Archive for the ‘High School’ Category

My last LHC status update

September 21, 2010

I haven’t said much since this year’s start-up of the LHC, but there have been some interesting developments, so I’ll add one last update.  If you haven’t been following the LHC status, it has been exponentially increasing in collision rate while maintaining a fixed collision energy (about 3 pb-1 of 7 TeV collisions have been collected by the LHC experiments, which is a few thousand times less than the Tevatron’s 9 fb-1 of 1.96 TeV collisions, collected since 2001).  My “particle body counts” are now completely obsolete: nearly all known particles have been re-discovered in the LHC experiments.  And today, the first unexpected effect has been presented by an LHC experiment: “Long-range, near-side angular correlations,” which is presented in detail on the CMS public page.  Below the cut here, I’ll explain what this means.


Particle body-count 2

December 18, 2009

As a result of today’s talks, here’s the updated body-count (all four experiments with a lot of overlap):

Particle Original discovery Method of observation in the LHC experiments
Electron/positron 1896 (e-), 1932 (e+) Peak at 1.0 in calorimeter energy to track momentum ratio, also observed in pairs from photon conversions in matter (X γ → X  e+e- where X is a nucleus)
Photon 1900 (Planck’s quanta) Photon conversions and π0→ γγ
Proton 1911 Energy loss charged particle’s trajectory (dE/dx)
Deuteron 1931 Also seen in dE/dx
Muon 1936 Specialized muon detectors
Pion 1950 (π0) Neutral pion in π0→ γγ, charged pions in dE/dx
Eta meson 1961 η → γγ
Kaon 1947 (KS) Neutral kaon in KS → π+π-, charged kaons (K+ and K-) in dE/dx and ring-imaging Cerenkov detectors
Phi meson 1962 φ → K+ K-
Lambda 1947 (Λ0) Λ0→ π+p- / Λ0→ π-p+
Xi baryon 1964 Ξ → π Λ0

Dark matter WIMPs not yet two candidates in the unblinded signal region of the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) (not an LHC experiment)

The last entry is for yesterday’s CDMS paper, which shows two candidate events surviving all analysis cuts, set prior to looking at the result (unblinding).  The probability for background fluctuating up to account for these two events is 20-23%, so no one is calling it a signal.  Both are close to the edges of the analysis cuts, so even if the observed events had significantly exceeded the background estimates, there would be room for doubt.  This may be the tip of the iceberg for direct dark matter detection, but then again, it may not.

The particle body-count

December 16, 2009

Earlier today, the LHC finished its 2009 run.  They did everything they said they were going to do: provide physics-quality 900 GeV collisions and break the world record by colliding protons with a combined energy of 2.36 TeV (that happened Monday), as well as many other studies to make sure that everything will work for 7 TeV collisions next year.  We’ve been busily finding the familiar particles of the Standard Model— I wrote two weeks ago about the re-discovery of the π0; since then new particles been dropping in almost daily.  I’ll explain some of the already-public results below the cut, but first I want to point out that there will be another LHC Report this Friday at 12:15 (European Central Time = 6:15 AM Eastern U.S. = 3:15 AM Pacific) on CERN’s webcast site.  This is where all of the LHC experiments will present their results and probably make a few more public.

Also, in case you haven’t heard, there have been a lot of rumors that the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) has discovered something interesting.  They’ll be presenting whatever it is tomorrow with a paper on the arXiv, a Fermilab presentation at 4:00 PM Central U.S. (webcast here), and a SLAC presentation at the same time, 2:00 PM Pacific (webcast here).  It might be the direct detection of dark matter particles, which would be incredibly exciting.


The Beam is Back

October 28, 2009

A little over a year after the highly publicized start-up and break-down of the LHC, the damage has been repaired, new protection systems are in place, and all sectors are cold and ready for beam. Yesterday, the first injection test of 2009 was completed— beams of protons and heavy ions were successfully threaded into the LHC beampipe from its predecessor, the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS). The beams were allowed to flow as far as the first experiments in both directions, ALICE on the clockwise side, LHCb on the other.


