• Sheldon Glashow in group photo
  • Steve Ahlen in group photo
  • Kevin Black in group photo
  • Kenneth Lane in group photo
  • Tulika Bose in group photo
  • Bump Hunters

    BU physicists sift through the shrapnel of proton collisions made by the biggest machine on Earth, searching for new physics

Tulika Bose stands guard over the printer.

She’s carried her laptop down the hall and submitted her print job on arrival to be certain that she will intercept her papers before anyone else has a chance to see them. Her documents contain secrets.

Bose is a physicist working at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland. Her work has nothing to do with weapons or national defense or space exploration or any of the usual top-secret stuff physicists work on. What her files contain are ideas about what we—everything under the sun and beyond it—are made of. Her documents could contain the secrets of the universe.

When Protons Collide: A proton collision is like a car accident—except when it isn’t. Physicist Kevin Black explains why. (Watch out for the kitchen sink!) Video by Joe Chan

An associate professor of physics at Boston University, Bose is part of a cadre of physicists at BU committed to understanding matter down to its smallest particles and most intricate interactions. BU is unusual, one of only a small handful of US universities with researchers working on multiple experiments at the LHC.

These experiments are looking for signs of particles that have never been seen before. The particles familiar from high school physics—electrons, protons, and neutrons—were just the beginning. Over the past several decades, physicists have confirmed that there are six kinds of quarks; three types of leptons; and assorted bosons, including photons, gluons, and the famed Higgs. These particles only exist in high-energy environments, such as the LHC, where protons are sent hurtling around a ring at speeds very close to the speed of light, colliding together spectacularly. All of the particles that are predicted to exist by the accepted theory of particle physics, called the Standard Model, have been found through experiments like those done at the LHC.

A theoretical physicist since the 1960s and a Nobel Laureate, Glashow came to BU in 2000 because of the physics department’s emphasis on experiments like those at the LHC. Photo by Gina Manning

BU also happens to have on its faculty Sheldon Glashow, a BU College of Arts & Sciences physics professor, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 for his work developing the foundations of the Standard Model. Theorists like Glashow and Kenneth Lane, also a BU professor of physics, and experimental physicists like Bose have become masters of the Standard Model and are spending their careers trying to figure out one thing: Is there more to the universe than what we know right now?

The answer, almost surely, is yes.

When physicists look for new particles, they are really looking for “bumps” in the data produced by their experiments. A bump indicates that something appeared with energy or mass that was different than expected. “We call it ‘bump hunting,’” says Steve Ahlen, BU professor of physics, who represents yet another flavor of physicist. A hardware physicist, Ahlen has built muon detector chambers with his own hands and led their construction in Boston. Those built in Boston were auspiciously placed at the LHC and captured a good portion of the particles that allowed researchers to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson in 2012.

The hunt is on, at a time like no other in physics. The quest reached a pinnacle with the Higgs boson, but finding it wasn’t the end. It was just the beginning.

“Before the Higgs was discovered, people were absolutely convinced that it was there. The challenge was finding it,” says Glashow. “The trouble now is that we theorists don’t know what else is out there. We are no longer so confident that we know what to look for. But we hope that something interesting will show up.”

On Colliders and Detectors

The Large Hadron Collider is currently the world’s highest energy particle collider. It is also the largest machine ever built. The circular tunnel around which proton beams fly is 17 miles wide and buried 574 feet underground in a rural area on the border of France and Switzerland at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). The collider’s job is to smash particles together at high speeds and record the spray of shrapnel that results, so that physicists can look for signs of new particles. If they find something that looks interesting, they piece the data back together again, retracing the paths of all the particles in the spray back to the collision that caused them.

Proton beams fly around a racetrack 17 miles wide. It’s buried 574 feet underground in a rural area on the border of France and Switzerland. Photo courtesy of CERN

“I think of it as if a murder has happened, and you have all these clues,” says Bose. “The detective comes in and uses all these clues to reconstruct the scene and figure out who committed the crime.”

In 2015, the LHC operated at 13 tera-electron-volts (TeV), the highest energy level yet. One TeV is a trillion electron-volts, which sounds like a lot. It is, but it is small compared to the energy consumed by light bulbs and laptops and other things of daily life. A tera-electron-volt is approximately equal to the energy of a single flying mosquito. What the LHC does, beyond multiplying that energy by 13, is compress it into the space of a proton beam, a million million times smaller than a mosquito.

