After decades of work, the LHC and its detectors are nearly ready for their debut. As the time approaches, the atmosphere on the CERN campus is thick with excitement and tense anticipation. While everyone is eager to start collecting data, the scientists continue to test and re-test components, connections, and computer systems up to the last moment — ensuring, if possible, that everything will work as planned. With somewhere around twenty-five hundred miles of cabling in ATLAS alone, even a task as straightforward as checking wiring connections is no small feat.
And everything has to be just right. The level of precision demanded by the project is mind-boggling; one slight miscalculation could doom the entire endeavor. Says Dick Loveless, a UW-Madison scientist in Smith’s research group, “If the beam gets loose, the beam would destroy the detector — it would drill a hole right through it.”
Adding to the tension is the fact that ATLAS and CMS will be looking for the same things. The two detectors are designed differently and will use slightly different analysis methods, but both have their sights set on the Higgs particle and supersymmetry, exotic particles, and dark matter. And when the data start coming in, all eyes will be watching to see which experiment reports a discovery first.
“You never want to rely on one experiment. You could make mistakes in one,” explains Smith. “You want to have two independent experiments, produce two independent analyses ... and if they agree, you really know that you’ve got it.”
The development phase for ATLAS and CMS has been marked by cooperation and frequent communication — even joint meetings. It just makes sense, Smith says, to seek feedback from others who are intimately familiar with the problems you’re facing.
“No other external review, either provided by the lab or other experts, could check our work as well as we could check each other,” he says. And, in the end, he acknowledges, each experiment needs the other to provide independent confirmation of any finding — and to convince the world about what they have found.
As the teams prepare to shift to data collection and analysis mode, however, the friendly rivalry may escalate. “There’s a lot of competition between the [CMS and ATLAS] experiments, and it’s going to heat up even more,” laughs Smith.