Toronto scientists share in search of physics’ holy grail

You’d think the hard part was over.

Last week, in Geneva, Switzerland scientists applauded, poured champagne and some even wept as an $8-billion particle accelerator aced crucial tests.

After more than two decades of work by some of the world’s brightest scientists the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was ready to cause high-speed particle collisions in the name of science.

An ocean away a crowd applauded, and then groaned, as two Toronto-based collaborators on the epic project – designed to locate alternate dimensions, the substance of mysterious dark matter and the origins of the atom itself – laboured to operate videoconferencing equipment at the University of Toronto’s McLennan Physical Laboratories.

Prof. Robert Orr spoke praised his colleague, Pierre Savard for helping clear the first hurdle in their effort to link with fellow U of T scientists in Geneva, but their struggle with the mundane realities of everyday technology stood in stark contrast to their contribution to the LHC, a gargantuan scanner named ATLAS.

Stood on one end ATLAS is seven storeys tall. Viewed head-on it resembles a towering futuristic spider. It’s one of four massively complex instruments designed to record the millions of charged particle collisions in every LHC experiment.

The efforts of nearly 40 nations, including Canada, built ATLAS for the LHC project, under the banner of CERN, whose intials translate to European Organization for Nuclear Research. ATLAS is meant to detect particles which might have thrived in the extreme conditions of the early universe.

One of these, the still-theoretical Higgs boson particle, is nicknamed the “God particle” because it might be the reason that pure energy picked up mass and became physical matter during the big bang’s first moments.

If finding this involves forcing millions of particles to collide an almost the speed of light, so be it.

U of T scientists attempted to reassure any laypersons that the LHC, a scientific instrument so immense that it straddles the Swiss-French border, will not accidentally destroy the world or even hurt the Europeans living above it it.

Among all the cryptic terms which refer to the LHC, “big bang,” “black hole” and the ominous-sounding “dark matter” seem to stand more out in people’s imaginations than “elementary particle” and “Toroidal LHC Apparatus.”

They couldn’t entirely rule out the chance of some high-energy collision forming a “microscopic” black hole.

Savard quickly added that such a tiny terror would most likely disintegrate and so what if it didn’t?

“There are good arguments why even if it did not evaporate it would still be OK,” he explained.

Savard maintained that such a robust object would be too energetic to stay put and would probably escape to outer space. Even if it didn’t, he says, more dangerous things strike earth’s upper atmosphere daily from every part of space.

The largely young audience seemed more interested in tomato-and-bacon pizza slices than such cosmic catastrophe, but there might have been more discussion of quarks and muons than at the average pizza party.

Amid the giddy atmosphere a sense of shared accomplishment seemed to circulate, a feeling partly supported by the fact that even some of the undergrads present worked on components of ATLAS in basement shops of the physics building.

Orr said he specifically looked for tasks from the project that might involve student effort.

“I think that’s very important because it involves the university community,” he said.

Orr added that the students, who earned a modest wage at the time, may not have realized that they were helping to build the world’s biggest atom-smasher.

“I don’t think they could conceive of what it was actually going to be used for,” he said.