Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dr. Michael Rijssenbeek: A part of 'atom smashing' history
Dr. Michael Rijssenbeek: A part of 'atom smashing' history
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Written by Rachel Kirkpatrick
Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dr. Michael Rijssenbeek, a particle physicist, and his wife Christine Marsh-Rijssenbeek, an artist, at their home on Black Rock Turnpike show a rendition of the Large Hadron Collider. Dr. Rijssenbeek helped construct parts of the collider, a machine that scientists hope will unlock secrets of the universe.

Physics — the study of how things work in nature — is what drives Dr. Michael Rijssenbeek of Black Rock Turnpike.

“It’s problem solving in nature in some ways,” he said. “The thrill is marvelous; it gives me a real kick.”

Last Wednesday, he perhaps had one of the biggest thrills of his career, because at approximately 3 a.m., our time, a machine in Geneva, Switzerland, that scientists hope will provide answers to how our universe was formed, reached an important stage. And, Dr. Rijssenbeek had a hand in it.

About a decade and a half ago, scientists began building what is called a Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a machine located on the Swiss-French border designed to smash particles together with “cataclysmic force.” The intent is to recreate the conditions a few moments after the Big Bang.

The hope is that answers to questions of how the universe came to be will be provided by the data collected with this machine.

Dr. Rijssenbeek, a physics professor at SUNY Stony Brook, said many people always ask, “Why do people do it?”

“There are a lot of things we don’t know and I think it’s just human nature to try to understand why,” he said. “We want to know why we get sick, we want to know why cells work in the way they work.

“Even in biology, you say you want to find a cure, yes, but the reason why people actually study cells and cell behavior is not so much to find a cure — that’s in the back of their minds as well, but also because it’s just interesting.”

The collider is operated by CERN, which in English is the European Organization for Nuclear Research. It is located deep beneath the surface. It is essentially a large tunnel, a ring, that contains thousands of huge magnets that are arranged to “steer” a beam of proton particles around the ring. Two beams are shot in each direction around the ring, and the protons then will smash.

CERN has members from nearly every country. Dr. Rijssenbeek is a member of a group from the University of New York at Stony Brook that worked on the collider. This group is supported by the Department of Energy and the head of the International Science Foundation. At CERN, Dr. Rijssenbeek is a senior investigator.

“You can hear all the different languages being spoken in the cafeteria,” said Christine, his wife. She is an artist who has traveled with him to the laboratory.

The Rijssenbeeks moved to Redding last summer from France. They chose Redding for the scenery and because of its location to his work.

“Where we live, we are surrounded by thousands of acres of nature preserve,” she said, adding, “I really admire how tenacious people have been about preserving the land.”

Dr. Rijssenbeek grew up in the Netherlands. He received a Ph.D. in particle physics from the University of Amsterdam. His work began a decade ago, but he was last at the laboratory in 2006 when he took a sabbatical from his teaching position.

He returned in the summer of 2007, and then was there again this past summer.

And what is a particle physicist? Well, first there is nuclear physics. That is when you look at the particles in the nucleus, the protons and the neutrons and how they interact, he explained. Then there is atomic physics. That is when you study the whole atom, with electrons included.

Particle physics is when you study what is inside protons and neutrons.

For the collider project, Dr. Rijssenbeek’s group was in charge of building pieces for what are called liquid argon calorimeters. This part measures the energies of the particles as they enter the rings of the Large Hadron Collider.

Dr. Rijssenbeek explained how this experiment will not only help scientists understand how the universe works, but it will also help solve problems in physics — perhaps solve many theories used today.

Take, for example, static electricity, he said. People started studying it because it was interesting; it was there and nobody knew what it was.

“Static electricity, of course, was completely useless for anything, it was used for fun,” Dr. Rijssenbeek said. “Then, later a transistor was invented and the light bulb, and now we can’t live without electricity anymore. So it turned out to be useful as well, even though it was studied in the beginning just because it was there and people wanted to understand it.”

“There may be a benefit from the collider project in the future — no one can predict,” Dr. Rijssenbeek added.

There was some controversy that the smashing of these particles in the collider with the force of the Big Bang would create “black holes.”

These types of collisions, he said, are occurring all the time.

“There was a little bit of fear-mongering of creation of black holes in this. Theoretically, it’s a possibility, but these are not black holes we typically think about,” he said. “If they are produced, they have been produced for billions of years in this atmosphere.”

He added with a smile: “There is no chance that we can all disappear, although it would be a good gig to sell black hole insurance.”

Some of the tools that have resulted from CERN research that are already in use include MRI technology and the World Wide Web.

But all told, with this experiment, said Dr. Rijssenbeek, scientists will have a new way of measuring energy and mass.

Because of the scientists from different countries who have contributed to this project, Ms. Rijssenbeek observed: “It’s the largest collaboration in history and it’s really quite marvelous how they collaborate. Each part of the machine is built by a different group. It all has to fit together.”

Every group takes responsibility for some of the hardware, her husband said.

“The nice thing about this type of physics is building things and analyzing the data,” he said. “You do a little bit of everything; you get to play around a lot, which is very nice for students in particular.”

There are many international students who are working with scientists and engineers at CERN. There are even a few high school kids building parts, Dr. Rijssenbeek said.

CERN has programs where it hosts teachers, even whole classes, at the laboratory in Geneva.

While the launch of the Large Hadron Collider has been a success, it has not been without a few problems along the way, said Dr. Rijssenbeek.

“There’s almost a glee that happens when there is a problem because they absolutely love solving problems,” Ms. Rijssenbeek said.

“You learn over the years that problems can be solved one way or the other,” Dr. Rijssenbeek added.

“The nice thing is they are really not show stoppers, they will be solved or worked around,” he said. “It’s part of the fun in some ways to make things work.”

Dr. Rijssenbeek’s goal is to remain part of the project.

“Physicists typically have a long lifetime,” he said with a laugh.

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