What killed Madame Curie? (Part 4)

September 7, 2009

New York City, 1956

Leaning on a Chinese restaurant at a busy street corner in Greenwich Village, I crossed my legs, tipped my hat low, and quietly panicked. This case is turning into a nightmare: dozens of suspects, growing daily, and they all seem to swap places when you’re not looking. A pion couldda done it; pions seem to be some kind of front for the nuclear force that Madame Curie was playing with before she died. But leave a pion to itself and it disintegrates into a muon and a neutrino, neither of which claims to have ever heard of nuclear forces. Radiation in the form of muons and neutrinos has been raining down on us since the beginning of time, and it’s never even hurt. If pions are just glowing with nuclearness, where does the nuclearness go when they die?

For that matter, what is a particle, anyway? I have to admit, I wasn’t suspicious when I first heard the word— I thought they were talking about little rocks or marbles or something. But rocks don’t just change into different kinds of minerals on their own, except for Curie’s rocks, that is. What are these particles? The physicists themselves don’t seem to know: everyone I ask gives a different answer. They seem to be some shadowy energy-clouds, sometimes insubstantial and sometimes infinitely hard. What kind of world are we living in, anyway?

I felt a crumpled slip of paper in my pocket. Pulling it out, I read the well-worn handwriting under my breath, “Seek the Dragon Lady.” I scanned the crowd. I’d bet none of them knew the half of what’s going on, right under their noses! Well, not just their noses, but everywhere in fact. “Any of you folks know a Dragon Lady?”

“Are you looking for Madame Wu?” The young man startled me. From the high-necked sweater and the pipe in the corner of his mouth, I’d reckon he was a student.


What killed Madame Curie? (Part 3)

June 27, 2009

Ithaca, NY, 1948

After a wrong turn in Albuquerque, I caught up with Bugs Bunny, alias Richard Feynman, somewhere near the ends of the earth.  Up to my elbows in snow-drifts, I spied on the little window to his office, in which he seemed to be doing normal professor-things, plus wild gesticulations.  I decided on a particularly frozen morning that I would have to risk visibility if I was to get answers, so I enrolled at Cornell, posing as a G.I. bill student.  In Professor Feynman’s introductory physics lectures, I could see that there was something remarkable happening here.  People researching physics is about as natural as fish studying water: it’s the very stuff we’re made of.  He had a knack of getting down to the ground floor, asking the basic questions, just as much in a block sliding down a plane as in neutrinos.

His teaching assistant, a quirky bow-tied Brit by the name of Freeman Dyson, knew the man personally, so I inquired.  “Oh, he’s working on something, yes.  The trouble is he just won’t publish, no matter how much I cajole him.  He says he’s depressed, but Dick depressed is just a little more cheerful than any other person exuberant.  It’s the Bomb, I think, and of course Arlene, his poor wife who died in New Mexico.  I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but Dick and Arlene got married knowing she hadn’t long to live, she having T.B.  Bit like Dick to give it a go anyway.”

“What do you suppose he’s up to?”

“Well, he’s got his own private quantum theory for starters.  Quantum theory, that’s the theory of the atom and electrons.  Until recently, no one’s been able to make it work with Einstein’s relativity; it’s riddled with infinities, you know.  Schwinger’s done some remarkable work reconciling the two— all operator theory and renormalization, I’m still trying to understand it.  Somehow, there’s a way to replace the infinities with experimental measurements, then the beast is well behaved and gives very nice results.  Dick manages calculate the same thing with these funny little pictures, and he puts plus signs between them like they were real mathematical formulae.  Quite a ball at conferences: squiggle plus squiggle equals whatever.  I mean to pick his brain about it before he flies off to Brazil.”


“Yes, he’s taking a visiting professorship.  Says he hates the cold.”

On my way home that evening, I saw a shadow linger on my doorstep, then dart away.  I broke into a run to pursue it, but not a trace was left, not even footprints in the snow.  With one exception, that is: crinkled under the door and sodden with melt-water was a little envelope.  Inside was a note, which read,

“The killer is left-handed.

—an Insider”


What killed Madame Curie? (Part 2)

June 8, 2009

Los Alamos, 1946

I should have sought Dr. Fermi right away, back when it was easy.  When Mademoiselle Curie gave me the lead, Enrico was a quiet university professor in Rome.  Since then, he’s got a lot harder to find, and it seems that the professor has government ties— secrets as big as the men who hide them.  I chanced upon a tip leading me to a project in Manhattan, and though I found Fermi on the books as a Columbia professor, I had just missed the man himself.  Asking an associate about where in the New World this Italian Navigator might be, he turned bright red and insisted that there was absolutely nothing in the basement.  Nothing at all.

