A super (collider) lesson

Inken Michael of Germany, an exchange student at Sterling High School, was among the participants in the masterclass Friday.
Inken Michael of Germany, an exchange student at Sterling High School, was among the participants in the masterclass Friday.

Seventeen high school students from across the region visited NIU Friday to learn about the mysteries of particle physics and what goes on in some of the world’s leading scientific laboratories.

NIU Physics professors Dhiman Chakraborty and Michael Eads, along with science teacher Elisa Gatz of Sterling High School, led a daylong lesson on Wednesday as part of the annual International Hands-on Particle Physics Masterclasses program. NIU has been a host site for the annual masterclasses since 2011.

“I came here last year. I did the internship over the summer with NIU and Fermilab. And I just find physics really interesting,” said Matthew Williams, a senior at Sterling High School. “I think it’s cool how we can get a better understanding of how the world around us works even though we can’t necessarily directly observe things.”

Chase Pipes, also a Sterling High senior, was equally enthusiastic. “It’s interesting to learn about all the small things that come together and influence life,” he said.

The day included a morning talk by Chakraborty, who directs the QuarkNet program at NIU, including these Masterclasses, on the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.

NIU Professor Dhiman Chakraborty (rights) talks with students Matthew Williams  (left) and Chase Pipes.
NIU Professor Dhiman Chakraborty (rights) talks with students Matthew Williams (left) and Chase Pipes.

Famously dubbed the “God particle,” the Higgs boson took thousands of scientists nearly five decades to detect and is considered by many as one of the most significant discoveries ever. The particle’s detection confirms the existence of the Higgs field, which permeates the universe and gives particles mass.

The discovery also resulted in a new and gripping documentary, “Particle Fever,” which chronicles the 20-year effort to build the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and details the hunt for the Higgs boson. (The movie is playing at the AMC Showplace 16 off Route 59 in Naperville.)

Each year, about 10,000 high school students in 40 countries come to universities and research centers for hands-on learning during masterclass events. Participants at NIU included Inken Michael of Germany, an exchange student at Sterling High School.

“I’m really interested in physics, and I thought it was a good opportunity to go to NIU,” she said.

Michael and her peers visiting NIU learned how to measure, analyze and understand real particle physics data from particle collisions at CERN. The laboratory’s Large Hadron Collider is the most powerful particle accelerator on the planet. The accelerator crashes together protons moving in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light to recreate conditions after the Big Bang.

QuarkNet logoAt the day’s conclusion, students participated in a video-conference and compared their measurements with students and scientists at QuarkNet centers from across the world.

“Annual QuarkNet Masterclasses like this one at NIU give students a sense of what goes into Nobel-prize winning discoveries like those of the W and Z bosons, the top quark and the Higgs boson,” Chakraborty said.

“We hope students leave with an appreciation of the levels of intellectual excellence, technological innovation, perseverance, attention to details, disciplined teamwork and decades of unwavering commitment that are required to prove the existence of these extremely short-lived subatomic particles, without whom our own existence would not have been possible. We hope it inspires them to adopt those qualities in whatever they choose to pursue in their own lives.”

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