Summer students abroad probe the subatomic universe at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory

In 2012, physicists made headlines around the world with the discovery of the Higgs boson, a keystone of the Standard Model of particle physics, the theory describing all matter and forces in the universe. This breakthrough was a long-sought confirmation of the theory explaining why some particles have mass and others don’t.

The Nobel Prize-winning discovery was made with the ATLAS and CMS detectors of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the most powerful particle accelerator ever built. The LHC is located just outside Geneva, Switzerland, at the European Organization for Nuclear Research – known by its French acronym, CERN – the largest particle physics laboratory in the world.

For years, a team of more than thirty U of T physicists — including students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty — led the groundbreaking ATLAS collaboration. The team includes Pekka Sinervo, a professor in the Department of Physics at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

During the summer of 2022, two Arts & Sciences undergraduate students, supervised by Sinervo, had the opportunity to live in Geneva and conduct research at the LHC through the U of T’s Summer Abroad program. program offers students the opportunity to take courses in international locations where they gain invaluable experience.

Harsh Jaluka is a Fellow of Trinity College and is entering his third year of an Honors Mathematics and Physics program. Kelvin Leong is a Fellow of New College and is entering his fourth year of an honors program in astronomy and physics.

For Leong, the experience has brought him full circle. “My interest in particle physics started ten years ago when the Higgs boson was first discovered,” he says. “It was such big news at the time – that’s what first got me interested in particle physics.”

Physicists explore the subatomic realm by smashing particles together using the LHC. They then study what happens during these collisions using detectors like ATLAS and CMS. As a rule, such experiments are used to confirm the existence of particles predicted by theory – for example, the Higgs boson. Other experiments measure the characteristics of collisions and their fallout to see if they match the theorists’ predictions.

“It was an incredible opportunity. You spend two months working on the LHC, the most complex machine ever built. You can do research and gain invaluable experience. You arrive in Switzerland, a beautiful country. So, really, there was no downside to this program, it was a win-win scenario.

“I was measuring the frequency of a rare event – the occurrence of a collision of a massive particle called a top quark,” says Leong.

Jaluka says: “I was looking at collisions in which a top quark and a Higgs boson are produced. Not only that, but we were looking for events in which particles were “boosted,” that is, when they had energies above normal, and then decayed into other particles called hadrons.

For Sinervo, the Summer Abroad program pays dividends for him as an instructor and for his students.

“It gives me the opportunity to work with outstanding students who have a keen interest in the physical sciences,” he says. “I enjoy interacting with them and sharing my interest and enthusiasm for what we do at CERN.

The ATLAS detector on the Large Hadron Collider. Photo: © CERN.

“And the students see how the research is done,” he says. “They see there’s a lot of hard work, getting to know an experiment, understanding the tools we’re using, and then applying them to make progress on instrumentation or data analysis. They also get a taste of what progress looks like in a basic research group. That’s what physics is all about – not undergraduate lectures and labs! »

For Jaluka, the summer provided valuable career guidance. “When you study physics, the question is always whether to go into experimental or theoretical physics,” he says. “So this experience gave me a good idea of ​​what experimental physics looks like – what you do on a day-to-day basis. It was very helpful for me to think about my future career.

And when the students weren’t working, they took full advantage of life in Geneva. Jaluka explored the city by bike and soaked up the culture it had to offer. Leong, who had never been to Europe before, visited Bern, Lyon and other destinations.

“It was an amazing experience,” says Leong. “Working there really made me feel like I was contributing to physics research.”

“It was an amazing opportunity,” echoes Jaluka. “You spend two months working on the LHC, the most complex machine ever built. You can research and gain invaluable experience. You arrive in Switzerland, a beautiful country. So really, there was no downside to this program. It was a win-win scenario.

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