Sometimes you just get lucky.  I asked one of his students to give me a tour of the basement, and was shown a room-sized apparatus for creating artificial radiation.  “Artificial radiation?”

“Radiation is just ordinary particles, accelerated to high speeds.  Naturally radioactive elements like radium spontaneously break off parts of themselves and shoot them at us, but we can accelerate them on our own with rapidly oscillating electric fields.”

“So this,” I asked, “is a sort of ‘particle-accelerator?’”

“I guess you could call it that.”

I was on the right track!  “What do you use it for?”

“Well, Dr. Fermi did a lot of experiments with neutron capture, but by far the most exciting was the splitting of uranium atoms by a neutron beam.  He disappeared soon after that.”

So Enrico wasn’t content to let atoms do all of the dirty work— this cat shoots back!


What killed Madame Curie? (Part 1)

May 21, 2009

July, 1934

I was called to investigate the recent death of a famous physicist: Marie Curie, born Manya Skłodowska.  When I arrived on the scene, she was in her death-bed, her face long and grey, a ghostly shadow in the warm light of the mountain sanatorium.  Her daughter Eve was there.  “It’s so quiet,” she said, “so fearfully motionless—”

We made our introductions, but she was obviously distracted.  “So motionless, those hands.  No longer nervously shaking, constantly moving, always working…”

I took a look at the hands, still and limp on the bed.  They were hardened, calloused, deeply burned and thick-skinned.  “What is this?” I asked myself, but I must have said it out loud because Eve heard me.

“Radium,” she said.


“Those were her last words— ‘Was it done with radium or with mesothorium?’  As she was stirring her tea with a spoon— no, no, not a spoon, but a glass rod or some delicate laboratory instrument…  She had drawn away from human beings; she had joined those beloved ‘things’ to which she had devoted her life, and joined them forever.”

A cup of tea and now dead?  That didn’t sound good.  “Poisoned?” I asked.  I never mind stating the obvious.

“Yes, poisoned.  By radium.  In the laboratory, she always used to say, ‘That polonium has a grudge against me.’”

“Radium— or polonium?”


“A conspiracy?”


Fun With Sums

February 22, 2009

It’s been a while since there has been any math on the blog, so I figured I’d share a recent (trivial) mathematical fact I came upon while passing the time. A less noble goal is that I hope some of you will find it interesting enough to think about it for a while. In other words, I’m too lazy to keep working on it but I hope some others will fall into my trap and let me know the answer.

The new LHC schedule

February 10, 2009

In a meeting at Chamonix last week, CERN, the LHC collaboration, and the LHC experiments came up with a 2009 schedule.  “Second beams” (as opposed to first beams last year) will start a little later than expected: September 2009 instead of July.  Then the goal is to have first collisions at the end of October, making the delay due to The Incident almost exactly one year.

Then after that, the good news starts in earnest.  Instead of having a long shutdown over the 2009-2010 winter, as CERN usually does, the shutdown will be short, and we continue running and collecting data until we have something close to 200 pb-1 at 10 TeV, which will probably take about a year, until fall of 2010.  That’s great, because it’s just enough for some of the basic discoveries: Z’ and W’ above 1 TeV, Higgs -> WW (if the Tevatron doesn’t see it first), the low-mass region of SUSY/mSUGRA parameter space (the “LM#” points), contact interactions in jets, and maybe a very optimistic extra-dimensions model (see my “Early Discoveries at CMS” talk at Dark Matter and the LHC conference).  Running at 6 TeV collision energies was considered, and thankfully rejected, as that would be just below the interesting threshold for a lot of this.  (The LHC’s design energy is 14 TeV, which is scheduled for 2011.)

At the risk of sounding naive, I think it’s really going to happen this time.  The LHC people must know a lot more about the actual behavior of the beams from their real-data test last year, and given how disappointing last year’s setback was, I’m sure they’ll do everything they can to avoid anything like it.  In other words, the argument is based on social reasons, not technical ones, but guessing when we’ll have data is a social science.


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