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Baking, Backpacking and Boozoons – Summer at CERN

Caitlin Jenny and some friends from Yale University spent summers in Europe hiking the mountains, wandering medieval villages – and looking for collisions of subatomic particles that few humans have ever seen.

Gainey, a final year student at Yale College studying astrophysics, along with fellow Yale seniors Dawson Thomas, Matthew Murphy, and Alexandra Haslund Gurley have conducted critical research into one of the most important hubs of physics in the world – the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), located outside Geneva, Switzerland. They were part of a science team led by Sarah Demers, a professor of physics in the Yale University School of Arts and Sciences.

The Large Hadron Collider – the world’s largest particle accelerator, located in a giant underground complex – restarted in midsummer after four years of upgrades. Physicists use the facility to test theories about the fundamental laws of physics, from the formation of space and time to the relationship between quantum mechanics and general relativity.

The Yale students’ task was to analyze test collisions of subatomic particles, search for specific particles such as Z bosons and J/Psi particles, and create visual representations of the collisions. The work involved an extensive amount of physical knowledge, computer coding, and graphics expertise.

An example of an event view of a particle collision created by Yale University students, based on data from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

Their visit coincided with 10The tenth Anniversary of the discovery of the Higgs boson, a fundamental particle with the arrangement of an electron or quark, a historic moment that CERN scientists celebrated in July. During the same month, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced the discovery of three new particles – a pentaquark and two quarks – using an even more powerful accelerator beam.

Shows of events created by Yale University students, illustrating specific particle collisions, were a notable part of the announcement.

It’s been an exciting time being at CERN, and these students have been in the thick of it,” said Demers, an associate research scientist at CERN, a collaborator with the ATLAS experiment at the LHC, and part of the international research team that discovered the Higgs boson. (Together with fellow Yale University physicists Keith Baker and Paul Tipton.)

I’m incredibly impressed with what they’ve accomplished,” she said.

Alexandra Haslund Gurley, Matthew Murphy, Dawson Thomas, Caitlin Jenny, Gianantonio Pizzolo
From left to right, Alexandra Haslund Gurley, Matthew Murphy, Dawson Thomas, Caitlin Jenny, and Gianantonio Pizzolo, Yale Postdoctoral Fellow.

Meet the team

Quaternary physics students from Yale College arrived in Switzerland in May, boasting a variety of scientific skills and research interests.

Haslund Gurley, who hails from Santa Barbara, California, has been passionate about physics since elementary school. She previously completed a physics internship at the Fermilab facility in a suburb of Chicago, and she hosts a science podcast called “Extended Office Hours” on Spotify.

Thomas, a suburb of Atlanta, studies physics and mathematics, with a particular interest in using engineering and topological machine learning methods to explore particle physics.

Gainey, like Haslund-Gourley, grew up in Santa Barbara. She actually worked in three science laboratories during her time at Yale – two of which were laboratories focused on astronomy research and one that worked in particle physics. Her research interest is the application of data science techniques to both areas.

Murphy, a member of the Yale University rowing team from Portland, Oregon, had no prior lab experience before emailing Demers, his former PHYS 200 professor, to ask about research opportunities on the campus lab. She told him she could do it – or he could just come to Switzerland.

This was my first time doing research, Murphy said. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

They arrived at their rented apartment outside Geneva during a rainstorm in the third week of May. Their excavations were only 10 minutes away by train to CERN.

With the Demers guiding the way, they quickly got to work.

This magical land

Yale University students entered CERN in a flurry of activity. The Large Hadron Collider, which debuted in 2008, had its third extended run of particle collisions in a series of test collisions.

Their task was twofold: to pick out interesting collision “events” from early data that would indicate whether the detector was working properly and develop visual representations of those events, showing particles and energy deposits from the accelerator.

They spent weeks learning about how the LHC itself works, then learning about computing tools they might use to access test data and write code to identify candidates for a collision event.

“I remember sitting in the apartment with Dawson on a Friday night in mid-June, writing code that wasn’t working well,” Murphy said. “Then, all of a sudden, it started working perfectly. It was great.”

“I felt very lucky,” Haslund Gurley said. “I grew up always wanting to work at CERN, this magical land where physicists learn about the forces and particles that make up the universe.”

On July 5, students were on standby for the first collisions with the collider’s “stable beam,” which reached a globally unprecedented energy level of 13.6 TeV. They watched a live stream of the collisions, listened to music – and waited for their code to play.

“Once we got started, it was a race against time, with some of the best physicists in the world reviewing everything we did,” said Gaini.

It was an interesting kind of stress, said Thomas. “They needed to view the event ASAP.”

One of their first visualizations was used almost immediately in a scientific lecture for the 2022 International Conference on High Energy Physics. This was the first slide on the show, actually.

Haslund Gurley said: “It was unbelievable.

skillful work

By all accounts, the group’s work was a success.

Our students have identified the only publicly available candidates for event presentations from ATLAS and have been regularly thanked and featured in collaboration-level presentations,” Demers said.

Aside from the projects assigned to them, the students said they enjoyed immersion in an intense science environment away from home. Haslund Gurley, for example, said she was inspired by the international nature of the collaboration at CERN; Thomas was glad to have had the opportunity to meet some of the physicists he represented from “Particle Fever,” a 2013 documentary that inspired him to primarily pursue physics.

The students had a snack while hiking in the mountains.
The students had a snack while hiking in the mountains.

In their spare time, the students hiked in the Jura Mountains, toured rural villages in France, and explored the sights of Vienna, Budapest, Munich and Bern. There were ample opportunities to sample the local cuisine as well.

“A lot of bread was eaten,” said Jenny.

For the future, Gainey said she will continue her work at CERN while at Yale this year, making it the basis of her main project. Meanwhile, Thomas believes he’s found a “chance” way to bring topological machine learning methods to bear on particle physics.

For its part, Haslund-Gourley has been inspired by data science and machine learning techniques used to process collision data at CERN and hopes to apply similar analysis techniques to neural data.

And Murphy? After spending a summer at CERN, he said he’s got a search bug, big time. “I’ve never felt so nervous,” he said. “We all just stopped, did our jobs, and made it work. I know I will continue to work at CERN for my thesis.”


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