Curiosity: A Fundamental Part of Exploring the Universe at CERN


By Stephanie Sunata
Medill News Service

Hidden deep beneath a region famous for fondue, mountains and chocolate lies one of our most complex tools to explore the universe. A short tram ride northwest of Geneva, Switzerland, takes you to CERN, the home of the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.

The Large Hadron Collider accelerates particles near the speed of light around a 17-mile ring, then slams them together at unprecedented energies. Scientists study the debris to answer questions about how the universe works.

I spent a month as an embedded reporter at the laboratory. I wandered down CERN's streets named after legendary scientists of the past including quantum pioneer Niels Bohr, nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford and Albert Einstein. I was in awe in the presence of the massive detectors that trace the smallest of particles. I was humbled by conversations with some of the brightest minds in the world. But what I enjoyed most was the overall environment, which thrives on curiosity.

CERN’s intellectual arsenal is made up of thousands of curious minds that range from young students to tenured veterans. They come together in a global cadre of nationalities, educational backgrounds and levels of experience. They bring cultural and linguistic differences, but all speak the language of physics. It isn’t a simple language to learn, even for someone like me who minored in the field. But most people I met were excited to break down the complex concepts for a non-scientific audience.

CERN's major media day came last year when the two largest experiments announced the discovery of the Higgs boson. The particle helps prove the existence of the Higgs field, which is the reason why some fundamental particles have mass and some do not. The multipurpose particle detectors CMS and ATLAS and their research teams sorted through petabytes of data from the LHC to find the elusive particle. They analyze the data to determine if the bumps they see in the graphs are statistical fluctuations or fingerprints of a new particle.

For the first week I followed Fermilab physicist James Hirschauer, who collaborates with the CMS team. He understands the Higgs boson discovery is imperative to our understanding about the universe, but he said the discovery doesn't complete that understanding. The Higgs field and particle were the last of pieces of the standard model of particle physics. But there are still many questions, including basic ones about gravity, that the model doesn't explain. The LHC is in the midst of a long shutdown period to upgrade the instruments. When it starts back up in 2015, the increased energy and number of collisions could help Hirschauer and his peers fill in some of these holes.

Hirschauer gave me a crash course in data analysis, which he said is one of his favorite parts of the job because that's where he learns about how the universe works. Though the endless stream of bright green lines of code was sometimes intimidating, I was excited to be a part of this adventure to decode nature's encrypted message.

We analyzed computer-generated data that simulates what the Large Hadron Collider would produce under various configurations. Hirschauer explained this analysis helps scientists predict how current and future upgrades will impact the search for other particles. This particular analysis focused on a particle part of the theory of supersymmetry. Supersymmetry theorizes that every known particle has a supersymmetric partner, and it is one of the frontrunners to explain gaps in the standard model.

It was a long trial-and-error process. When he encountered an anomaly, Hirschauer dug through the long list of code, searched for the reason for the error, then tried to figure out how to fix it. Sometimes he was able to find the reason and a solution within minutes. Sometimes it took days.

He would sketch out diagrams or equations on a notepad that contained dozens of other scribbles from previous pursuits. He would turn to the Internet to find published papers for insights or inspiration. At the end of the week when Hirschauer generated the final graph, I don't think I've ever been that excited to see dots and lines on a page.

When I spoke with other physicists, I found they had the same stamina for problem solving. At lunch the cafeteria filled with people and the hum of lively discussions, mostly tied in some way to the world of physics. At night students took to the grassy fields and played sports, listened to music and finished work on the latest data analysis. Even at social gatherings, people pulled out their laptops and tablets to show a colleague a chart or plot. Sometimes when a scientist would suddenly find a simple mistake, he or she would say the mistake was "stupid," an ironic word choice FOR some of the brightest minds in their fields.

Hirschauer said sometimes it’s necessary to let go of a problem and move on, but I could tell he did not like to leave anything unexplained, no matter how minuscule it was. This too seemed like a universal trait of scientists at CERN. I talked with graduate students, post-docs, professors and spokespeople. Every person I spoke with had the same relentlessness and all had a similar answer to the question: Why is this important?

Many interviewees would first let out a chuckled sigh because so many people already asked them this question. Family members, politicians and journalists alike want to know why we should be interested in what they do. Many recited a prepared response that lists various technologies that unexpectedly came from fundamental research, including the World Wide Web. Eventually, every person ended with a more personal, philosophical conclusion. The years of school, the hours in front of a computer and the obsession to solve the slightest of problems comes from curiosity.

This alone may not be adequate to convince the U.S. and other governments to fund billions of dollars in projects such as CERN, but it’s a response I could relate to. We’re all looking for answers to questions. A mechanic looks under the hood of a car. A doctor looks in the human body. A journalist looks to her sources. And the particle physicist looks at collision data. We’re all looking in different places, and we’re asking different questions, but we’re all looking.

When I watched the scientists talk about the field they love, they would light up. They enjoyed sharing the open tables in Building 40 with someone else to talk physics with them. As I listened to their discussions and watched them sketch out diagrams, it solidified my support for fundamental research. This basic curiosity not only leads to unforeseen advancements, but it perpetuates our understanding of our universe. It is in the mechanic who opens the hood of the car or the doctor who examines a body. It was in Bohr, Rutherford and Einstein AS THEY conjured up theories or conducted experiments. It is in every scientist and engineer at CERN. It is innate in any human who has ever wondered why.


Many thanks to the Carnegie Corp., which funded the fellowship for embedded science reporting through Medill. And thanks to all the people I met at CERN, who took time and energy to speak with me and made the adventure worthwhile.

Photo caption: Particle detectors such as the CMS at CERN search through the subatomic debris of near light-speed collisions to unravel secrets of the universe. The end-cap of the CMS detector is exposed here as the instrument gets upgrades. The CMS is one of two at CERN'S Large Hadron Collider that scientists used to find the elusive Higgs boson. Stephanie Sunata/MEDILL   




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