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UNL tapped to lead operations supporting atom-smashing research
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UNL tapped to lead operations supporting atom-smashing research

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It’s roughly 4,774 miles from the laboratories of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva, Switzerland, to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

But over the next five years, UNL will play a central role in the behind-the-scenes work being done at the Large Hadron Collider, the 16.6-mile-long tube where physicists smash atoms into one another at near the speed of light in order to study the aftermath.

UNL was named the leader of the U.S. Compact Muon Solenoid Operations Program in early December, putting it in charge of a $51 million grant — among the largest in school history — from the National Science Foundation to prepare the collider for another run later this decade.

Taking over leadership from Princeton University, UNL is the steward for a project involving 1,200 physicists from 19 different institutions across the country, all working to unveil more of the universe’s secrets.

“Everyone trusts the University of Nebraska to run this thing,” said Ken Bloom, a professor of physics at UNL who has spent his career working in the kind of high particle physics being studied at CERN. “It’s a big commitment. We’re the stewards of that money and we have to do all the right stuff to get that out to our collaborators.”

Those collaborators include scientists and engineers developing upgrades for both the collider and the building-sized detectors — each stands five stories tall — that will capture the nearly invisible moments after two hydrogen nuclei collide.

They also include the teams responsible for maintaining and expanding the computing power capable of storing unimaginable amounts of data — millions of gigabytes produced each year — and making it available to be scrutinized by scientists around the world.

UNL’s Holland Computing Center was named one of seven “Tier-2” computing sites in the U.S. that store, transfer and process data generated at CERN in 2005, when Bloom was tasked with responsibility over the computing grid.

Bloom was promoted in 2015 to software and computing manager for the U.S. CMS Operations Program, which operates jointly between the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

Earlier this year, Bloom became the deputy manager of U.S. CMS Operations, assuming a management role that put UNL in position to be tapped to oversee the work being done in support of the Large Hadron Collider from his native New Jersey to California.

“As they start to do major upgrades to the accelerator over the next five years, we’ll need to do upgrades to the experiment to keep up,” Bloom said.

Most of the $51 million from the National Science Foundation will leave UNL’s campus, Bloom said, but some of it will be put to use in Lincoln in support of the project.

Some of the upgrades will happen at the Holland Computing Center, which stores a copy of some of the data created through experiments at CERN, and extends computing power to the physicists trying to determine what it all means.

Carl Lundstedt, a professor of physics who serves as the grid system operator at the Holland Computing Center, said Red, the supercomputer that supports the CMS project underneath NU's South Stadium, is capable of storing 7 petabytes of data.

In addition to maintaining a cache of the vast amount of information generated at CERN, Red also works with other Tier-2 computing sites as a kind of combination between the electric grid and Amazon Web Services, Lundstedt said.

“If you’re a physicist working with the data, you might task a job to Red but never know it,” Lundstedt said, adding that UNL is continually working to upgrade and overhaul the supercomputer as new technology becomes available.

In addition to directing funds to further research efforts across the U.S., Bloom said UNL will also engage in furthering the science that will be done at CERN in the coming years.

Researchers in UNL’s high particle physics department are working on two kinds of detectors that will help track the trajectory of subatomic particles from collisions in the extreme environment created inside the Large Hadron Collider.

“It’s a little bit like being an accident investigator,” said Frank Golf, an experimental particle physicist at UNL. “We see the debris from the collision and we have to try and work backward to figure out what took place that resulted in the pictures we see.”

Golf’s team, along with a team led by Ilya Kravchenko, a professor of physics at UNL, is working on two types of detectors that will be added to the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment as it gears up for another run later this decade.

The first is an upgrade of the particle tracking detector, which is capable of making precise measurements of particles as they pass through the detector, allowing physicists to reconstruct the path the particle took following the collision.

The other is a complementary piece of technology that has never been used before, capable of recording the precise time the particle passes through the detector down to a measurement equal to one part in 30 billion.

Bloom said the National Science Foundation-supported work, as well as other research, will ultimately try to look at the Higgs boson with greater clarity since it was discovered in 2012.

“We spent 50 years wondering if there was a Higgs boson,” he said. “It was a theory, there was a whole lot of reasons to believe in that theory, but we couldn’t confirm it until recently.”

While the Higgs boson agrees with the Standard Model of particle physics, Bloom said new experiments will double the amount of Higgs available for study, generating the massive amount of data needed to look at how the Higgs fits in to other models of particle physics.

The Large Hadron Collider will also try to examine the properties of dark matter, an invisible substance believed to compose about a quarter of the universe that interacts with observable matter through gravity.

Bloom said among the most exciting endeavors of the upcoming experiments at the Large Hadron Collider is the “further exploration of the unknown.”

“These are the highest particle collisions we can do in the laboratory, the highest energy environment we can create in the laboratory, and coming the closest we can to recreating the conditions of the Big Bang,” he said. “What sort of particles might we make that are only detected in an environment like the LHC?”

“Lots of people have ideas of what to look for, and we’ll try to search for as many different things as possible and see what turns up.”

Chris Dunker's memorable stories from 2021

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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