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Physics Professor Has Front-Row Seat To Historic Event

By Beth Potier, Media Relations
April 14, 2010

Scientists celebrate at the CERN Control Centre in Geneva on March 30, 2010, as the Large Hadron Collider there recorded the first collisions of subatomic particles.

It’s not often that particle physics makes front page news, as it did March 30 when the European nuclear research organization  CERN smashed subatomic particles in its Large Hadron Collider (LHC) deep beneath the Swiss-French border.

Per Berglund, associate professor of physics who is on sabbatical at CERN in Geneva, had an up-close look at the action.

“I followed the preparations online via the webcast from the LHC control center,” Berglund said in an e-mail. “There were problems in the morning with some of the software used to protect the accelerator (or rather the magnets). Once that was resolved everything went according to plans ...  and shortly after 1 p.m., local time, the first collisions were recorded.”

These collisions were the highest-energy man-made collisions ever to be carried out in an elementary particle physics experiment. The LHC holds promise for the detection of as-of-yet undiscovered constituents of nature, such as the supersymmetric particles, candidates for the so-called dark matter that make up a large fraction of the universe, and the Higgs boson, the particle thought to be responsible for the mass of the regular matter in the universe.

Now that CERN scientists have confirmed that the LHC so capably can smash particles at such high energies, the data generated by these collisions can be studied carefully in the quest for doing new physics to understand the fundamental principles of how the universe formed.  “It’s akin to finding a needle in a haystack,” Berglund said, noting that the collisions will be repeated a number of times in order to recreate the rare events in which the sought-after particles are produced. 

“As a theorist, this is of course also an important event, as it opens up the possibility of discovering new structures of the universe that we expect to be there (supersymmetry, the Higgs boson) but also more exotic phenomena such as extra dimensions and maybe even string theory itself,” Berglund said. His work at CERN, partly funded by the UNH Faculty Scholars Program, is investigating the connection between dark matter and string theory.

While this initial collision was not integral to his work at CERN, Berglund was nonetheless excited about the historical event. “Personally, it's of course special to have been at CERN when this took place -- I first came to CERN almost twenty years ago as a graduate student,” he said. “When returning to UNH, I hope to take my experience into the classroom and if that translates into students deciding to become scientists that would be great.”

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