Monday, September 13, 2010

Large Hadron Collider and Sound

The scientists running the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have started a project to allow them to "listen" to their data. For those who don't know, the Large Hadron Collider is a giant particle accelerator in Geneva. Its goal is to find unknown subatomic particles by smashing together beams of protons and observing how they decay. Particles decay into different particles at different energy levels. The particular particle that the scientists are trying to find is called the Higgs boson. This particle is so important because it is the only elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics that scientists have not been able to isolate so far. If we can isolate the Higgs boson, we can study its properties and learn about the universe in its very early form.

So how does sound play into this? LHC Sound is a collaboration of particle physicists, musicians, and artists that have come up with a new way of analyzing the collider's data. A calorimeter—device for measuring heat—in the ATLAS detector measures the energy of each collision. That energy, then, is converted into a pitch.

Dr Lily Asquith, a member of the team, explains the reasoning for this sonification in the LHC Sound Blog:
"Sound seems the perfect tool with which to represent the complexity of the data; our ears are superb at locating the source and location of sounds relative to one another, we can hear a vast range of frequencies and distinguish timbres (different instruments) before they have even played a full cycle. We also have an incredible ability to notice slight changes is pitch or tempo over time and to recognise patterns in sound after hearing them just once."
So while the project may very well prove to be helpful to the physicists themselves, it is more for the general public. While I made the enviable unfortunate choice to pursue a physics degree [Digression: Dear LHC Sound, can I please be a part of this?], the group makes the point that even those without years of physics study can understand a confusing experiment by making the data more accessible. This can go a long way toward making the experiment less of a mystery. Will it stop the paranoid crazies from thinking that the Large Hadron Collider will produce a black hole that will swallow all of us? Probably not. But it's a start.

If you're more interested, you can download simulations and the actual sounds at the LHC Sound Page.

-Prasanna Swaminathan

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