Particle physics research

NSF’s $3.8 Million Grant Opens New Era of Early Universe Research

In the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 27 kilometer underground tube beneath the Swiss and French countryside, Cornell physicists smash matter into its component parts to learn more about elementary particles and their interactions. A $3.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation will support the team for three additional years of research.

“We are the ultimate reductionists,” said Peter Wittich, professor of physics at the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S) and director of the Elementary Particle Physics Laboratory. “What we do at the LHC is to take everything apart to the most fundamental elements.”

Postdoctoral researcher Rui Zou (right) is supported by a new NSF grant to Cornell researchers working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). With CLASS engineer Charlie Strohman, she is working on the Apollo ATCA board, a device for the trigger track project that is part of the Cornell-based upgrades to the LHC’s Compact Muon Solenoid detector.

Cornell researchers contributed to the 2012 discovery at the LHC of the Higgs boson particle, the latest element of the Standard Model of physics. Data collection that included this landmark discovery is complete. On July 5, the next four-year run of the LHC’s Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector began, Wittich said, with a new goal: to find evidence of physics beyond the Standard Model.

“The Higgs boson completes the standard model; it describes all the particle interactions we know about. But it’s also incomplete,” said Wittich, one of five co-principal investigators receiving the grant. The Standard Model holds, for example, that there are equal amounts of matter and antimatter; however, no one knows where antimatter is in the universe. In another puzzle, cosmological observations confirm the existence of something called dark matter, which is not captured in the Standard Model.

One of the main goals for the next data-taking period after the upgrade is to find new forces or new particles that can resolve these inconsistencies, Wittich said.

For example, future LHC collisions could help Ritchie Patterson, Helen T. Edwards (A&S) Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for Bright Beams at Cornell, search for a particular type of new particle.

Patterson is interested in a subset of new unknown particles predicted by models developed to supplement the Standard Model. If they exist, these proposed particles would travel a short distance from the collision point before decaying into a group of other particles – ones that are already part of the Standard Model and therefore familiar, she said.

“Our LHC detector wouldn’t necessarily see the new particles directly, but it can detect the cluster of particles they produce,” Patterson said. “Such a cluster would be unambiguous evidence for a new such particle, and thus for phenomena beyond the Standard Model, and would be huge.”

Patterson works with a postdoctoral researcher, two doctoral students and two undergraduate summer researchers. A graduate student is working at the LHC’s host laboratory, CERN, in Switzerland, to help launch the new dataset, while the rest of the team works from Ithaca. She said that if new phenomena occur, she and her team have a high chance of finding them.

A total of eight doctoral students, four postdoctoral researchers, and several undergraduate students are receiving NSF Fellowship support. In addition to Patterson and Wittich, the co-principal investigators of the LHC are Cornell physics professors Jim Alexander, Julia Thom-Levy and Anders Ryd (A&S).

Ryd is also leading a coinciding upgrade project funded by a separate NSF Facilities Grant awarded in 2020. The $153 million grant, to Cornell and Columbia University, is for building upgrades. high-luminosity upgrade of two particle detectors at the LHC. Cornell is responsible for upgrades that will allow CMS to operate at higher intensity, including improved proton beams, more sophisticated detectors, and new trigger systems for smarter data collection.

Most of the upgraded equipment is being prepared in Ithaca, to be shipped to Geneva for installation beginning in 2026. Data collection with these upgraded detectors is expected to begin in 2029 and continue for 10 years. This will generate huge amounts of data, Wittich said, more than 10 times the total collected by the LHC through 2025.

“We’re simultaneously collecting data and, to prepare for the future, also building an upgrade to the experience to make it better,” Wittich said.

Kate Blackwood is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.