At this energy level, the LHC can accelerate protons to speeds extremely close to the speed of light. Further, it bundles those protons, with each beam containing a thousand bunches of about a hundred billion protons per bunch. Packing far more punch than a mosquito, the total energy of a beam is more like a 17-ton plane flying over 460 miles per hour.

In March 2016, the collider began running again, this time with more intense beams. This increased brightness will make for more collisions per second, so the LHC will produce approximately six times more data than in 2015. “We’re just beginning to tap its potential,” says Kevin Black, an associate professor of physics at BU, and also Bose’s husband. Bose and her students work on an experiment called CMS at LHC. Black works on a different experiment there called ATLAS.

The CMS and ATLAS experiments are, at their core, two different pieces of hardware that detect particles. They sit at opposite sides of the beam ring surrounding two separate beam intersections, where they capture all of the shrapnel from the proton-proton collisions that occur at their centers.

A view into the center of the ATLAS detector gives a sense of its scale. The eight tubes contain superconducting magnets that bend the shrapnel of collisions so that the energy of each particle can be measured. Photo courtesy of CERN
ATLAS is approximately 46 meters (150 feet) long, and 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter. It is a nesting doll of sorts, containing layers of magnets, particle trackers, and calorimeters that measure the energy of the particles. Muon detectors wrap and cap the machine. Ahlen’s team tested ATLAS’s muon chambers by using them to detect muons produced when cosmic rays strike the atmosphere. Photo courtesy of CERN
Construction of ATLAS began in 2004 and ended in 2008. Assembling ATLAS required the precise movement of giant components into exacting locations.
This cross-section of ATLAS shows its layers. The location of every one of the millions of electronic detector channels packed into these layers is known to within a fraction of a width of a human hair. Photo courtesy of CERN
Workers install the proton beam pipe at the center of CMS in preparation for its very first experiments in 2009. Photo courtesy of CERN
A schematic of the CMS detector. Particle detectors and trackers envelop the central pipeline where proton beams collide. Photo courtesy of CERN
CMS data for a proton collision in 2011. Particles fly in all directions at varying levels of energy. This collision is consistent with the Standard Model and also showed signs of the Higgs boson. Photo courtesy of CERN
The CMS detector is smaller and more dense than ATLAS, but still quite large at about 21.6 meters (69 feet) long and 15 meters (50 feet) in diameter. Photo courtesy of CERN

The ATLAS detector, which Ahlen helped build, is a 75-foot-high, 140-foot-long machine in which five layers of detection hardware measure the momentum and mass of particles produced when protons smash together. CMS, for Compact Muon Solenoid, is considerably smaller and more dense. It captures the same types of particles as ATLAS, just in a different way.

A hands-on physicist, Ahlen likes to build things. He is currently building dark energy detectors and climbing mountains to install them on telescopes. Photo by Gina Manning

These machines can detect all of the particles defined in the Standard Model. Take muons as an example. A muon is a tiny particle, even by the standards of particle physicists, that is produced inside colliders and also when cosmic rays strike the atmosphere. When Ahlen got involved with the development of detectors for particle colliders in the 1990s, it wasn’t clear how to detect muons affordably. He came up with a simple solution: A twelve-foot-long, two-inch-diameter aluminum tube, crimped at both ends and filled with gas, with a wire stretched under tension from end to end. “If you pressurize it, it can localize the trajectory of a particle that passes through the tube,” he says, waving around a spare tube he keeps behind the door in his office.

The ATLAS detector, which has several layers of specialized particle detectors, contains about 500,000 of these tubes. They were built all over the world to exacting standards, many in Boston by Ahlen, who borrowed and bartered equipment and materials to get the job done.

While the tubes themselves might not seem so special, keep in mind that each tube in the ATLAS detector must be precisely placed. “We know where each wire is to less than the width of a human hair,” says Ahlen.

Not only that, every particle that whizzes by must be recorded, along with the exact time it flew through. So every tube and every other sensor in the detector—tens of millions of them in total—is connected to a clock. The clocks are set to the beam crossing, which occurs every 25 nanoseconds. The first crossing is one. “The second, two, the third, three,” says Ahlen. “Every 25 nanoseconds, boom, boom.”

