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Ask About ALICE: Cal Poly Professor Explains "Big Bang" Physics Experiment in Switzerland

March 9, 2011

Professor and students at collider

SAN LUIS OBISPO -- Wondering about the origins of the universe, or have a question about ALICE? Get a brief, understandable explanation on the Web from Cal Poly Physics Professor Jennifer Klay.

ALICE is an acronym for A Large Ion Collider Experiment, and it's going on now at the CERN Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva, Switzerland. In a newly posted video from the World Science Festival, Klay explains ALICE and the hadron collider.

The collider is a giant underground scientific instrument that shoots subatomic particles against each other at millions of miles per hour, allowing researchers to gather data on what happens when they collide.

In the ALICE experiment, subatomic particles of lead are fired against each other. The collision melts the lead particles into even smaller particles called quarks and gluons. The matter created in the collisions is more than 100,000 times hotter than our sun.

"It's like colliding two water drops so that they vaporize not just into water molecules but into the electrons and nuclei that make up the atoms in the water," Klay explained. Scientists look at the results of the collisions and then try to explain the interatomic forces based on patterns in the resulting debris, and by watching what happens when the particles cool.

 The experiment is attempting to recreate, on a smaller scale, what happened in the universe just after the "Big Bang" that created it all. Klay began working on the experiment during its planning stages 10 years ago as a postdoctoral fellow at Lawrence Berkeley Lab and later as a staff scientist at Lawrence Livermore Lab.
After arriving at Cal Poly as a physics faculty member, Klay applied for a National Science Foundation grant to continue working on the experiment and has since also received a renewal grant. The $562,088 in grants have allowed the professor to take groups of undergraduate Cal Poly physics majors to Switzerland during the summer in 2008, 2009 and 2010, where Klay and the students help run the ALICE experiment at the giant collider.

Klay’s Cal Poly students learn about the operational details of the supercollider. They also staff operating shifts on the 10,000 ton ALICE detector. "It runs 24-7 for 16 months at a time, so they have to staff the experiment 24-7 while the accelerator is running," she explained.

One of her senior physics students, Kevin Coulombe, worked on ALICE in Summer 2010, and has since graduated. He's now in the Cal Poly teaching credential program -- and will return to CERN in summer 2011 with a new group of Cal Poly students to help teach them about ALICE. Last summer, he qualified to be a shift leader on the hadron collider -- a first for Cal Poly. It will make him a uniquely prepared high school physics teacher, Klay said.

As for the research on what happens to lead ions after they splatter into quarks and gluons following the violent collisions at millions of miles an hour then cool, "we're still digesting what it all means," Klay said. But the experiment is giving scientists a look at the nuclear forces and reactions that hold the universe together.
To learn more about Cal Poly physics students working on the project, visit the Cal Poly ALICE Web page.

Professor Jennifer Klay (right) with Cal Poly students at the CERN
supercollider in Switzerland in summer 2010. 


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