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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Particle Accelerators and a Visit from a Columbia Physicist

Sabrina Abrahim with Dr. Parsons and Associate Principal Mrs. Bacon
Last week students had an opportunity to meet with and hear from Dr. John Parsons, a physicist from Columbia University.  Sabrina Abrahim shares her experience:
        Every student has their own personal interests and passion for different subjects in school as one would hope. My favorite subject happens to be science whether I'm learning about the human body or tiny particles that make up matter. Science in itself is all about asking questions and finding answers that help us understand how the prodigious world we live in today functions and how we, as humans, are able to live in this world?
        During my eighth grade school year, I did my own research and created a powerpoint presentation on particle accelerators. I also had the opportunity to speak with a physics professor at Columbia, Dr. John Parsons, who also works with the Large Hadron Collider, the largest particle accelerator in the world. As I got in touch with Dr. Parsons and discussed particle accelerators and basic physics, I got the opportunity to meet him at Columbia University. Dr. Parsons voluntarily agreed to visit the Yeshivah of Flatbush Joel Braverman High School and talk to students about his profession, opening the doors to new opportunities for eager young physicists. During his visit, Dr. Parsons explained what particle accelerators are and what crucial information they provide us with toady. 
        Particle accelerators propel electrons, at nearly the speed of light, around a circular track many times. After each lap, the magnetic field is strengthened so that the beam of particles accelerates faster with each lap. When the particles are at their highest energy, a target is placed at the path of the beam, near detectors where the collisions would occur. The "stuff" that is released during those collisions, contain a high amount of energy. Physicists like Dr. Parsons who work with the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, are trying to reach energy as high as it was right after the Big Bang.
        After the Big Bang explosion, scientists believe that the universe came about, starting out with high energy and rapidly expanding at a very high temperature. As the earth started to cool off, the high energy turned into more complex subatomic particles that make up matter. Slowly enough different elements were formed that we are familiar with because of the periodic table of elements. Particle accelerators are here to determine what was the high energy "stuff" that came right after the big bang before the Earth started expanding and how that changed into subatomic particles. Scientists believe that shortly after the Big Bang, particles had no mass. Several years ago, a physicist determined that the Higgs Boson, a magnetic field of particles gave other particles their mass.
        The Higgs Boson is the key that will determine how particles got their mass. The Standard Model that we have today doesn't determine the exact mass of the Higgs Boson. In fact, the Standard model only tells us about nearly 5% of the matter that we are made of. It doesn't explain anything about the dark energy, dark matter and anti-matter that is present in any room you are sitting in. The model also explains how subatomic particles that make up matter are held together by the four fundamental forces of nature that include strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force and electromagnetism but doesn't include gravity! So why do we use this model today? Well, quite frankly it's the best theory we have so far to explain. That's where research comes in to enhance our understanding of the universe.
        Billions of dollars were used to build the enormous particle accelerator in Switzerland so it needs to benefit us in some way. Scientists have been looking for answers to determine all these questions that have been asked numerous times over the years. What is the Higgs Boson? Where is all the dark energy and antimatter? More answers lead to a better understanding. So, what you say? Do you think you could be the next physicist to answer these fundamental questions and maybe even win the Nobel prize on the way there?    ~Sabrina Abrahim