A former David Thompson Secondary School student with a penchant for physics is now working at world’s largest particle collider in Switzerland and France.
Savanna Shaw finished high school in the valley in 2004 and now spends most of her days working on the trigger (as she calls it) as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN)’s Large Hadron Collider. She’s quick to downplay her job, which she’s had for the past year and a half, as being a lot of writing computer code and meetings, but does concede that it’s code and meeting with huge implications.
The big picture is definitely interesting, although the day-to-day is not too dissimilar from what most people do, said Ms. Shaw. But if you’re into particle collision physics, then yes CERN is the place to be at the moment.
The Large Hadron Collider made headlines when it finally was turned on in 2008, after top scientists, engineers and designers spent decades making it. The 27-kilometre long collider, which has been called the largest and most expensive science experiment ever undertaken, is a tube-like machine (as large around as subway tunnel) lying buried near Geneva and scientists use it to fire sub-atomic particles into each other with the aim of answering fundamental questions about the nature of the universe. Prior to the collider actually being switched on, doomsday sayer even raised concerns about the potential of the machine to create a black hole that would swallow the Earth (since it mimics conditions present at the birth of the universe, the Big Bang). It’s a topic Ms. Shaw has fielded questions on before, at her first particle physics job, working at the Tevatron, a circular particle accelerator outside of Chicago.
I must have heard that question (about collider creating black holes) 500 times, she said. And the answer is no. The reason is because we already have a particle accelerator that is much more powerful than the Large Hadron Collider and that is the sun. Cosmic rays, which are high-energy particles collide with and interact with the Earth’s atmosphere all the time, with much more force than we can ever generate in the Large Hadron Collider. So if it was possible that colliding high-energy particles would make a black hole that would swallow the Earth, then that would have already happened.
The Large Hadron Collider’s initial research run was from 2010 to 2013 before the machine was turned off a two-year break. It restarted a few months ago (a moment Ms. Shaw calls the highlight of her time at CERN). Multiple groups of researchers work on various projects at the collider at any given time. The LHCb experiment group recently grabbed headlines with its discovery of pentaquarks. Ms. Shaw works, on behalf of Manchester University, on the Atlas experiment.
Generally what we’re (the Atlas experiment) trying to do is study all the particles we already know and discover new particles, she said, adding her job on the trigger is helping out the system that decides which of the billions of particle collisions happening in the collider each second are interesting enough to record.
Working at CERN is interesting, and being able to live in France and walk to an office in Switzerland is a nice perk, so Ms. Shaw hopes to stay there as long as possible, but the nature of the work results in short contracts, so she has eventual plans to either become a professor or to join one of the many fields (such as data analysis, the insurance business or software writing) in which particle physicists are in high demand.