Jennifer Godfrey

Student Jennifer Godfrey, seen here next to a model of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, was there when scientists on the ATLAS project collided subatomic particle beams together at the highest energies ever reached in a laboratory.

Atom-smashing record thrills physicists

January 7, 2010

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Virtually every physicist in Canada would love to have been in Jennifer Godfrey’s shoes last month.

The SFU PhD student arrived at the enormous Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland just before a record-breaking achievement in the world’s largest science experiment.

Two days later, scientists on the ATLAS project at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) collided subatomic particle beams together in the LHC at 2.36 tera-electron volts (TeV), the highest energies ever reached in a laboratory.

Meanwhile at SFU’s Burnaby campus, physicist Bernd Stelzer, who was remotely monitoring data quality when it happened Dec. 8, was so excited he literally ran to tell his colleagues.

SFU physicists, like thousands of others throughout the world, were ecstatic over the news.

The ATLAS project is using high-energy proton-to-proton collisions to look for the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle believed to be central to understanding the origin of mass in the universe.

SFU hosts one of Canada’s four Tier-2 data centres that collect and analyze ATLAS data along with other centres around the world. The centre’s researchers have worked for years with simulated data. But they say nothing comes close to the real thing.

"We were excited to see real data arrive on SFU’s computers," says SFU physicist Mike Vetterli, who is also project leader of the Canadian Tier-1 data centre.

The Tier-1 centre is at TRIUMF, the country’s national particle and nuclear physics laboratory at UBC, which is owned and operated by 11 Canadian universities, including SFU.

TRIUMF is working with nine other ATLAS Tier-1 centres worldwide to reprocess the raw data produced by the experiment.

"It’s exciting, but also very intense," says Vetterli’s colleague, Dugan O’Neil.

Godfrey, one of O’Neil’s grad students, was working right in the ATLAS control room at CERN, monitoring the Liquid Argon Calorimeter, which measures the energy of particles as they pass through the detector.

She wasn’t on shift when the record-breaking collisions happened. But she witnessed previous collisions and says the excitement is almost palpable, with everyone "pulling out cameras and photographing screens."


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