There were 40 million beam crossings per second, and about a billion proton-proton collisions per second, in the last run of the LHC.

  • portrait of Tulika Bose
  • “I think of it as if a murder has happened, and you have all these clues,” says Bose. “The detective comes in and uses all these clues to reconstruct the scene and figure out who committed the crime.”
Photo by Darrin Vanselow

The time-stamped data flows from each detector down an electrical pipe to join with others in a raging river of data. Carefully coded computer algorithms determine which events to keep and which to throw away. Bose, who is the “trigger” in charge of this gatekeeping for CMS, saves only about a thousand events per second. A lot, but still just a tiny fraction of the data produced.

Secret Keepers

CMS and ATLAS produce and save independent sets of data and have independent teams analyzing it. Bose, for example, is one of nearly 4,000 people working on the CMS experiment, while Black is part of a team of 3,000 people working on ATLAS.

The teams sift through their data in secret, without sharing early results. At a time when data sharing in science is all the rage, secrecy seems to go against the grain, but it is a necessity in physics. In the past, there have been cases where rumors about the early sightings of new particles lead to false discoveries. In one case, physicists started looking for signs of a new particle people were buzzing about. “Any run that had a little bump in the rumored location, they kept,” says Black. “Anything that didn’t, they found a reason to throw out the data. Inadvertently, they self-selected the particle into existence.” In the end, an unbiased look at the data proved that the particle did not exist.

For Black (PhD ’05), who is currently stationed at the LHC in Switzerland, patience is a virtue. The phenomena he studies occur so rarely that even with millions of collisions per second, he might not see them. Photo by Darrin Vanselow

So experimentalists like Bose and Black try not to share data. In fact, they try extra hard, since the two are married. “We don’t talk about the details,” says Black. “I think we actually have more of a dividing line there because we are worried that if there is any leak, people might look to us first.”

In practice, though, that line is a bit murky. The thousands of scientists at the LHC work side-by-side. The offices of scientists on different experiments are intermeshed. They share cafeterias and printers and hold open-door seminars to discuss ideas. Despite all this openness, no one wants to undermine the credibility of the science they are doing. “From a pure science point of view, the result is much stronger when two independent experiments come up with the same answer without biasing each other,” says Bose. “We try to keep an open mind. You look everywhere and you see what you see.”

In the end, it isn’t just secrecy that keeps the science pure. Particle physicists have also set a very high bar for discovery. For a new particle to be accepted, scientists must be confident that it is not a statistical fluctuation. They’ve agreed on a number, 5-sigma, which means that the chance of the data being a statistical fluctuation is 1 in 3.5 million.

The concept of sigma might be familiar from basic statistics—or from tests graded on a curve. One standard deviation from the mean on a bell curve is called one-sigma. Students scoring two- or three-sigma above (or below) are rare and end up with the grades to prove it.

But the LHC doesn’t make its findings based on a single test. A bump at the LHC stands out against the bell curves of all the tests ever run. This mass of data all taken together, says Bose, is called “background.” It forms a landscape that has become familiar to physicists. A bump like the Higgs appears as a blot on this predictable landscape, a little like the unexpected genius who shows up for test after test and busts the curve.

The bump that physicists recognized as the first sign of the Higgs boson was produced by data from about 10 collisions. Even with such scant data, the confidence level was about 4-sigma because the Higgs stood out so starkly against the familiar background. Later, when all of the data came together, about 40 events produced a more pronounced bump with a confidence level of 8-sigma. “That’s a very clean discovery,” says Ahlen.

How small is small?
Find out

27360 meters

17 miles

The Large Hadron Collider
In the largest machine on earth, proton beams travel through a tunnel forming a ring nearly 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) wide—27 kilometers (17 miles) in circumference—buried 100 meters below ground. An average person would take nearly an hour to jog the diameter of the ring.

44 meters

144 feet

The ATLAS Particle Detector
One of the largest and most complex particle detectors on Earth, the ATLAS detector is 46 meters long—about the same distance as a 50-yard dash.

