Big Bang Machine: International Science Advances Include Nebraska Element
January 14th, 2015
Lincoln, NE – Two years ago, scientists at the giant atom smashing facility at CERN announced the discovery of a subatomic particle that had long been considered the holy grail of particle physicists. Their story and the Large Hadron Collider they used are now the subject of the NOVA documentary: “Big Bang Machine”
Ben Bohall of NET News sat down with University of Nebraska-Lincoln Associate Professor Aaron Dominguez, a local member of the CERN international physics team, to talk about how that discovery has helped our understanding of the universe; and what’s next in future research at the facility.
Bohall: I think while many people are aware of the Large Hadron Collider, they’re not exactly sure what it does or what it means to modern physics. How would you describe it?
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AARON DOMINGUEZ: The Large Hadron Collider is a big, circular accelerator underground across the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland and we accelerate protons- which are the nuclei of hydrogen atoms- basically almost to the speed of light and collide them in four spots around this circle. It acts like an extremely powerful microscope. So we can peer deep, deep inside the fabric of the universe at the very smallest levels with this thing. We’re basically explorers of the inner most spaces of the universe. The tiniest of the tiny.
Bohall: One of the more popular names for the collider has been “The Big Bang Machine”. How is this instrument aiding us in our knowledge of the universe?
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR DOMINGUEZ: It is a like a big bang machine in many ways. The energies that are present in these proton collisions are pretty similar to what happened in the Big Bang about a trillionth of a second or so after the universe was created. We’re able to reproduce the conditions that were present, at a very small scale, at the very earliest times in the universe. We can see things that no longer take place in our everyday lives. For example: (The) Higgs Boson. We can directly excite and produce the Higgs Boson. We can produce exotic forms of matter that no longer exist but which are part of the way the world works at the smallest level, in which were important in the early days of the universe and have led to the large scale structures we have now like galaxies and clusters of galaxies.
Bohall: I want to talk a little about Higgs Boson particle. It’s often referred to as “the God” particle. Now I’m sure in your profession, it can be hard to explain to those who aren’t physicists, what exactly it is and why it’s so important. How would you explain it?
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR DOMINGUEZ: It’s something that we have been looking for since the late 1960’s. It’s not for lack of trying that it took us 45 years or so to find it. It’s been very difficult to find. Now it requires this collaboration of 2000 or more physicists from around the world, literally, collaborating together from different nations with different funding agencies because it is so important. It’s the underpinning of what we call the “Standard Model” of particle physics. It was the last, sort of, missing piece to it. It’s the thing that allows particles to have the masses that they do. Were it not for something like this Higgs Boson, there really wouldn’t be the kind of structure we have in this universe. You and I would not be able to exist without having mass, because mass is what slows down the particles we’re made of. If we were massless particles like light, or very light particles like neutrinos, you and I couldn’t have atoms slow enough to form molecules; we couldn’t even form atoms. We couldn’t form ourselves. There wouldn’t be galaxies. There wouldn’t be stars. It really is kind of the underpinning of how the universe is structured now. It’s still very much been a mystery. We’ve just stepped foot on this new continent and we now have a whole program of exploration in front of us. That’s what we’re looking forward to, this year, in the spring when we turn the accelerator back on.