CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – The tunnel, which is more than 16 miles long, is buried some 300 feet underground in the suburbs of Geneva, Switzerland. Back in 2008, a few nervous individuals worried the long, circular corridor might end up destroying the planet. That’s because scientists planned to smash subatomic particles together in that hidden laboratory to recreate the “big bang” that spawned the universe. A handful of doomsdayers worried the researchers might instead create a miniature black hole.
Five years later, those fears have proven to be unfounded. Instead, the $6 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has revolutionized the study of particle physics, laying the groundwork for the discovery of the theoretical Higgs boson and leading to new breakthroughs and advances in technology
The LHC is only one of the hyper-advanced tools used at the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s Geneva laboratory. The site, also known as CERN, is the kind of place that causes scientists around the globe to salivate. In a 2010 episode of the popular CBS comedy “The Big Bang Theory,” the roommates and physicists Leonard and Sheldon even argued over who would get to visit the famed lab. This summer, Austin Peay State University physics student Chris Hayes will get rare access to the facility as he spends nine weeks at CERN as part of a highly competitive University of Michigan Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.
“It’s really exciting because it’s an opportunity that not many people in the United States get,” Hayes said. “One hundred and twenty students per year get to go to CERN from Europe. In the U.S., there are 10 to 12 students, depending on the funding. To be one of the 10 to 12 to get to go to CERN to do that is really exciting. I never thought I’d get it.”
The REU program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, provides grant money for undergraduate students to participate in innovative new research. Thousands of college students apply each year in different disciplines, with only a select few receiving the coveted REU awards.
For the last several years, the APSU Department of Physics has actively pushed for its students to apply for the program. Dr. Alex King, department chair, said the experiences students receive through this program will help them with their future career choices.
“We do computational physics and some observational astronomy research here (at Austin Peay), and we’re building a focus in experimental and computational materials science,” King said. “If the students don’t want to do one of those things, the idea is they should find what they might be interested in doing for graduate school or for a career, find a school that does exactly that thing and go try it for the summer.”
Hayes, a junior at APSU, spent much of the last semester completing two rigorous applications for the selective REU. He plans to study particle physics in graduate school, which means a trip to CERN would give him a leg up on other students.
“There are a few projects there, most of them correlated with the Large Hadron Collider, that I hope to work on,” he said. “I specifically am interested in high energy particle physics, and that’s where a lot of that focus is now, in Europe and at CERN. That’s really where the forefront of research is at.”
The trip will mark the third time Hayes has participated in an REU. His freshman year, he attended one at Louisiana State University and his sophomore year, he participated in a biophysics REU at the University of Michigan.
“We’re not only getting Austin Peay’s name out there, but it’s also very enriching to go out and research something on the forefront of physics,” Hayes said. “You don’t get that in the classroom. We’re gaining skills we otherwise wouldn’t have. That enriches the students, which enriches our program's reputation. We are making more professional connections with these REUs.”
Hayes is considering graduate programs at Princeton, Rutgers, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and the University of Pennsylvania. His trip to CERN will certainly help his application, but the experience will help his future career, regardless of where he goes to school.
“If you want to perform research in high energy particle physics, you need to immerse yourself in international collaborations,” he said. “It’s going to be a very big cultural pool at CERN. It’s going to be great to see how research is performed on that level.”
For more information on Hayes’ REU, contact the APSU physics department at 221-6116.