A Particular Partnership in Physics

by Betsey Cowell:

Wedged between France and Switzerland, deep underground, lies a mammoth metal cylinder 17 miles in length. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a particle accelerator with unprecedented complexity and power. “It’s a complex machine, about as complex as an aircraft carrier, and weighs about as much as the Eiffel tower,” explains particle physicist Marzio Nessi. Physicists from around the world make pilgrimages to this quantum Mecca, descending deep into the earth to tinker with its superconducting magnets and precise collision detectors.

Poster child of the European Organization of Nuclear Research (CERN), the LHC hopes to provide answers to the fundamental questions of high-energy particle physics. When officially activated in late 2010, this collider will facilitate several large experiments, one of which holds particular importance in the international realm. Enter the ATLAS project, which will use a specific portion of the LHC, the ATLAS detector, to investigate the basic forces and molecules that compose our Universe. Just as the project’s experimental front has the potential to revolutionize our knowledge of matter, so its internal structure promises to transform our understanding of international collaboration.

Experiment at CERN (Zipckr/Flickr)

Christened a “virtual United Nations,” ATLAS includes 37 countries, 2,800 physicists from 169 universities and laboratories, and 700 students. For this massive-scale experiment to run smoothly, an unprecedented level of teamwork must be reached. Problems certainly arise in communication, efficiency, and accord. Yet in this melting pot, friendships are formed across borders, and insight provided into a wealth of different ideological backgrounds — in theory, exactly the kind of cooperation needed to carry a fragmented world into the globalized future.

Caveats in Collaboration

In October 2009, a CERN-affiliated scientist working on the LHC was arrested upon suspicion of his affiliations to terrorist organization al-Qaeda. When asked to comment, ATLAS collaborator Steven Goldfarb suggested that researchers are not taking it too seriously: “You see! We are being as inclusive as possible!” Echoing a statement by the CERN Press, Goldfarb attested seriously that this man had nothing to gain from laboratory resources or particle physics knowledge. Nevertheless, the possibility of terrorist affiliations remains a reality of 21st century cooperation—heightened cooperation now also means heightened danger.

To some observers, this arrest threatens to undermine trust at CERN and within ATLAS, adding another topic to the growing dialogue on the disadvantages of togetherness. Markus Nordberg, Resources Coordinator of the ATLAS Management Team, shares that “it is clear that when some 2500 persons work together from 37 countries, things move slower than in a 10-person group. Sharing and agreeing on costs is a slow process too.” Paul Tipton, Yale Professor and ATLAS collaborator, adds that inefficiency of meetings is the biggest problem.

Goldfarb continues that “debates can be harsh and the proponents of losing solutions can be saddened or angered.” However, he “tend[s] to think of the challenges of collaboration more than the drawbacks. In general, collaboration is the model I think really works best for humans, when seeking long-term solutions.  We have a group of people with one common objective, so getting them to work together is rather natural.”

United They Stand

International collaboration with a goal as pure as that of ATLAS is rarely found in our world today. As Goldfarb suggests, these scientists are united by a common interest in acquiring knowledge of particle physics fundamentals, an interest that knows no bounds of nationality or culture. Nordberg describes the essence of ATLAS: “It’s about the knowledge. It’s not trying to put people in a straight jacket given by one dominant culture or way of thinking. Financially, there are some dominating nations, but not in terms of science. The best brains come wherever they come, and you want to tune into them.” Neither France nor the United States, ATLAS’s biggest funders, monopolizes the experimental front. Each nation is equal in the name of particle physics.

Dr. Vato Kartvelishvili, Professor of Physics at Lancaster University, seconds this notion of a universal science: “The things we are working on are far more fundamental and far more essential for humanity than all those cultural, political, and religious differences. So you’re putting priorities in the right place.” The ATLAS project, more so than any other international body, has identified a common objective that is in the clear interest of all to obtain.

Teamwork’s Nuts and Bolts

The structure of ATLAS is remarkably effective and attentive to detail. With an overseeing management team and a secretariat of administrators, few needs go unaddressed. Founder and Director Connie Potter enumerates that the secretariat resolves any and every problem a collaborator may have, “everything from ‘I need to rent a bicycle’ to ‘Can I have another key to my office?’ to ‘Could you come with me to the doctor because I can’t say what the problem is.’” Comparable to the U.N. Secretariat, this impartial team unites the collaborators with administrative glue. One organizational tier down are the actual experimental groups, divvied into various sub-systems and sub-groups, each with a sub-convener. Kartvelishvili sub-convenes “one sub-group, organizing regular meetings for the sub-group, and right now I’m in the middle of doing just that for the next meeting in a couple of weeks’ time.”

As streamlined as organization may be, international engagement at ATLAS is based less upon formal conferences and votes, like the UN, and more upon informal connections made behind the scenes, via email and web conferences and over lunch at the CERN cafeteria. Kathy Copic, a Postdoctoral researcher with the Columbia University ATLAS team, “had a phone meeting this morning with an American colleague, who works for a Canadian University, lives in Geneva, and is at a conference in Italy.” Copic raves about her collaborators: “Those who choose the field of particle physics are selecting themselves as people who are willing to take the time to communicate and deal with people from different places. You are meeting people who are really dedicated to the science, but are also really interesting to talk to.”

ATLAS scientists themselves created the communications technology used by Potter and Copic on a daily basis, notes Goldfarb, who also serves as the Director of the Collaborative Tools Initiative: “Particle physicists at Caltech developed the video conferencing tools, and my institute developed some lecture archiving software.” Thus, the collaborators have worked from the inside to facilitate their own collaboration.

Revolutionizing International Relations

Because ATLAS preaches to the universality of science, there should be no surprise that it inspires collaborators to practice the same. The most important lesson of ATLAS is that bridging of ideological borders becomes easier when working together. Demers recalls a specific discussion that stood out: “A colleague started talking about growing up in Israel and the friends he lost in bombings there, which it allowed me to appreciate the security that I had, and made me aware of people living in very different circumstances.” Copic has also gained perspective. “In a place where blanket cultural statements might go unchallenged otherwise, there’s always someone here with expertise.” The rest of the world is far from stocked with these cosmopolitan watchdogs, but having them in physics labs is an exemplary start.

About the future of ATLAS, Yale undergraduate and ATLAS researcher Jon Greco notes that, “the possibilities in physics of confirming things that we believe or disproving them are really limitless at this point. There’s so much to be learned.” Similarly, forums of international collaboration are on a promising trajectory. The ATLAS project is a model for future coexistence in the globalized world, albeit with real obstacles such as inefficiency and accusations of terrorism. Yet ATLAS collaborators aim to work around these as a community. Yale Professor Paul Tipton sums up the essence of teamwork, ATLAS style: “The truth is, we live on a planet, and why not sample from all that the world has to offer?”

In the end, each individual will merit recognition for his own visionary contribution to ATLAS, which could yield some surprising results. Kartvelishvili prophesizes the outcome of this unprecedented collaboration: “When we start publishing our results, the paper will have about 3,000 authors,” and no two will be from the exact same place.

Betsy Cowell is a sophomore Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology major in Branford College.