Travel Notes: Undergrad @ CERN

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ariana Minot, a senior physics and mathematics major from Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, spent nearly three months at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN this summer, observing the paths of sub-atomic particles and the working habits of high-energy physicists.

Minot studied the performance of the Transition Radiation Tracker (TRT)—one of the innermost detectors that will be used to track the paths of the particles created when protons collide in the ATLAS detector.  Physicists at Duke played a significant role in designing and building the TRT.

The LHC isn’t scheduled to begin running until late this year, but Minot was able to assess the TRT using particles created when cosmic rays collide with the atmosphere. Her advisor, Prof. Mark Kruse, says, “What we’re doing now is trying to understand the performance of the TRT—how accurately does it trace particles that go through it? How well is it going to perform with real data?”

Kruse says Minot has made strides in answering those questions. “Ariana has done a wonderful job,” he says. “Her work will directly relate to how well we can measure the momentum of the particles.”

The Role of ATLAS

In addition to Minot and Kruse, there are about 2,500 scientists working on ATLAS. (And ATLAS is only one of four experiments at the Large Hadron Collider.) The goal of the massive collaboration is lofty. "We're trying to understand the physics of the universe less than a billionth of a second after the Big Bang," Kruse says. Duke’s focus is the search for “new physics” to explain the workings of the universe in the high-energy conditions after the Big Bang, when the standard model of particle physics appears not to apply. “We’ve developed a search strategy for new physics that is not based on a particular model or theory, because I don’t think we really know all the possibilities out there,” Kruse says.

Collaboration in Action

Besides learning a lot about the TRT this summer, Minot also learned what it’s like to do independent research in an international and collaborative setting. “I was surprised and happy with the amount of freedom I was given in doing my work,” she says. “I felt I always had support when I needed it, but being a bit on my own gave me the opportunity to let my research be guided by both the main questions and my own curiosity.” While at CERN, she was mentored by Kruse’s post-doc Esben Klinkby, among others.

“It was an invaluable experience to learn from physicists of all different backgrounds,” Minot says. “I learned that collaboration is a key ingredient in physics. Seeing the cafeteria patio at CERN always crowded with physicists discussing their work over coffee was a true testament to the power of bouncing ideas off each other.”

Minot will continue to be involved in the ATLAS project throughout her senior year. She’s applying for a Fulbright scholarship to work with an ATLAS research group in France next year. After that, she plans to continue studying high energy physics in graduate school.