of the AEPi fraternity on campus.

Pevarnik grew up in Aurora, Colo. He is also a world traveler with trips to Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic under his belt. This physicist is also a musician and actor. Pevarnik is a practiced French horn player and member of the RPI Symphony Orchestra. He also frequents the Playhouse stage as a member of the RPI Players.

The students’ trip to CERN represents the ever-expanding international partnerships that Rensselaer students and faculty are developing around the world. A direct result of the recent European Delegation that sent Rensselaer leadership throughout the European Union in March, the partnership with CERN aligns two great research institutions and provides students like Pevarnik and Punshon-Smith incredible international learning opportunities.

When asked why he wanted this internship, Pevarnik said, “It’s CERN. Enough said.”

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 1, Number 2, August 2007
©2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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