Vanderbilt Helping Harvest Data From World’s Largest Particle Collider

Scientists at Vanderbilt University are taking part in the research at the world’s largest particle collider – without leaving Nashville.

The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, in Switzerland, smashes atomic particles together so scientists can study the energy created. They’re hoping that will lead to a better understanding of the origin of the universe. And Vanderbilt physicists are running a control room on campus to help harvest the data.

The hundred-thousand-dollar computer lab is one of about two-dozen remote sites spanning from Brazil to Beijing, all streaming in data from the atom smasher.

Monitors in the lab stream in data from the particle collider in Switzerland.

Monitors in the lab stream in data from the particle collider in Switzerland.

Scientists at the Vanderbilt lab will help monitor the LHC, which professor Julia Velkovska says is a huge research investment.

“This is a detector that took about two decades to build, and billions of dollars, so you can’t afford to make trivial mistakes when you’re operating it – you have to monitor it 24/7.”

The lab’s walls are covered in computer screens.

Photos courtesy Parker Bowab

Photos courtesy Parker Bowab

Several screens pour in data from particle collisions. Another is linked to video-chat with a Vanderbilt scientist on-site in Switzerland, while yet another will serve as a sort of “check-engine light.”

That’s so Vanderbilt researchers can help make sure everything at the LHC runs smoothly, even when Europe is asleep.


Ph.D. student Eric Appelt stayed in the lab overnight to observe as the LHC was switched on, along with numerous other researchers around the globe.

“We all got together, transmitted our video of our room, and connected together so there were like 20 or 30 video feeds of various different rooms across the world, and they had a satellite transmission in Europe.”

A technical snag delayed the LHC’s start by several hours, but Appelt says he was never worried.

“There were a couple of us here, and when the first beam was dumped they went home, so it was just me. I was very hopeful, and I really felt like it was going to happen. When they injected the second beam they talked about why they had to dump the first beam, and I could just see that it looked like it was all going well. I wasn’t holding my breath; I was pretty confident.”

Vanderbilt will serve as one of two U.S. sites monitoring data from the LHC – that is, the aforementioned “check-engine light.” It is also one of eight in the U.S. computing the collider’s data; Fermilab, in the Chicago area, serves as the main hub.

Photos courtesy Parker Bowab

Photos courtesy Parker Bowab

Part of Vanderbilt’s aim with the control room is to involve more faculty and students. That includes undergraduates, as well as possibly high-school teachers. One official remarked the lab makes participation in the LHC’s research more affordable than commuting to Geneva.

The LHC is similar to the facility at Brookhaven, in New York, where Vanderbilt scientists also collaborate (see previous story).

Velkovska explains where Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider smashes the nuclei of gold atoms, the LHC uses lead.

“The energy that we expect in the lead-lead collisions is about ten times larger; the temperature that we expect to create is about twice what we have at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. We think that we’re making the quark-gluon plasma already at RHIC, however at the LHC the state will be longer lived, and because of the much higher energy, we will be creating in much larger quantities particles that are very useful to probe the collisions.”

By smashing together particles at nearly the speed of light, scientists are able to break them down into even smaller pieces called quarks and gluons. That tiny flash of quark-gluon plasma lasts just fractions of a second and burns at temperatures hundreds of thousands times hotter than the sun.

Physicist Vicki Greene says researchers can use that as a tiny model of the moment the universe began.

“When you go to higher energies, in a sense you’re moving back in time, so you’ll be able to see perhaps an earlier stage of the universe,” she says.


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