NSF awards $2 million to UNL for international physics experiment

Released on 08/16/2005, at 2:00 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., August 16th, 2005 —
Color JPEG image of Bloom, Dominguez, Swanson and Prairiefire
Color JPEG image of Bloom, Dominguez, Swanson and Prairiefire

University of Nebraska-Lincoln scientists and facilities are playing a key role in one of the world's largest physics experiments and have received a five-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to support those efforts.

The experiment is the international particle-physics project known as the Compact Muon Solenoid, or CMS. The experiment will be conducted at the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest particle accelerator, at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva, Switzerland. Scheduled to begin in 2007, the experiment will explore the frontiers of energy, matter, space and time.

Although the experiment will be conducted in Switzerland, it will create so much data that dozens of supercomputers crunching 24/7 will take years to analyze all the information. To solve that problem, a "tiered" hierarchy of computing facilities is being created. UNL is a member of that hierarchy.

The data collected at CERN will be parceled out to computing facilities around the world in a hierarchical grid. Tier-0 is at CERN; several international labs serve as Tier-1 sites. Fermilab, a Department of Energy facility in Illinois, is the United States' Tier-1 site, which will distribute subsets of the data to seven associated Tier-2 sites in the United States, including UNL. Other universities collaborating on CMS will do much of their computing work at Tier-2 sites.

David Swanson, coordinator of the UNL Research Computing Facility and a research assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, is lead investigator for the grant, in collaboration with Ken Bloom and Aaron Dominguez, both assistant professors in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and other department faculty.

Bloom is project manager for the entire United States Tier-2 operation, which also has sites at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, the University of California at San Diego, the University of Florida in Gainesville, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

"The computing demands of this experiment are tremendous, larger than anything we have seen before in particle physics," Bloom said. "Because the new physics processes we are looking for are so rare, we must record huge amounts of data, and we need large disk servers for storage. Then we must sift through the data for the rare processes, requiring a large amount of processing power."

When the experiment comes on line in 2007-08, it will produce more than 200 megabytes of data per second (1 megabyte equals 1 million bytes). This equates to multiple petabytes, or 1,125,899,906,842,624 bytes, of data yearly, with analysis expected to require multiple petaflops. A petaflop is the ability of a computer to do one quadrillion operations per second.

UNL will host a subset of the data that is anticipated to be on the order of half a petabyte (500 trillion bytes), and the Research Computing Facility's computing power is anticipated to approach 10 teraflops, which is more than 10 times the power of the current Prairiefire supercomputer at UNL.

"This grant gives us the resources needed to build and staff such a computing facility and allows RCF research to extend beyond UNL to the international high-energy physics community," Swanson said. Bloom said the Tier-2 designation is significant for UNL.

"It makes us an important center for data analysis on CMS. It really puts UNL in the forefront in research into distributed grid computing, which is the coordinated use of computers that are spread around the world," he said. "We will also be among the first to have access to the data and to make discoveries about the fundamental nature of space and time."

The CMS experiment will use sophisticated particle detectors to collect the information from collisions of the most energetic protons ever produced by humans. When the protons collide in the center of the experiment, their energy is converted into matter. It is in these extremely energetic interactions that the physicists hope to produce new forms of matter and study their properties by analyzing the large amounts of data created by the detectors.

"Particle physicists study the questions: what is the world made of and what are its rules?" Dominguez said. "Amazingly, 95 percent of the universe seems to be made of unknown stuff. With CMS, we are poised on the threshold of an incredibly exciting time of potential discovery."

Possible discoveries include an explanation of mass, new dimensions of space, direct production of dark matter, and even new laws and forces of nature.

"Historically, these studies of fundamental questions have always led to applications outside the realm of pure academia," Dominguez said. He listed the example of the World Wide Web, which was originally created at CERN to help particle physicists communicate, and medical imaging which uses the same type of particle detectors used in the CERN experiment, as well as numerous applications of radiation detection crucial for national security.

More information about the project can be found at http://rcf.unl.edu.

The link below is to a color JPEG image of Swanson (front), Bloom (left) and Dominguez (right) with Prairiefire.

CONTACTS: Ken Bloom, Asst. Professor, Physics & Astronomy, (402) 472-6093;
Aaron Dominguez, Asst. Professor, Physics & Astronomy, (402) 472-6016; and
David Swanson, Coordinator, Information Services, (402) 472-5006