Fairfield U. professor has been looking small, thinking big
If you ask David Winn about high-calorie sausages, he'll tell you they're about six-inches long -- and 10-times thinner than the period that ends this sentence.
Every second, 40 million of them barrel around a 17-mile circular pipe, 300 feet beneath the border of France and Switzerland. They keep accelerating until they nearly reach the speed of light. Then they slam head-on into another sausage, which was zipping around the track in the opposite direction.
So where'd your lunch go? Winn wouldn't know.
He's a professor of physics at Fairfield University and he's describing beams of protons that are being slammed together at the world's highest-tech "particle accelerator" near Geneva.
Welcome to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), where scientists hope to recreate matter not seen in this corner of the universe in 14 billion years. The high-speed crash sprays subatomic particles into a multilayered "onion" of sensors, which track where -- and how deep -- the photons, pions, muons and other bits ricochet. The results are passed to one of the world's largest networks of computers -- located all over the globe -- which map out the collisions and await scientists to analyze them.
The LHC became fully operational on March 30, so it's too early to tell if it will work as well as hoped. But if it does, the results could plug holes in modern physics and redefine our understanding of the universe. And as one section of sensors was co-designed by Winn and Fairfield University students, some of the credit for new findings will go to the school.
On Friday afternoon, Winn, who lives in Westport, explained why this experiment should work. "There has to be some new process that occurs in nature at a million-millions times the energy of this office," he said, nodding to a ceiling light, which was, by comparison, quite wimpy.
"We're colliding elementary particles there at energies about 13 orders of magnitude higher than what's coming out of the light-bulb, recreating the energy of about one-tenth of a billlionth of a second after the Big Bang occurred. It's a real trick."
Winn sat at his desk, holding a color printout from March 30, when a typical blast sent bits and streams of energy into the sensors. It resembled a firework, graphed out on Microsoft Excel. Some shards appeared to have landed in the "HF-Forward Calorimeter," the device he helped design.
Winn is a professor for high energy and astro-particle physics. And he's been working on particle colliders since the 1980s, when he did post-doctoral research at Harvard University, where he worked as an assistant professor. He arrived at Fairfield University in 1987 and immediately started writing grant proposals to develop prototype detectors for high-energy colliders.
At the time, his work was geared to the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), a project based south of Dallas that was to be three-times larger and more-powerful than the LHC. But in 1993, the U.S. Congress cancelled the project due to high costs.
The decision sent much of the particle physics world into a frenzy, said Yasar Onel, a University of Iowa professor who's worked closely with Winn since 1988. Onel remembers being on the first plane from Dallas to Geneva after the cancellation, hoping to pitch the prototypes he'd been developing with Winn to scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), which was then drawing up plans for the LHC.
"The plane," he remembers, "was packed with us -- at least 15 physicists trying to do the same thing."
Ultimately, Winn and Onel succeeded in pitching their plan for the forward calorimeter to CERN, which put them in the running for developing the actual device. Their sensor would form an outer ring on the LHC's "Compact Muon Solenoid" detector, a heaping barrel that's now 50-feet high, 60-feet long and 12,500-tons heavy. In its belly is one of two spots at the LHC where protons smash. The device is so thick that the forward calorimeter is about 35 feet removed from the crash.
In 1994, there was one problem: there were three competing proposals for the forward calorimeter coming out of Europe and Asia.
Winn wasn't nervous. "I was aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the various approaches," he said, "and I knew from the get-go that ours was better."
Back at Fairfield University, he led a group of undergrads in developing new prototypes. The first ones were made on campus. One was a hundred-pound lead block stuffed with fibers (and a second stuffed with quartz). Another was a 6-foot-long, 1,500-pound collection of thinly sliced copper plates, pressed together, with optical fibers wedged between.
"We were undergrads doing all this hands-on reasesarch, which was a real honor," said Christopher Sanzeni, class of `95. During one day of testing at the Brookhaven National Laboratories on Long Island, Sanzeni remembers a physicist there conversing with Winn.
"He said, `Your grad students are great, they're up there moving wires and at the computer collecting data; it's great.'" Winn told the man that his students were undergrads. "And he said, `Holy cow!' That's amazing.'"
"That was big," remembered Zanzeni, who now designs electro-optical devices with Goodrich FSH, an aerospace and defense supplier with offices in Danbury.
The prototypes were soon presented to CERN and subjected to three years of testing. In 1996, they were selected as the technology to be used in the LHC.
After approval, the collaborative team grew and spread around the world. The actual device would need to be extremely sensitive, extremely durable and as easy to service as replacing batteries in a flashlight, Winn said. It would also need to be about 15-feet long and 6-feet in diameter, several times larger than the prototypes built at Fairfield University.
What's wrong with
Modern physics, Winn said, in some ways resembles the state of astronomy before Nicolaus Copernicus came along in the 16th Century. Until then, the equations used to explain the movements of planets were those of the Greek mathematician, Ptolemy. The equations still worked, but had two glaring weaknesses in hindsight: One, each planet required its own formula. Two, everything revolved around the Earth.
Copernicus dispelled the latter notion and created a single formula that explained the orbits of all the planets. That work revolutionized astronomy and catapulted rapid change in the field of physics.
Today's situation could yield a similar game-change. The problem: the matter and energy we're aware of only constitutes about 5 percent of the universe. Put another way, 95 percent of the universe remains a mystery.
What could this solve?
As Winn explained, scientists account for this missing stuff by inferring concepts known as "dark matter" and "dark energy." Dark energy would comprise about two-thirds of the universe; dark matter would comprise much of the remaining third.
The need for this material can be seen, Winn said, in the difference between the movements of planets in our solar system and the movement of galaxies. The inner planets here -- like Mercury, Venus and Earth -- zip around the sun at a rapid pace, whereas the outer planets -- like Uranus and Neptune -- mosey through their orbit at a far slower pace. The reason for this is that the sun's gravity is far weaker further away.
But in galaxies, outer stars are making orbits as fast or faster than the inner ones, meaning some force other than gravity must be propelling them around at a quickened pace. Scientists assume that force comes from dark matter, which they believe is highly gravitational but invisible to us. They hope to create and detect forms of dark matter in the high-energy bangs inside the LHC.
A global collaboration
An army of scientists has worked on the LHC over the past 16 years, representing more than 40 countries and 240 universities. Winn estimates that some 1,000 physicists and an equal number of engineers have collaborated on the project. The process, he said, has mostly been self-organizing, creating a test tube for anthropologists and sociologists, a number of whom have studied the project and its unique human interactions.
For example, one part of the detector was made in Iran; another part in Pakistan. And many scientists have worked peacefully alongside citizens of geopolitical enemeies: A Turk beside an Armenian, a Serb beside a Croat.
"Sometimes things get a little unusual, but not by much," Winn said. "It's never as bad as Republicans and Democrats."
No failure theorem
The LHC comes at a high cost -- around $10 billion to be exact. But scientists like Winn and Onel believe that, even if they fail to produce the particles they expect, the experiment can not be a failure.
Such a result would send scientists back to the drawing board, forcing them to come up with new, better theories to explain movements in the universe and the nature of matter. But it will also likely yield improvements in other walks of life that weren't intended.
"I teach some pre-med classes with up to 300 students and I say, `Look around you, everything you see is physics: there's a light, you see lasers, TVs, radios, cell phones, digital cameras, x-rays," he said. This type of research, he added, produced the technology for MRIs, the World Wide Web and tumor-zapping radiation beams.
"I'm very excited about it," he said. "I hope it will help civilization."