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Science

Race for knowledge spurs physics research at CERN

The Large Hadron Collider is coming late to the party and has a lot to prove in the particle physics community. It's no surprise then that a little competitive jockeying plays a role in CERN's research strategy.

A view of the LHC in its tunnel at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland

The LHC has been producing collisions since March

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known by its French acronym, CERN, has been colliding beams since March of this year, after an abortive attempt in September, 2008.

The LHC now has to produce as many collisions as possible in the next two years in order for the various experiments at CERN to essentially prove their worth among other established particle physics laboratories.

The past failures of the LHC weighed heavily on operations group leader Mike Lamont who talked about some of the criticism from the media.

"The Americans in particular can be quite aggressive," he told Deutsche Welle.

"It's quite clear that we're competing with the States, and we've had setbacks, and you can see journalists occasionally being aggressive about that," he said. "I mean 'You're spending taxpayers' money, and you're still messing up,' which can be a fair comment."

Raising the bar

The competitive element of the research performed at the LHC also extends beyond mere media heckling, however, seeming to be an essential part of CERN's research strategy.

Operations group leader Mike Lamont looks over the status of the LHC as it ramps up to collide protons

The LHC staff is under pressuure to produce as many collisions as possible

One of the lessons learned from the failed start of the LHC in 2008, was that the machine would not be able to reach its desired energy output of circulating 7.0 tera electron volt (TEV) beams. Instead the scientists on the project must make the most of the current maximum of 3.5 TEV beams that collide at a combined 7.0 TEV, half of the original goal.

Only if the experiments meet their goals for collected data by 2012, Lamont said, would CERN pull ahead of the research performed at the US-based Fermilab, a particle accelerator located near Chicago, Illinois that measures 6.3 kilometers in circumference.

"We've got reach in energy, but they're still sort of chasing at our heels," Lamont said. "So if we can collect enough data in 2010 and 2011, we essentially put them out of business, then we can relax in 2012 and fix the [LHC] properly."

Common goals

Not everyone at CERN is so concerned with being in first place, however. Yves Schutz, at ALICE, one of the experiments studying the LHC data, takes a more egalitarian position.

ALICE, which is an acronym for A Large Ion Collider Experiment, will be studying collisions of lead ions in the LHC, looking for primordial matter called the quark-gluon plasma, believed to have existed for a few millionths of a second after the Big Bang.

At the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) is pursuing a very similar course of study. In February RHIC announced that it had found the "quark soup" after colliding gold ions. For Schutz, this didn't constitute a threat to his own research, so much as an opportunity to collaborate.

"We have very regular joint meetings," he said.

"RHIC is just paving the way for LHC; it's no different, just complementary," Schutz said. "Nuclear research has always proceeded in steps, and every step was the advent of new accelerators with higher energies."

But Schutz couldn't resist one small barb at the smaller American program.

"We have a good number of physicists who worked at RHIC who have joined ALICE, but the opposite is not the case," he said with a smile.

Author: Stuart Tiffen
Editor: Mark Mattox

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