Simon Fraser University


ATLAS project

Physicists ready to crunch data

September 17, 2008

The buzz at the CERN facility in Geneva, Switzerland over the start of the historic ATLAS experiment on Sept. 10 was also felt here at SFU.

Physicists (l to r) Bernd Stelzer, Michel Vetterli and Dugan O’Neil are among hundreds of scientists worldwide who will have key roles when the project’s data collection begins in October.

On Sept. 10, they were among Western Canadian participants to gather at Vancouver’s TRIUMF facility to celebrate the first beam circulation in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), located at CERN. No beams collided, but the crucial first attempt at circulation was hailed as the project’s official beginning.

ATLAS, dubbed the world’s biggest physics experiment, will probe the fundamental forces that have shaped the universe since the beginning of time and could shed light on the origins of mass and other dimensions of space.

The SFU scientists will be working to collect and interpret data produced when proton beams collide at record energy inside the LHC, a gigantic machine spanning 27 kilometers in circumference.

Vetterli, who has devoted several years and expertise to the project, says the event brought a "grab bag" of emotions: excitement after so many years of effort and apprehension over whether the equipment would work as designed.

"And oddly, a sense of disbelief that data will be coming soon, after almost two decades of planning," says Vetterli, who is the project leader for the ATLAS Canada Data Analysis Centre at TRIUMF — one of 10 data centres worldwide that are all connected via high-speed networks to compute the experiment results.

Why should people take notice of physics? "People should care whether we understand Nature or not, or we would be nothing more than animals with limited consciousness," says Vetterli.

"There are plenty of examples of the benefits of pushing science in general and subatomic physics in particular. I look at such historical advances as the television coming from the first electron accelerators, nuclear medicine as a spin-off of nuclear physics, better electronics because subatomic physics often pushes the requirements beyond what is available, and the World-Wide-Web, which was developed at CERN.

"It’s certainly true that the better we understand the fundamental structure of matter and of interactions, the better we can control and manipulate our surroundings."