0.1 nanometer

0.0000000039 inches

Atoms were once thought to be indivisible, but physicists now know they are mostly empty space. Their mass is concentrated in the nucleus, which is made of protons and neutrons. If an atom were expanded to the size of the ATLAS detector, its nucleus would be about a centimeter wide and a single proton about half a millimeter.

0.8768 femtometers

0.0000000000000345 inches

Protons are part of a set of particles called hadrons. Though miniscule, hadrons are packed with even smaller particles, such as quarks, antiquarks and gluons, that whiz around inside the proton at speeds near the speed of light. Smashing hadrons together releases these high-energy particles in a spectacular explosion.

1 Attometers

0.0000000000000000393 inches

Quarks are elementary particles: they are not divisible into something smaller. Physicists consider quarks and other elementary particles to be “point” particles, meaning they have a size of zero except for during interactions with other particles. Quarks come in several flavors: up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange.

From Old Physics, New

The LHC fired up its proton beams again in March 2016, and saw its first collisions on April 23. The hope is that at the planned higher energy level, it will produce more dramatic collisions that will allow physicists to discover something new.

“The best thing that could happen is that we’ll discover a whole set of new particles that don’t make any sense at all,” says Black. “I’m hopeful that sort of thing will happen, that we’ll discover something that truly doesn’t make sense and we’ll really learn something from it.”

Physicists refer to their quest as a search for “new physics,” begging the question: What’s wrong with the old physics? It’s not so much that the old physics doesn’t work—it does, amazingly well—but ask any particle physicist, and they will tell you there’s something about it that just isn’t satisfying. Parameters have to line up in very specific ways for some calculations to work out. If something is off by a smidgen, everything falls apart.

“This kind of special balancing out of parameters in the current theory gives us the impression that there has to be some underlying principle that we’re missing,” says Black.

So it is and so it has always been in physics. It all started back when the Greeks came up with the solid but incomplete idea of the atom. Centuries later, Newton’s experiments resulted in Newtonian mechanics, which brilliantly explain the day-to-day physics of the movements of planets in space and objects on Earth. Things got heady in the late 1800s when scientists started to understand electrical currents and magnetic fields. The early 20th century gave rise to quantum theory, which explains the world of tiny, energetic things, like photons. According to Lane, every successful theory has engulfed its predecessor. “Quantum mechanics ate the physics of the 18th and 19th centuries alive,” he says.

The most recent meal, so to speak, was devoured in the 1960s and 70s by the Standard Model. By 1960, physicists knew about weak nuclear forces, which govern how particles decay into other particles. But no one knew how this force was related to existing theories of electromagnetism. Glashow worked out a new model for weak nuclear forces that relied on three new particles.

“No one cared,” he says, until 1967, when Glashow’s idea morphed, in a confluence of other ideas, into a theory that made sense: The Standard Model. “Experimenters went out of their way to verify the predictions of the theory,” says Glashow, who won the Nobel Prize alongside Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam for their work. “Lo and behold, the theory was right.”

For theorists like Glashow and Lane, the observations of experiments lend credence to theory, and theory provides a rationale for understanding and deciphering what is seen in experiments. “Physics is an experimental science,” says Lane. “It’s not mathematics or philosophy. If it can’t be tested by experiment, it ain’t physics.”

  • portrait of Kenneth Lane
  • “Quantum mechanics ate the physics of the 18th and 19th centuries alive” Kenneth Lane
Photo by Gina Manning

The most recent piece of experimental data confirming the Standard Model was the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. For Lane, the Higgs was a bit of a disappointment. “It’s kind of a simple-minded solution to a big problem,” he says. “Some people still feel burned by this discovery. Me, for example.”

But ultimately, Lane is interested in figuring out what the most basic, fundamental particles are and how they interact with one another. “Right now, we have a story for that, but there’s always been a story for that,” he says.

As long as people have been curious about the world they live in, they’ve been coming up with theories, testing them, and making them better. “This,” says Lane, “is an enterprise that need have no end.”


  1. Also worth mentioning that electronics to read out large portions of both the ATLAS and CMS detectors was built right here on the Charles River campus by the Electronics Design Facility, which develops custom instrumentation for BU researchers in all scientific disciplines.

  2. Would a large aray of coils around the explosion chamber measure magnesium /energy of particles? Stray magnesium could be unknown particles. Just a stray thought I had. Maybe that’s how you measure already

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