In the late 1980s, the University of Arizona was in competition with a number of other institutions to win the contract to build a Superconducting Supercollider in the United States. That is, until Congress killed the project in 1993. At the time, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, had plans for its own particle collider and, without a U.S. counterpart, became home to what is now often referred to as the biggest and most expensive science experiment on Earth.
The loss of the project has not deterred physicists like John Rutherfoord and Michael Shupe, who instead of working in their own backyard, split their time between Tucson and Geneva.
Both researchers work on the ATLAS detector, one part of the LHC. Rutherfoord described ATLAS as one of several collision points in the collider. It is “where two proton beams are crossed through each other," he said. The crossing of beams forces particles to collide with one another and to release “energies not seen before," he added.
Parts of the ATLAS detector were built in Tucson at the UA Department of Physics. The detector now lies deep underground in Switzerland. It is connected to a large, circular tunnel, 17 miles in circumference near the border between Switzerland and France.
Shupe said particle beams accelerate through the tunnels, nearly reaching the speed of light, until they are forced to collide. Researchers like Rutherfoord and Shupe then study what follows.
The collisions produce particles, some of which are already familiar to scientists, particles such as quarks, protons and neutrons. Others, like the now infamous Higgs Boson, are more elusive.
Sometimes called the “God Particle," the Higgs Boson is believed to be responsible for the mass of the elementary particles that make up the universe. Scientists also hope to find dark matter, which makes up a quarter of the universe.
The UA’s Rutherfoord, Shupe and Elliott Cheu are three of the 2,500 co-authors of the article reporting the discovery of the Higgs Boson.
The three will take part in a panel discussion Friday, April 25 at The Loft Cinema, immediately following a screening of the film Particle Fever. The film follows the start-up and launch of the Large Hadron Collider.