In The Beginning
SMU Physicists Participate In An International Experiment To Explore Origins Of The Universe
By Kathleen Tibbetts
The Waiting Game
The Waiting Game
Once data start streaming in, the game of expectations management
begins. The ATLAS detector will produce a staggering
amount of raw information from each collision, and the most useful
bits will be few and far between. Out of 40 million events per
second, the researchers hope to pinpoint 10 events a year. The
challenge seems a little like looking for a needle in a haystack the
size of Mars.
“We may get what we’re looking for on the first try, or it may
take us three years to find anything we can use,” Stroynowski says.
“A big part of our job is to make sure we’re ready when we do.”
Among those entrusted with that task are SMU graduate students
and postdoctoral fellows in physics, including Rozmin Daya, Kamile
Dindar, Ana Firan, Daniel Goldin, Haleh Hadavand, Julia Hoffman,
Yuriy Ilchenko, Renat Ishmukhametov, David Joffe, Azeddine Kasmi,
Zhihua Liang, Peter Renkel, Ryan Rios and Pavel Zarzhitsky.
“I came to SMU for postdoctoral work specifically because of
the department’s involvement in the ATLAS project,” says David
Joffe, a native of Canada who received his Ph.D. in physics from
Northwestern University. “For particle physicists, being part of
this is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
For Julia Hoffman, who received her doctorate from Soltans Institute
for Nuclear Studies in her native Poland, that opportunity
has meant expanding her own horizons. “I learn new – and I mean
really new – things every day,” she says. “Different programming
languages, different views on physics analysis. I’m learning how it
all works from the inside. I work with students and gain new responsibilities.
This kind of experience means better chances to find
a permanent position that will be as exciting as this one.”
The SMU group works with formulae based in Monte Carlo
methods – probabilistic models that use repeated random sampling
of vast quantities of numbers – to impose a semblance of
order on the chaos created when atoms forcibly disintegrate. The
results are highly detailed simulations of known physics that will
help make visible the tiny deviations researchers hope to detect
when ATLAS begins taking data later this year
A Challenge And An Opportunity
These unprecedented computing challenges also have become an
impetus for new SMU research initiatives. James Quick, SMU associate
vice president for research and dean of graduate studies,
hopes to contain ATLAS’ vast data-processing requirements with
a large-capability computing center located on campus. Quick visited CERN in April to discuss the details with Stroynowski and
other key personnel. The proposed center would provide a firstpriority
data processing infrastructure for SMU physicists and
a powerful new resource for researchers in other schools and departments.
During the inevitable LHC downtime, as beams are
calibrated and software is debugged, the SMU center’s computing
power would be available for campus researchers in every field
across engineering, the sciences and business.
“The ATLAS experiment presents an opportunity for the University
to step up in a big way, and one that will benefit the entire
campus,” Quick says. He envisions a data processing farm of 1,000
central processing units, each connected to an Internet backbone
to allow the fastest possible return on SMU’s ATLAS input.
Speed and access are the keys, Stroynowski says, paraphrasing a
quote from Winston Churchill: “The winner gets the oyster, and
the runner-up gets the shell.” Those who have made their careers
in high-energy physics are well aware of the stakes involved in the
LHC, he adds, and being the first to process certain data could
separate a potential Nobel Prize winner from those who will make
the same discovery a day late.
As a group, high-energy physicists are accustomed to taking the
long view – and for SMU researchers, the long view has been especially
helpful. The ghost of the Superconducting Super Collider,
which would have made its home in North Texas, still shadows
the recent triumphs at CERN.
The SSC brought Stroynowski to the
University, and its 1993 demise through congressional defunding
was the impetus for the LHC project.
The questions haven’t gone away because the experiment has
changed venues, Stroynowski says. Yet even now, as the first test
nears, his anticipation is tempered by caution. “I don’t think we’ll
get a beam all the way around [the LHC tunnel] on the first try,” he
says. Indeed, the subject of whether scientists will achieve a beam
collision during the first tests or after additional calibration has
been the subject of a few lively wagers.
“I think we’ll have to wait at least a few more weeks for that milestone,”
he adds. “But in this case, I’ll be more than happy to be wrong
For more information: www.atlas.ch and www.cern.ch