Chasing Particles at the World’s Largest Lab

Feb 09, 2017

Duncan Shaw got the email on Christmas Day: The HSU Physics & Astronomy major’s application to intern at the world’s largest research center had been accepted, and this summer, he’s going to Geneva, Switzerland to work at CERN. "With VIDEO":

The French acronym for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN is most famous for its 17-mile-circumference Large Hadron Collider, which smashes particles together at close to the speed of light.

About 2,500 scientists from almost 200 countries collaborate to study the results of those collisions, in the pursuit of answers about particle physics - or high energy physics - dark matter, and what makes up our universe.

Shaw’s path to the CERN came via Physics & Astronomy Professor C.D. Hoyle’s Gravity Lab, where the search for the fundamental makeup of the universe is also taking place, albeit on a smaller scale. Originally from Junction City in Trinity County, Shaw knew he wanted to work in applied mathematics as a high school student. His “particle physics moment” came at a high school science bowl, and now he’s in his senior year at HSU, where’s he’s taken nearly every class in both paths of the Physics & Astronomy major, building computers, experimenting with gravity, and studying other phenomena.

For the last year Shaw has joined other students In Hoyle’s Gravity Lab, including Ian Guerrero, who interned with CERN last summer. The internships are part of a CSU program started by CSU Fresno Professor Yongsheng Gao to get students involved in the ATLAS program, one of the groups that studies particle collisions at CERN. Two other HSU students have visited CERN through other programs.

During his internship, Guerrero wrote computer software that allowed detectors in the Large Hadron Collider to be reset during the experiments, helping researchers collect valuable data that was previously lost during the calibrations. Now Guerrero is finishing up his last semester at Humboldt and waiting to hear from his PhD applications.

Shaw expects to be doing similar work at CERN, writing programs that help analyze the billions of reactions that happen when you smash particles together at near light speed.

“Theoretical physics – that’s a respectable field,” he says. But he’s all about experimentation and taking action. He loves the uncertainty of smashing things together. “Let’s just do it and see what happens.”

Theory and experimentation are, of course, related. The purpose of CERN is to test for results that support or question well-established theories about the universe. The CERN internship is directly related to the work that both Guerrero and Shaw want to do in their careers. Guerrero wants to further his studies in gravity and high energy physics. Shaw wants to make sci-fi concepts, like warp drives, a reality.

“The study of high energy physics, or particle physics, is the next frontier,” Shaw says. “First there was relativity, then quantum physics. High energy physics seeks to understand what the universe is made of on the most basic level.”

Hoyle is hoping the CSU program becomes a pipeline for HSU’s Physics & Astronomy majors to visit and intern at CERN. “Having Duncan and Ian intern at CERN shows that HSU students can succeed in the program,” he says.

Guerrero’s biggest takeaway was the sense of community at CERN. “It’s the world’s top research center, but everyone there is just really passionate and hardworking. They’re not all geniuses,” he says. “That was my favorite thing - the science is obviously great, but the community was my favorite part.”