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UdeA and CERN to start collaboration

Universidad de Antioquia and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) signed a collaboration agreement coming into force in 2017. The CERN laboratory is known for the discovery of the Higgs boson as well as its research on phenomena such as the existence of dark matter.

Image:  Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Photo courtesy of CERN.

Dark matter, Higgs boson, quarks, neutrinos, which are terms usually associated with science, became the raison d'être of CERN, the world’s largest, most expensive and promising science laboratory located along the Franco-Swiss border, near Geneva.

At the beginning of December 2016, Professor Nelson Vanegas, a physicist in the Phenomenology of Fundamental Interactions Research Group, announced that Universidad de Antioquia will participate in the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) program, one of CERN’s largest and most ambitious science experiments.

The University’s participation in the CMS program has been possible thanks to the efforts and support of the Institute of Physics, the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, and the Office of the Rector.

“Participating in the CMS program allows the University to get fully involved in this unprecedented experiment,” says Professor Vanegas.

The first phase of collaboration has been scheduled to last three years. The staff will include two professors as well as doctoral and master’s students.

Other Colombian universities including Universidad de Los Andes, Universidad Nacional, Universidad Industrial de Santander (UIS) and Universidad Antonio Nariño, have participated as collaborators in several CERN experiments.  “Our goal is to strengthen collaboration with CERN so that Colombia becomes more visible in the global science scene,” Professor Vanegas said.       

The CERN experience

Professor José David Ruiz, an UdeA Institute of Physics alumnus and research fellow at CERN, is currently on a 3-month stay at Universidad de Antioquia in order to share his experiences with UdeA colleagues.

Professor Ruiz, who joined CERN in 2011 while pursuing his master’s degree in Physics at UdeA and later as a PhD student at University of Lyon, says he feels at home when he is at CERN. “The CERN stands as a very open and friendly community which brings together scientists from around the world. CERN treats everyone equally regardless of your nationality,” he said.

Professor Ruiz hopes to provide maximum advice and support to the team of researchers, especially those in the Phenomenology of Fundamental Interactions Research Group which will conduct particle physics experiments. 

The first task of the team of researchers will be to analyze the results of a particle physics experiment using CERN’S Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator.   

“The CMS program studies what happens when protons are accelerated to very high speeds and then collided with a target fixed,” says Professor Ruiz. The collision results in the creation of subatomic particles such as electrons, quarks, Higgs particles, muons, and new protons, among others, which are detected by very precise, powerful sensors.

“The resulting particles are analyzed in order to determine what happened in the high-energy collision, therefore, it is necessary to measure factors such as speed, mass, and energy,” Ruiz said.   

The resulting data must be rigorously analyzed so that researchers can find clues about the composition of matter and the history of the universe.  Initiatives like these have made possible unprecedented feats such as the Higgs boson discovery. UdeA researchers will focus their attention on finding clues about the origin of dark matter, one of the biggest enigmas in science.

The search for dark matter

Although dark matter has not been directly observed, it is often alluded to in order to explain phenomena as complex as the shape and functioning of the galaxies and the universe. Dark matter is often referred to as an unidentified type of matter that can't be seen or detected by any of our instruments.

“The detection of gravitational lensing suggests the existence of a type of matter, which unlike ordinary matter, can not be seen or detected. However, there are multiple explanations of this phenomenon,” Professor Vanegas said.       

Since the universe is composed of the same matter than Earth is made of, and it is thought to have the same laws of physics than those of our planet, CERN researchers aim to unravel the mystery of dark matter. According to some physics models, it is expected that high-energy collisions carried out at the CERN laboratory will allow researchers to spot signals from dark matter. “Running the LHC at a substantially higher energy is likely to increase the frequency of collisions that rarely occur in the observable universe, increasing the chances of detection of new particles,” Vanegas said.

This is difficult task since the detector is not able to see such matter so the scientists have to deal with the unseen. Thus, the researchers must resort to the universal principle of the conservation of energy. “In physics, the law of conservation of energy states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant,” says Professor Ruiz. And he added “we know how much energy is put into the proton collision. If the results show that the total energy after the collision is less than that before the collision, this would be evidence for dark matter particles”.

Because so many types of particles result from the collision, researchers must focus their attention on some channels of detection. “The first phase of the program involves finding out which channels of detection will be used in this process, to that end, we are working closely with our collaborators”, Professor Vanegas said.       

On the other hand, UdeA researchers are interested in participating in the construction of detectors. “We are making arrangements to be part of the group responsible for the Gas Electron Multiplier (GEM), a proven amplification technique for the detection of high energy particles,” Vanegas said.

Image: CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Photo courtesy of CERN.

CERN developments go far beyond particle physics. Fields such as engineering, philosophy, electronics and computing benefit from CERN's continuous advances and cutting-edge technology. It should be noted that the World Wide Web was invented in CERN in 1989.

“CERN produces scientific advances that can be used in a wide range of fields. Experiments at CERN generate colossal amounts of data. This had led CERN to develop computing technologies whose uses range from software and hardware development to algorithms and artificial intelligence, among others. This means that over time, experts in various fields will join the program,” Vanegas said.  

The Grid, CERN's computing infrastructure, is the world's largest computer grid. "One of our goals is to have a computing infrastructure powerful enough to be part of such program," the physicist said. 

UdeA Vice chancellor for Research María Patricia Arbeláez highlighted the benefits of participating in this collaboration. “Undoubtedly the University will benefit from the amazing computing resources that this collaboration offers,” she said.    

Efforts like these are part of the country’s commitment to contribute to major science and research projects around the world.

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