U of T gets in on CERN particle physics project

Canadian universities are lending their brightest minds in particle physics for an international research project to digitally recreate the “”Big Bang”” that theoretically gave birth to the universe.

Called ATLAS,

the experiment is being led by CERN, the European institute largely credited with the development of the Internet, in collaboration with 2,000 physicists at 150 universities in 34 countries. In Canada, this includes the University of Toronto, which is building a particle detector that will contribute to the three-year experiment, which will officially begin in 2007.

Robert Orr, a U of T physics professor, said the particle detector could help get at some of the fundamental questions behind the structure of matter. The Standard Model of particle physics says that one of the three known forces, the weak force, has two particles with very large masses, but it is hard to explain why. One theory is the existence of a third particle, called the Higgs boson, which has never been seen in the lab. By using supercomputers to smash large particles together, CERN and its network of researchers hope to determine whether there really is a Higgs boson.

“”The experiment we work on will produce 1 petabyte of data per year,”” he said. “”We collide the protons very 24 nanoseconds, 24 hours a day, seven days a week all year round. There’s an enormous amount of data that comes out.””

Jamie Shiers, database group lead at CERN’s IT division, told the OracleWorld conference in San Francisco last month that the experiment would require the development of a massive grid computing network to handle the expected total of 10 petabytes of data each year. Orr said the research community moved from standalone computers to loosely-coupled parallel processing farms with the introduction of the RISC processor, but the level of compute power needed to handle physics projects has to some extent outpaced the IT industry.

“”Each time there was more data, there was a new computing technology to cope with it,”” said Orr, who will be using a $2 million IBM eServer xSeries Linux cluster in his work. “”But at the moment we’re sort of running up against the point where it’s unlikely that any given laboratory like CERN — and certianly not the U of T, which is small compared to it — could have a computer system big enough to cope with this.””

Shiers said development of the ATLAS dector, which is about the size of a five-story building, is well underway and is undergoing stress testing. “”We’ll also be doing a lot of middleware reengineering over the next couple of years,”” he said.

Other Canadian institutions involved in ATLAS include the University of Victoria, Vancouver University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, University of Alberta, Carleton University and the Universite de Montreal.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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