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Global data sharing pushes scientific frontiers
Scientists around the world are hunting for clues to the origins of the universe in the flood of data coming from the particle accelerator at CERN. Giving the scientific community access to that data requires a global computer grid system the likes of which the research world has never seen.
The quest for an esoteric particle known as the “Higgs boson” — as well as answers to other physics puzzlers — has led to scientific collaboration on a massive scale. Thousands of scientists around the world simultaneously gather, share and analyze vast streams of information from the powerful accelerator operated by CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics.
CERN houses the Large Hadron Collider, a huge machine that collides protons at high energies to create exotic particles — tiny short-lived specks of matter — that fragment into smaller particles. These collisions reproduce reactions moments after the “Big Bang” in miniature, and are expected to provide clues to the first moments in the history of the universe.
What is CERN?
Established in 1954, CERN is the world's largest subatomic particle research facility. Straddling the Swiss-French border on the outskirts of Geneva, the hugely expensive complex includes a 27-kilometre circular tunnel lying 100 metres underground.
The Large Hadron Collider generates a staggering 40 million collisions of proton bunches each second. Detectors monitor the collisions, and one of these is a $550-million machine called ATLAS. Some 3000 scientists, 150 universities and laboratories in 35 countries are involved in the ATLAS project, including about 200 Canadian scientists, engineers and technologists, all of whom are eager to analyze this data.
Accessing data from anywhere in the world
The volume of data created by the collisions and the number of geographically distant scientists who need access to it has spawned the creation of a remarkable global computer grid system. While CERN’s own computing facilities are impressive, they cannot handle the enormous data sets single-handedly, which is why the ATLAS data is funneled to 10 dedicated computer facilities known as Tier-1 data centres.
One of these data centres is located in the TRIUMF laboratory on the leafy grounds of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver; nearby Simon Fraser University leads the management team. Other Tier-1 centres are located in Europe, Asia and the U.S., and data kept in any of these centres can be accessed by ATLAS scientists from anywhere in the world.
TRIUMF is Canada’s national laboratory for nuclear and particle physics research and related sciences. One of the world’s leading subatomic physics laboratories, TRIUMF is owned and operated as a joint venture by a consortium of universities, with support from the Government of Canada via a contribution through the National Research Council. The Government of British Columbia provides additional support for building infrastructure.
Datasets handled by TRIUMF amount to several million gigabytes per year — probably the biggest datasets in basic science research, though not as bulky as some high-end informatics industries, says Dr. Robert McPherson, principal investigator of the ATLAS Canada collaboration and a professor of physics at the University of Victoria.
“The thing that makes ATLAS unique is that we have thousands of people who want simultaneous access to all of those data,” he says. In other fields, analysts generally access a sliver of a dataset or look at large data streams once or twice.
Dr. McPherson likens the ATLAS grid to the commercial “cloud computing platforms” used by Amazon, Google or Apple, except less centralized and with greater traceability. Like the ATLAS grid, cloud computing systems provide shared data centres at remote locations. But while cloud computing is somewhat akin to an electricity grid where consumers don’t need to know the origin of the power, the ATLAS grid allows scientists to track the data’s origin as well as the source of any data glitches. “We require a pedigree of how results are produced so we can go back and fix a problem if we find it,” he says.
What they hope to find
Looking for a specific exotic particle like the Higgs boson is “like looking for a very small needle in a huge haystack,” says Dr. Daniel Gruner of the University of Toronto’s SciNet, which stores and processes ATLAS data from TRIUMF and other Tier-1 facilities. Finding the Higgs boson, sometimes called “the God particle,” would go a long way to explaining how other particles acquire mass and how the universe ticks.
What is the Higgs boson?
The Higgs boson is a hypothetical subatomic particle. Finding the Higgs boson, if it exists at all, will answer fundamental questions about how other subatomic particles acquire their mass.
Learn what the Higgs theory says about particle mass.
Dr. McPherson believes that physicists have enough data to ascertain whether the Higgs exists or not, and that this may be determined within the next year. And while every scientist would like to be the first out of the gate with a definitive identification of the Higgs boson, in practical terms it requires a big team of scientists to analyze all of the data.
But even if the Higgs does not exist, that discovery will only open the door to new theories for the world’s physicists. “I am sort of hoping for that,” says Dr. McPherson, “because it almost guarantees that there are other very interesting things in our data that I want to work on.”
ISSN 1927-0275 = Dimensions (Ottawa. Online)