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Aug. 29, 2008

Ulysses Grundler

Ulysses Grundler, a postdoctoral researcher in the physics and astronomy department, is in France working on the world's biggest science project. Submitted photo.

Big science

by Mike Krapfl, News Service

Ulysses Grundler was up for a big move and some bigger science when he accepted his new Iowa State job.

Think about it:

That new job just took Grundler past his student days. He graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign earlier this summer with a doctorate in physics. He's now figuring out how to manage all the hours required of a postdoctoral research associate for Iowa State's department of physics and astronomy.

That new job just took Grundler, his wife Deirdre and their sons Xavier (who's 3) and Ezekiel (who's 2) to France, just across the border from Geneva, Switzerland. It's their first time living overseas. And his French consists of "Parlez-vous anglais?"

That new job just took Grundler into the middle of the planet's biggest science experiment. He's working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (also known as CERN) on the Large Hadron Collider. The $8 billion particle accelerator is set to send its first beam of protons racing around the collider's 17 miles of underground tunnel on Sept. 10.

Lots to learn

As first beam approaches, "I haven't exactly figured out my job yet," Grundler said during a recent phone interview.

He's been in meetings, training sessions and a control room, all to learn his way around the pixel detector, the innermost component of the Large Hadron Collider's ATLAS detector. ATLAS is one of two general purpose detectors at the collider. It's designed to record and measure the paths, energies and identities of the particles created when protons collide at the highest energies ever attempted.

It takes an enormous instrument to do that: ATLAS is 46 meters long, 25 meters high, 25 meters wide and weighs 7,000 tons. The pixel detector inside puts up big numbers, too: 80 million pixels designed to provide precision measurements as close to the particle collisions as possible.

Grundler's new job, in other words, is a non-stop challenge.

That's fine with him. He knew what he was in for when he interviewed for a three-year post at the European physics laboratory.

"This is where the experiment is," he said. "And this is where all the big work is going on. It's possible to do this work from a distance, but it's not the same. It's exciting to get a chance to come on board as this is about to start up."

A good mix of physics

Grundler grew up in the Chicago area and picked the University of Illinois for his undergraduate and graduate work. As an undergraduate, he learned about detector technology by working on a project at the Collider Detector at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill.

He later joined a study of top quarks. Quarks are the basic building blocks of protons and neutrons, and top quarks have more mass than the other five types of quarks.

That combination of detector and physics experience impressed the search committee looking for a new postdoctoral researcher to send to Europe.

Jim Cochran, associate professor of physics and astronomy who served on that search committee and is working with Grundler, said Grundler's job is going to be split between service and physics projects.

The service work involves looking after the pixel detector, making sure it's working properly and perhaps making some electrical and software fixes. Because the Large Hadron Collider is just being turned on, Cochran said Grundler's immediate work will be weighted toward service. There's a lot of testing, calibrating and commissioning work that has to be done.

The rest of the job involves doing physics, Cochran said. That means analyzing the data that comes from the detector and figuring out what's there.

What is the universe made of?

Physicists around the world are hoping the Large Hadron Collider provides evidence of something they've never detected before. That's the Higgs boson, a particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. The model theorizes that space is filled with a Higgs field and particles acquire their masses by interacting with the field.

Detecting the Higgs could answer basic questions about why matter has mass and how particles acquire mass.

"We have a theory for generating mass that works well," said Eli Rosenberg, professor of physics and astronomy and a collaborator on the ATLAS project. "We think this particle is why things have mass, but it may be more complicated than that."

As the Large Hadron Collider gets closer to producing data to test that theory, Grundler say his new job is getting interesting.

"I think everybody is excited that this is getting close," he said. "It's a crazy time as people try to get everything done before that first beam is turned on. But other work is continuing. So it's also business as usual at the moment: People are preparing to take data and get analyses done."


"This is where the experiment is. And this is where all the big work is going on. It's possible to do this work from a distance, but it's not the same. It's exciting to get a chance to come on board as this is about to start up."

Ulysses Grundler