Grid for particle physics project coming together

Research data gleaned from beams of protons colliding 40 million times a second inside the largest scientific instrument ever built will soon begin flowing into an international network of computer centers designed for scientists trying to uncover the underlying structure of the universe.

Physicists hope the project will find evidence that could lead to the discovery of extra dimensions, and evidence for the Higgs boson, a theoretical particle that has never been observed but which scientists believe endows all objects with mass.

In late 2007, the Large Hadron Collider will open at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, and produce proton collisions that will create various types of subatomic particles.

Five regional computer centers in the United States are among those being set up to analyze the Hadron data. One operated by the University of Chicago and Indiana University is now up and running, according to a statement issued by the universities Thursday.

Overall, the project involves 158 institutions in 35 nations.

“It’s the forefront of particle physics, starting next year,” says Robert Gardner, senior research associate in the University of Chicago’s Computation Institute, and principal investigator in the Chicago-Indiana collaboration.

The collaborative center is already analyzing test data in preparation for the launch of the Hadron Collider, which is the centerpiece of an experiment known as ATLAS (A Toroidal Large Hadron Collider Apparatus).

Data will be distributed worldwide using grid computing, the use of geographically distributed computing resources. ATLAS data will flow from Switzerland to 11 “Tier-1” centers worldwide, including Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y. The Tier-1 centers will then distribute data to Tier-2 centers, including the Chicago-Indiana center and four others in America.

“Even once the data is recorded, it will take years of careful sifting and sorting, which will require massive amounts of computing power to extract the final scientific results,” Frederick Luehring, a senior research scientist at Indiana University, said in a statement.

Physicists from around the world will be able to use the data in the Chicago-Indiana center, which consists of computer servers, data storage and networking equipment installed on both campuses.

After a January expansion, the sites will be able to transmit data at 10 gigabits per second. One goal physicists have is to analyze the Hadron data for evidence of supersymmetric particles, which could lead to the discovery of extra dimensions.

Some physicists say that finding supersymmetric particles would lend credence to string theory, a popular theory that says everything in the universe is made up of vibrating strings.

Strings, if they exist, are too tiny to be observed with today’s technology. But the Large Hadron Collider will have seven times the energy of the highest-energy accelerator in use today, allowing scientists to see particles of smaller sizes than ever before, Gardner says.

“Every time there’s been a big jump in energy, there’s always been lots of new physics that comes out of that,” Gardner says. String theory “is very difficult to study experimentally because of the energy scales required to probe the distance scales with which we expect strings to be visible.”

Gardner, a physicist, is setting up software and services that will enable research scientists to study Hadron data. In addition to analyzing data from real collisions within the Hadron particle accelerator, the Chicago-Indiana center will run simulations of the response a detector would have to such collisions, he says.

One of the key goals is finding the Higgs boson, a subject of speculation for years.

“It’s one of the main ingredients in the standard model of particle physics,” Gardner says. “As yet, it’s not been observed.”

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