Physics is the study of extremes – the fastest, the smallest, the most energetic, the coldest and the hottest. Because physics researchers are pushing the limits of what can be measured, they often must build their own instruments from scratch to do the measuring. What physicists actually study—the fundamental particles and forces that form and govern our universe—may not be as familiar to you as the concerns of other fields, like medical research. However, the ideas behind these experiments and the tools built to accomplish them have had real, lasting impacts on daily life.
For example, by developing a way to study some of these fundamental particles, physicists laid the foundation for the widespread use of a technology doctors and patients now rely on—magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. It started in the late 1970’s, when researchers began constructing the Tevatron, a high-energy particle accelerator now used to give scientists a glimpse at the smallest particles that make up our universe. (for more about particle accelerators and their applications, click here). The Tevatron consists of hundreds of very powerful, “superconducting” magnets arranged in a four-mile long tunnel under the prairie at Fermilab, just 40 miles west of Northwestern. Beams of particles such as protons are shot along this tunnel where they collide with one another at speeds approaching the speed of light, releasing huge amounts of energy that ultimately produce new particles. The superconducting magnets are needed to store and guide these beams along the correct path.
One goal researchers had for the Tevatron was to reveal new particles, like the top quark, that were predicted to exist in the early history of the universe but no longer occur in nature. At the time the Tevatron was built, superconducting magnets were laboratory tools, and each was custom-built for a specific purpose. However, Fermilab needed even stronger and more efficient magnets to control the high-energy beams—approaching a trillion electric volts—necessary to create collisions powerful enough to produce a top quark. So, in order to find this new particle, Fermilab had to develop completely new magnet technologies.
A prototype magnet was developed, but, to fill the tunnel, Fermilab needed 135,000 pounds of niobium-titanium wire to create 500 ten-ton magnets. At the time, no company in the world had ever produced more than of a few hundred pounds of wire for special orders. Fermilab scientists worked with industry to create the processes that allowed large-scale production of superconducting wire.
This development had a major impact on the scientific community—the Tevatron has run many successful experiments in its 20+ years of existence. However, the superconducting wire and cable produced to complete the accelerator have also had a major impact on the healthcare community, as superconducting magnets form the backbone of MRI technology. Now, millions of people a year receive MRI scans that would not have been possible without elementary particle physicists. Of course, particle physicists did not invent MRI, but their successful push to discover the top quark helped launch the superconducting cable industry as an added benefit to society.
Inspired by the success of the Tevatron, scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, launched the effort to build an even more powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), in the early 1980’s. Constructing the LHC—a collider with 14 times the energy of the Tevatron, performing up to 600 million collisions per second—and developing the experiments it would perform proved to be an enormously complex project. By its completion in the fall of 2008, more than 8,000 researchers from nearly sixty countries became partners in the project, including the United States.
With so many people involved from different parts of the world, the need for a better way to communicate was necessary. Early in the LHC project, Tim Berners-Lee, a CERN computer scientist, invented a tool he coined the World Wide Web. The Web provides a virtual platform on which users can post pages of information and media for others to access via the Internet (the Internet, by contrast, is essentially a network of connected computers and other devices). Now, billions of people across the world exchange information almost instantly because of it—in fact, you are using it to read this article right now.
Physicists continue to imagine and develop new tools that may eventually touch your life. For example, LHC experiments will generate an extraordinary amount of data, more than any other science projects in the world, and this data will be used by thousands of scientists around the globe. Sharing that much information quickly and efficiently will require the next generation of computer network technology.
Toward this end, Northwestern’s International Center for Advanced Internet Research (iCAIR) has been developing new techniques and technologies to support data intensive sciences such as high energy physics. One example is the StarLight International Communications Exchange, funded by the National Science Foundation and located on the Chicago campus, which connects advanced research and education networks around the world. These advanced networks enable universities and laboratories, such as Fermilab and Northwestern, to efficiently access the LHC data at speeds many time higher than the standard internet. These activities are creating new communications services that will quickly migrate to wider communities, possibly some day making your own web-browsing experience a faster one.
As physicists have progressed towards the very small and the highly energetic, they have left a trail of tools by the way—X-rays, nuclear energy, superconducting cables, medical accelerators, techniques for distributed high performance computing, and the World Wide Web. In addition to revealing astounding information about how our universe was formed and the forces that now govern it, physicists have also paved the way for technology that enhances medical care and even our everyday lives. High energy physicists are often asked, “How does the top quark affect me?” The top quark itself has little practical use. Rather, it is the tools created to find the top quark, and accomplish other seemingly impossible tasks, that touch people in a more tangible way.