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CERN project 2022

Visitors at CERN in fornt om blue pipe labeled "Accelerating Science".
Published Apr 24, 2023

The Physics Chapter has recently been on a study visit to CERN in Geneva. We interviewed Erik Åkerberg and Christian Ohm regarding the visit, the work at CERN and much more.

What is your educational background and what inspired your interest in your field?

  • Civilingenjör, Teknisk fysik och elektroteknik, Linköping University, MSc thesis project at CERN.
  • PhD in particle physics at Stockholms University, then postdoc at CERN and Berkeley before joining KTH in 2017.
  • I lived in Geneva and worked at CERN almost entirely during 2006-2017.

I've always been curious about how nature works on a very basic level, and the big questions about what everything is made of and how the universe was formed. In particle physics the largest perspectives are connected with the very smallest ones, in both space and time. Apart from this I thoroughly enjoy the craft of doing research in this field because it is so varied, with everything from development of new detector systems, analysis of enormous amounts of data, large global collaborations, and deep-dives into the underlying theory. So I feel like I get to build and use a large toolbox, and there are always new things to learn!

What advice would you give to youngsters interested in becoming scientists?

Follow your curiosity and your interests! And try to find constructive and engaging people to work with, and ask them all the questions you have that you cannot find answers to.

Is it important for you to communicate your research to the world? If yes, why and how do you do that?

I'm doing research in fundamental natural science, which to a large extent is funded by tax money. I think we have a responsibility to communicate why and how we do this research, and what we find - in a way that is accessible for the general public who help to finance it. On a more personal level, I enjoy talking about my research with new people since it gives me energy - in part because it forces me to take a step back from the details and remind myself about the big perspectives and the goals with the research, and also because it's often met with fascination and curiosity among e.g. school kids and university students. And this inspires me.

What do you think is the most exciting development in particle physics research currently taking place at CERN?

I work on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, and we have just started taking data again after a few years of downtime for upgrades and maintenance. In this third running period of the collider we'll more than double the data recorded since 2010 in just a few years, and we have an upgraded detector which allows scrutinizing the proton-proton collisions even more carefully. The goal is to make precise measurements of the fundamental building blocks of matter, the quarks and the leptons - and to look for new ones, e.g. those that could help explain what the mysterious dark matter that dominates our universe is made of.

Discoveries could really come at any time, and in many different shapes and forms - also from other facilities that study the same problems from different angles, e.g. the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope will provide important pieces to the puzzle how our universe has formed and evolved, and other types of experiments could see signs of dark matter - and this will help guide what we search for at CERN! Even after this third run of the LHC we will only have collected about a 10th of the data envisioned for this facility, so there is lots more to come for the next decade or two.

How does the work done at CERN relate to the research being done at KTH University?

Our research group at KTH is very active in the ATLAS collaboration, consisting of over 3000 scientists from all over the world. We contribute to the operation of the detector, have leadership roles for working groups with people from many other universities, and work on detector upgrades for the future. We're responsible for building an electronics readout system for a new detector planned for installation before the fourth run of the LHC starts in 2029, which will provide timing
measurements of the particles produced in the collisions with a resolution of 30 picoseconds.

How could we attract more young minds into the field of sciences? Are there any actions taken by your work environment about it?

I believe the academic career path in Sweden is more accessible than in many other places, offering free higher education for everyone, and proper employment and good conditions for PhD students. But there is still a strong bias in who pursues university studies, where the factor with the strongest correlation is the level of education of the parents. During the pandemic I therefore co-authored a children'sbook  telling stories about 60 researchers and how they were when they were young, with the hope that any kid that picks up the book could find several researchers who they could identify with in one way or another, see that those who become researchers come from all different kinds of backgrounds, and that research can be about almost anything, and that the methods are very different.

Can you explain to us what the CERN project 2022 is?

The CERN project 2022 had the aim of organizing a trip for students in the Engineering physics program at KTH to visit CERN, the famous nuclear physics laboratory in Meyrin, Switzerland. The trip took place over three days in the beginning of February 2023 and included 24 physics students. The purpose of the project was to give students at KTH a better understanding of how a modern research facility operates and to further promote the field of particle physics as a possible direction for future studies. It was organized by myself, Folke Bruno and Simon Frisk from the physics chapter at KTH with a lot of help from CERN researcher and KTH lecturer Dr Christian Ohm and with funding from KTH.

What was your first impression when you arrived at CERN?

The first impression when arriving at CERN was just how large the site is. It’s like a small town with restaurants, a hotel, streets and countless buildings, parking lots and warehouses spanning a wide area that reaches across the border into France. As we learned later there are other related sites nearby adding to the massive area dedicated to scientific research in this region.

Can you describe the most interesting experiment you saw during your visit?

For most participants, I believe the most interesting experiment we saw was the ATLAS experiment. Even if some were familiar with it beforehand, seeing the scale and intricacy of the ATLAS detector in person was an eye opener for most of us to the resources, collaboration and advanced technology required today to progress research into particle physics and science in general.

Did you have any opportunities to interact with any of the researchers or physicists at CERN? If so, what did you learn from them?

We had the opportunity to meet several researchers and physicists during our visit at CERN. Dr Christian Ohm, a particle physics researcher at CERN and lecturer at KTH, took the time to be our personal guide the entire time we were there, organizing interesting lectures and discussions about the research and operations at CERN. We received a guided tour of the Antimatter Factory by Dr Lars Varming Joergensen and Dr Gunn Khatri, and listened to KTH alumni Sandra Elisabeth Muhr from CERN’s Knowledge Transfer Group talk about the medical applications of particle physics for cancer treatment. Furthermore, Sebastian Lopienski, the Deputy Computer Security Officer at CERN, showed us the IT center which we learned is the birthplace of the internet. We also got to see CERN’s first particle accelerator presented to us by Senior CERN Fellow and researcher Dr Almilianos Koulouris.

Were there any surprising or unexpected moments during your visit to CERN?

One of the more surprising things about the visit to CERN was the immense safety and security on site. Not only were there guards stationed at all times at the entrances to the area that checked identification upon entry and exit, there were also countless other safety and security measures in place. For example, the larger experiments required retinal scans from the researchers to be able to enter and our guides always carried a dosimeter to detect exposure to radiation.

I believe the trip was very inspiring and insightful for all participants and that the purpose of the project was served. Hopefully we can do it again next year with new people that get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit CERN.

Lastly, we want to thank Christian Ohm for making this trip possible, Martin Viklund and Gunnar Tibert at KTH who helped organize it on their end and all the researchers and scientists at CERN who took the time to show us around!