CERN: The key to creation
15 May 2012
From what were the first atoms created? Doctoral student Tuva Richert is taking part in the fascinating detective work – which sometimes requires both surgical instruments and a safety harness.“It is perfect that the magnetic doors are open, so you can see straight in to the detectors”, says Tuva Richert, pointing to the red steel doors that frame the sixteen metre-high, ten thousand tonne cylindrical experiment station 100 metres underground in the French bedrock.
Tuva Richert speaks animatedly about the rather unusual workplace. On the days when the duties are down at the actual experiment station underground, they consist of practical maintenance. The apparently chaotic tangles of wires and components are in fact planned down to the most minute detail.
“Each little wire is significant. Now that there is a technical stop I am repairing broken components and upgrading the equipment. There are strict rules about what is to be replaced”, says Tuva Richert.
The maintenance work requires both concentration and physical agility. Sometimes Tuva has to wear a safety harness in order to be lowered to certain parts of the detector. Strange, almost acrobatic working positions can tire the muscles and then it is important not to drop the surgical instrument which is used for certain tasks – the tool costs SEK 170 000.
Tuva Richert was recently taken on as a doctoral student at the division for particle physics in Lund. Tuva’s supervisors are Peter Christiansen and Anders Oskarsson at the same division. The research project is connected to one of CERN’s larger experiment stations called ALICE. The experiment station is located along the accelerator that was built in an underground tunnel several tens of kilometres long, on the border between Switzerland and France, near Geneva.
The researchers at the ALICE station are trying to mimic the indescribably energy-intensive environment that occurred directly after the Big Bang, which in scientific terms constitutes the birth of the universe. Tuva Richert observes that there is a staggering contrast between the Big Bang and the everyday work of a doctoral student with the tangles of wires, personally programmed analysis codes and large amounts of data that are to be gathered in the shiftwork in the control room overground.
“Particle physics is so fascinating! The particles are intangible, but when we get a signal from the collected data they become real”, says Tuva Richert who only got interested in physics after completing the social sciences programme in upper secondary school.
Tuva Richert’s doctoral thesis is about investigating the properties of a unique type of matter which was present for a fraction of the very first second following the Big Bang, before the atoms were formed. This matter was a sort of floating plasma composed of free quarks and gluons, the building blocks of the future atoms. The researchers are able to create quark-gluon plasma in the particle collisions at ALICE. This is done by allowing the lead ions to smash into one another at the centre of the experiment station.
“The plasma only exists for a very short time - 0,00000000000000000000001 seconds,” explains Tuva Richert.
When the plasma cools down, the quarks and gluons begin to form new particles, which the researchers are studying in order to determine the properties of the plasma.
“I like this kind of collective research. Everyone contributes to the experiment and is dependent on each other’s efforts”, says Tuva Richert.
Text: Lena Björk Blixt
Read more about CERN in themed articles first published in the Lund University Magazine - LUM.
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