Physicist Searches for Billion Year Old Particles

A researcher from Oklahoma State University is part of a team working at one of the world’s most famous laboratories to discover subatomic particles that haven’t existed for billions of years. 

Dr. Joe Haley, an assistant professor of physics, is one of the leaders of the OSU High Energy Physics group that has joined scientists from around the world conducting research near Geneva, Switzerland, at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

“Our main goal is to sift through the data that we are collecting from the ATLAS detector to see if we can find hints of new particles,” Haley said.

The group works at CERN on the ATLAS experiment, which uses the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, to essentially spin protons round and round at nearly the speed of light until they collide, with the hope of creating new particles. The ATLAS detector, one of two giant multi-purpose particle detectors that collect data from the collider, then find these new particles with high masses and records their energy. 

“We are looking for particles that haven’t existed since moments after the big bang or in stellar explosions,” said Haley. “And now we can create these things in our detectors and see what happens.”

Although the objective of the research is to discover new particles and create new forms of matter, the true purpose of the work is to add to what is already known about the universe, explained Haley.

The team has been part of the ATLAS collaboration since 2006, with Haley joining in 2013. OSU researchers travel to CERN two to three times per year, with two postdoctoral fellows located at CERN full time, Nicholas Bousson and Jie Yu. 

OSU researchers are split into two categories ‑- experimental and theoretical. Haley and fellow scientists, Drs. Flera Rizatdinova and Alexander Khanov, lead the experimental group, which includes the two postdoctoral fellows at CERN and four graduate students, who travel to CERN to help run the ATLAS detector and collect data. They analyze this data and make conclusions based on what they find. 

Drs. Satyanarayan Nandi and K.S. Babu, along with a postdoctoral fellow and four graduate students, make up the theory part of the OSU team. They use the conclusions of the experimenters to guide their studies. The theorists come up with new ideas and pass them back to the experimenters for continued investigation, such as what new types of particles might be created at CERN.

Haley’s team is currently searching for vector-like quarks, particles predicted by theorists to explain some of the problems in the Standard Model of physics. If these particles are found, it would transform the current thinking of particle physics and help answer questions like the source of dark matter. 

“If we find them, then we’ve found something new about the universe,” said Haley. “If we don’t find them, then we know that that’s not the answer and move on.” 

Haley and the other experimenters are in constant contact with the theorists, working together to discover the unknown. “I talk to them on a regular basis, asking them if there is something we should be looking for, and they are always interested in the latest experimental results.”

The group from OSU is responsible for a small part of the overall experiment, which involves around 3,000 scientists from every inhabited continent working at CERN.

“It is a truly unique opportunity for OSU in a sense that it wouldn’t be possible without this collaboration,” Haley said. “There is no one university that could come close to doing something this amazing, but by working together, we can do these experiments, which are probing the physics that occurred right after the big bang. It is something that has never been done before.” 

“It’s really a quest for knowledge,” Haley emphasized. “It’s just human to want to know what is out there, to understand the most fundamental rules that govern how everything works.” 

The ultimate goal is something that Haley calls the “theory of everything,” a concept that explains every unanswered question in physics. Haley says that this might not even be possible, but there is no doubt that he, along with his fellow researchers from OSU and around the world, will continue to strive for the answers to their questions.