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To the Heart of Matter


ACT for Canada's Sustainable Future


ACT for Canada's Sustainable Future

SFU is playing a role in one of history's grandest science experiments, one which endeavours to identify more of the tiny complexities that dictate our universe.

A massive collaboration comprising over 5000 physicists and engineers from 38 countries, the ATLAS experiment at CERN in Geneva was built to study collisions of subatomic particles at the highest energy ever achieved in the laboratory so physicists can better understand the basic structure of the universe and the forces governing it. SFU is involved in this international project, with important contributions made by three faculty members, Michel Vetterli, Dugan O’Neil, and Bernd Stelzer, as well as many students and postdoctoral fellows.

Of particular note was the 2012 announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson, which is central to the mechanism that gives subatomic particles their mass, an achievement that led to the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics. And, Vetterli, O'Neil and Stelzer were among the scientists that were awarded the European Physical Society’s 2013 prize for High-Energy and Particle Physics.

Without the Higgs boson, the universe would be a very different place, with no atoms to form the materials from which our world is made.  The challenge now is to continue collecting more data in order to make precise measurements of Higgs boson’s properties and verify that it is indeed the particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics.  Beyond this fundamental study of mass, ATLAS physicists are also looking for new phenomena “beyond the Standard Model”, such as new symmetries of Nature, extra dimensions, and the nature of the dark matter that pervades space.

“The exciting aspect of the Higgs discovery is that we can’t even imagine what the spin-offs might be,” says physics professor Vetterli. “History shows us many examples of discoveries in basics research that led to transformative technology. Who could have foreseen how electricity would change our lives when it was first discovered in the late 1800s?”

The Large Hadron Collider, an immense particle collider with a circumference of 27 kilometers, is buried deep beneath the France-Switzerland border and produces proton-proton collisions at a rate of 40 million times per second.  This results in a huge amount of data to be stored and analyzed in a multi-step process.  The size of the computing challenge is such that an international network of high-performance computing centres, the Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG), has been created.  One of the ten “Tier-1” centres in this network, currently located in Vancouver but scheduled to move to SFU Burnaby in 2017, is led by Vetterli, who also chairs the committee that monitors and sets policy for ATLAS use of all computing resources around the world.

In addition to the Tier-1 centre, ATLAS uses resources at Compute Canada in Tier-2 centres, one of which is on the SFU Burnaby campus, where Vetterli and O’Neil have held several leadership roles. O’Neil is currently the Chief Science Officer of Compute Canada and Vetterli was a founding principal investigator of WestGrid.

SFU is involved in testing and building new particle detectors for ATLAS to maintain and enhance the discovery potential of the grand experiment during the scheduled LHC operation at much higher collision rates in the year 2021 and beyond. Bernd Stelzer is currently the project leader of the ATLAS ITk production site at TRIUMF and is preparing a detector testing site at SFU’s 4D LABS.


Mike Vetterli is a professor of physics at SFU, with a joint appointment at TRIUMF. He works on the ATLAS experiment at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland where he is the SFU group leader and his activities centre on high-performance computing and the study of "jets" which are the manifestations of quarks and gluons, the constituents of protons, emerging from the collisions.  Vetterli is also the project leader for the ATLAS-Canada Tier-1 Data Centre (currently located at TRIUMF). He is also a founding principle investigator of the WestGrid computing network in western Canada, with a node at SFU, as well as a past computing coordinator for ATLAS-Canada (2003-10).  He spent a sabbatical year at CERN in 2013-14 as the chair of the ATLAS Publications Committee, which is responsible for the review of all ATLAS results and papers.  He currently oversees the management of ATLAS computing resources across the full WLCG (100,000 cpu cores, 300 PB of storage).

Q & A with Mike Vetterli

What motivates you as a researcher?

Understanding how our world works at the fundamental level. I'm like a child who never stops asking "Why?"

How is your research making an impact on lives?

Basic research underpins all technological advances, however, the time between fundamental discovery and practical application is often decades, so it is difficult to make a direct link between the two. For example, a whole field of diagnostic and therapeutic medicine is based on nuclear physics. More directly, basic research often pushes the boundaries of currently available technology; we have to develop and refine equipment and these improvements make it quickly to the marketplace. Two examples from high-energy physics are the World Wide Web, developed at CERN, and Grid computing where we are among the largest users and developers worldwide.

How important is collaboration in advancing research?

Collaboration is crucial in particle physics.  The experiments are so large and complicated, not to mention expensive, that large international teams must be assembled to be successful. The timescales involved are very significant. ATLAS was proposed in the early 1990's and will continue to take data well into the next decade.

What advice would you give your younger self regarding the challenges you've faced as a researcher?

Never give up. To quote Tom Hanks from A League of their Own: "Baseball is supposed to be hard. If it wasn't, everyone would do it." Research is not easy and you fail more often than you succeed. But if you learn from your mistakes and persevere, you will reach your goal.

Putting one’s work out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you find your courage?

I'm not sure if it is courage as much as it is passion. One of the major perks of my job is that it is never boring. It is not that difficult to come to work when you know that you will be challenged and have lots of fun every day. Well, almost every day!

What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction of university research over the next 50 years?

I think more fields are going to move to large international collaborations and projects. University researchers must learn to work efficiently in teams and be willing to listen to the ideas of others. Funding agencies will have to adjust their strategies to plan for these large-scale projects. There is a "Big Science" policy currently being promoted in Canada and I encourage the Trudeau government to move forward aggressively with this initiative.

SFU has much to celebrate on its 50th anniversary. Looking ahead to our 100th anniversary in 2065, what do you think SFU will be most notable for?

The fun of it is that no one actually knows. Discoveries we can't even dream of now will determine new research directions. This is what makes life interesting.  It would be boring if we already knew where we'd be 50 or 100 years from now.