Bright future for Australian physicists: new CERN particle collider announced

particle collider
The CERN Large Hadron Particle Collider. Credit: CERN, 2014.

The world’s largest atom-smasher will soon have a bigger sibling. Scientists from CERN (the European Centre for Nuclear Research) have just announced plans for a new particle collider four times larger than the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). We had a chat to physicist Dr Clancy James and physics PhD student Shyam Balaji to find out more about what this new announcement means for Australian physics researchers.

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CERN’s ATLAS experiment, shot from outside. Credit: CERN, 2018.

What can a particle collider reveal?

A particle colliders or particle accelerator looks like a huge circular tunnel. Inside, two high-energy beams of sub-atomic particles are smashed together at close to light speed. The new particles that are created can help explain fundamental theories of physics and shed light on the origins and composition of the universe.

You’ve probably heard of the LHC, located near Geneva, Switzerland. Several years ago, researchers were able to confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson in experiments conducted in the LHC.The Higgs Boson is one of the sub-atomic particles which make up the Standard Model of Physics and its existence was predicted by theoretical physicists long before its detection. It explains where much of the universe’s mass originates from and is one of the most exciting discoveries of physics this century.

CERN has just released their plans for a new particle collider called the Future Circular Collider (FCC)- and it’s going to be huge. Spanning 100km (compared to the 27km LHC), the FCC will be located under the Swiss-French border near Geneva and will begin operating in around 2040. The bigger particle collider will be able to achieve particle collisions which reach much higher energies than the LHC, giving it the potential to detect new particles and particle interactions. This opens up the possibility of all sorts of new discoveries.

CERN’s ATLAS experiment, shot from inside. Credit: CERN, 2018.

Shedding light on dark matter

One of the mysteries of the universe is why most of its material is composed of dark matter. This hypothetical substance cannot be easily detected because it doesn’t interact with ordinary matter. For instance, it doesn’t interact with light and is therefore invisible.

University of Sydney PhD student Shyam describes dark matter research as one of the most exciting fields of physics. “We only really understand about 4% of the matter of the universe,” says Shyam. “Direct dark matter detection experiments are opening up new directions [and] innovative ideas.”

Shyam’s PhD research forms part of CERN’s ATLAS experiment and incorporates both theoretical and experimental particle physics. His theoretical work focuses on developing new physics models and theories that could explain dark matter. He then searches for these new phenomena by analysing data directly coming out of experiments in the LHC.

Interior of the ATLAS building. Credit: CERN, 2017.

Shyam describes CERN as “a place where some of the most curious and creative people in the world work. There’s no set guidelines in terms of research direction, so there are a lot of serendipitous discoveries – it’s very exciting to be a part of it.”

 


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New frontiers for Australian research

Australia is currently a hotbed of astroparticle physics and astronomical research, and the proposed FCC could open up even more future avenues for collaboration. “Operating at higher luminosity will enable us to perform precision measurements for various particle interactions that could give us hints of new physics we’re not even aware of yet,” says Shyam.

particle detector
The Cosmic Ray Detector prototype deployed at the Murchison Widefield Array in outback Western Australia, part of an international research partnership which includes Curtin University.

 

“Particle colliders can help answer many fundamental questions of physics,” explains Dr Clancy James, a postdoctoral researcher at Curtin University, whose research spans the interface between radio astronomy (the study of radio emissions from celestial bodies) and astroparticle physics The study of elementary particles is closely linked with cosmology, a broad field which aims to understand the origins of the universe.

Dr James is currently involved in the CERN-affiliated project ANTARES. The project focuses on detecting neutrinos, a kind of subatomic particle produced in interactions in outer space. “We’re trying to understand their properties and what’s producing them,” says Dr James. “Something in the universe is accelerating particles to 10 million times the energy present in the LHC, and we’re not sure why. This direct link with the LHC is just one example of the web of connections in physics research!”

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Artist impression of the KM3NeT neutrino telescope. Credit: E. Berbee/Nikhef.

These exciting new findings are also of primary interest to researchers at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), a joint venture of Curtin University and the University of Western Australia. ICRAR radio astronomers are also studying an interconnected research topic: high energy particles from outer space called cosmic rays. “Pretty much all astronomers care about questions such as the nature of dark matter too!”, says Dr James.

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The Cosmic Ray Detector team. Dr Clancy James is pictured centre.

Want to get involved in physics research?

It’s clear that physics is undergoing a huge shake-up, from new particle detections on the subatomic scale to big questions of astrophysics on the galactic scale.“I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of energetic and creative people in the field,” says Shyam, who will soon return to CERN to continue carrying out experiments in the LHC.

If you’re excited about these new physics developments too, consider studying majors in Maths, Physics or Astronomy (see more options with the Careers with STEM online degree finder). Click here for undergraduate and postgraduate student opportunities with ICRAR and the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy. Find out more about CERN student opportunities here or through your university’s Physics Department.

particle collider

“There are a lot of serendipitous discoveries [in particle physics research] – it’s very exciting to be a part of it.”

University of Sydney PhD student Shyam Balaji
Larissa Fedunik-Hofman

Author: Larissa Fedunik-Hofman

Larissa is the editorial assistant for Careers with STEM and a Chemistry PhD student. Larissa’s goal is to promote public engagement with STEM through inspiring stories.

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