SJHS graduate takes place in world physics spotlight

by Telegraph-Journal - Friday, August 22, 2008

This article is courtesy of Telegraph-Journal

SAINT JOHN - These are heady times for Port City native Kate Whalen, a 23-year-old graduate student in the physics department at Carleton University in Ottawa.

She is, after all, part of an international team involved in a various aspects of a major scientific experiment being conducted by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), whose control centre is located in France.

CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory, recently announced Eurovision will broadcast its first attempt to circulate a beam in its Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on Sept. 10.

This news came just as the cool-down phase of commissioning of CERN's new LHC - the world's largest particle accelerator - was reaching a successful conclusion.

The LHC produces beams seven times more energetic than any previous machine, and around 30 times more intense when it reaches design performance, probably in 2010. Housed in a 27-kilometre tunnel, it relies on technologies that would not have been possible 30 years ago.

Whalen, a second-year masters science student in experimental high-energy physics, is part of the ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC AppartuS) experiment - one of six particle-detection experiments being carried out at the LHC.

The 2003 Saint John High School grad spent a couple of months at the CERN Control Centre this summer, where she had the opportunity to go underground and see the detector first-hand.

"I also spent some time working in the control room, where I was able to familiarize myself with the software we use to collect and analyse data from the detector," she said. "It was an incredible experience. I met friends and colleagues from all over the world, and I came away with a much better understanding of the experiment."

She said it was "awe-inspiring" for her to meet some of the world's most brilliant researchers at CERN.

"It's really exciting to be a tiny part of such a huge project," said Whalen, who received an honours bachelor of science in physics degree from the University of Ottawa in 2007.

"Some very important discoveries could be made at the LHC, including the Higgs bason," she said. "It's the last missing piece of the Standard Model of particle physics, which describes the fundamental particles that make up our universe and the way in which these particles interact. Physicists have been searching for this particle for a long time, and everyone is excited that we might finally on the verge of discovering it."

Whalen said she first learned about the LHC and ATLAS experiment in her undergraduate subatomic physics course.

Keen to get involved, she took an additional particle physics course at Carleton and applied to the Master of Science program also at Carleton, which has great group of people working on the ATLAS side of the experiment.

"Currently, I'm working on commissioning the calorimeters, which are components of the detector that measure the energy of particles produced in collisions," she said. "Before we can analyse the actual experimental data, we need to understand exactly how every piece of the detector works so that we can correctly interpret the signals that we all receive.

"We're dealing with a huge, complicated piece of machinery, so it's not an easy task."

If you want to understand how something works, said Whalen, you have to take it apart and look at its fundamental components.

"In order for us to understand how matter works on the most fundamental level, we have to smash particles together at extremely high energies," she said. "In order to achieve such high energies, we require a way we can reproduce the conditions that existed immediately after the Big Bang. When the protons collide, new particles will be reproduced, and that's where the ATLAS experiment comes in. Each of these particles will leave a specific signature as it passes through the detector, and we can identify them based on these signatures."

With millions of collisions occurring every second, Whalen said there is a computing system set up to help researchers sort through the mountains of data that will start pouring in once the experiment is up and running. Whalen said her interest in physics began in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program at SJHS.

She found it "very tough" at first, she said, but teacher John Gahagan "made everything seem easy."

Fun lab experiments and learning how things worked led her to undergraduate studies in biomedical science, but she quickly lost interest because the emphasis was on memorization, not understanding the process involved.

"Physics is all about using logic to break down a problem and solve it from the first principles," she said. "I like analyzing a situation from different angles and choosing the best approach.

"And that's what I do every day in my research."