SFU joins missing particle search

May 19, 2006, vol. 36, no. 2
By Jennifer Gardy

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With the recent announcement of $10.5 million in funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, SFU is poised to become an active participant in one of the largest physics experiments ever performed.

The experiment could confirm the existence of a mysterious subatomic particle, the Higgs boson, and reveal dimensions beyond those currently known.

The ATLAS project is one of five experiments slated to begin in 2007 at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Using the Large Hadron Collider - the world's largest particle accelerator - ATLAS will comb through the sub-atomic debris of proton-proton collisions, searching for evidence of the Higgs boson. First predicted in 1963, the Higgs boson is the missing link in the standard model of particle physics - an as-yet unobserved particle that is necessary to explain how subatomic particles acquire mass.

To find this final piece of the puzzle, physicists must store and analyze massive amounts of data arising from the proton-proton collisions.

In a given year, ATLAS is projected to generate three petabytes of data - so much information that if it were to be stored on CD, the stack of discs would reach higher than 10 of Toronto's CN Towers.

The project will require a tremendous amount of computing resources, and that's where SFU comes in.
In a project spearheaded by physics professor Michel Vetterli, coordinator of computing for the ATLAS-Canada Consortium, SFU and eight other Canadian universities have joined forces with Canada's National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics (TRIUMF) to create the ATLAS Data Centre.

It is one of 10 sites worldwide linked to form a supercomputer capable of storing and analyzing the data arising from the project.

Housed at Vancouver's TRIUMF facility, the Canadian centre will eventually consist of almost 2500 CPUs and 3,000 terabytes of storage.

“The ATLAS data centre will allow Canada to be a full participant in the largest deployment of grid computing worldwide. This relatively new technology has the potential to revolutionize the way large-scale computing is done,” explains Vetterli. The project also paves the way for local physicists to play a role in uncovering the mysteries of our universe.

“Having the centre nearby and being intimately involved in setting it up will give SFU physicists a leg up on taking a leading role in the extraction of ground-breaking scientific discoveries from the ATLAS data,” says Vetterli.  “The potential for new physics discoveries at ATLAS is extremely high. Futuristic concepts like supersymmetry, or extra dimensions beyond the four space-time coordinates we know of, could become proven theories.”

“Of course,” Vetterli adds, “it would also be interesting to see what happens if we actually do find the true theory of everything.”

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