The University of Nebraska–Lincoln has received a five-year, $51 million grant from the National Science Foundation that will advance cutting-edge work in subatomic physics at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest, most powerful particle accelerator located near Geneva, Switzerland.
The grant — one of the largest in the university’s history — will enable 1,200 U.S. physicists from 51 institutions to maximize the potential of the Compact Muon Solenoid detector, an instrument at the collider used to study what happens when high-energy particles collide. The funding will support the U.S. CMS Operations Program, the NSF-funded portion of which Nebraska will now lead through 2026. The program, also funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, maintains the operation of the U.S.-supplied-and-developed components of the CMS detector, oversees its software and computing infrastructure, and plans for future upgrades.
The operations program is foundational to maintaining and upgrading the CMS detector. The instrument functions as a giant high-speed camera within the LHC, capturing “photographs” of particle collisions that help scientists unlock mysteries about the universe’s origins and composition and glean insight into the laws of nature. The detector was integral to the 2012 discovery of the long-sought-after Higgs boson particle and is expected to spur further discoveries in particle physics.
As a leader of the operations program, Nebraska is charged with distributing funds to 19 partnering institutions, all of which are leaders in the field of particle physics. They include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology, Princeton and Cornell.
Maintaining the CMS detector — which is 14,000 tons and has two endcaps each the size of a five-story building — is a significant undertaking and is the backbone to the research conducted at CERN.
“No one can do the research unless we do the operations and maintenance,” said Ken Bloom, professor of physics and the project’s principal investigator. “It enables research on this campus and at the 50 other CMS universities in the U.S. The whole international collaboration needs these activities in the U.S. to be successful.”
Bloom’s deep experience in CMS operations and management was pivotal in bringing the NSF funding to Nebraska. For nearly a decade, he led the team that runs the seven U.S. Tier-2 computing centers for the CMS detector, one of which is housed at the university’s Holland Computing Center. Collectively, these sites process, store, transfer and analyze the millions of gigabytes of data produced by the CMS each year.
He was also manager of software and computing for the operations program from 2015 to 2019, managing a $16 million annual budget. In January, he was selected as the program’s deputy manager, helping to administer a $35 million budget that funds at least 45 institutions. That appointment triggered the shift in NSF funding to Nebraska from Princeton University, where it’s been housed for the past decade.
“This grant is a capstone to Ken’s long-term dedication to leading CMS operations on the national and global scale,” said Bob Wilhelm, vice chancellor for research and economic development. “His commitment to maximizing the instrument’s potential and strengthening its computing infrastructure, and the role our university will play in managing CMS operations, paves the way for scientists at Nebraska and around the world to continue making groundbreaking discoveries in physics.”
The university takes over at a critical point in time for the Large Hadron Collider. The instrument is poised to begin its third data-taking run in 2022, which is expected to double the size of the current CMS data set of proton collisions. In addition, a major upgrade to the accelerator is in progress, which will increase its luminosity by a factor of 10. The improved collider, to be called the High-Luminosity LHC, is expected to be in place for the fourth run’s launch in 2027 and will significantly boost the number of collisions that physicists can study.
With the expected data boom stemming from these two events, Bloom said it’s critical to devote a lion’s share of the NSF funds to enhancing the computing operations that support data analysis. The majority of the funds that stay on Nebraska’s campus will support improved software and computing power and personnel at the Holland Center.
The updated instruments at CERN will power additional research focused on the Higgs boson, the elementary particle that is believed to give other particles their mass. After finally discovering the so-called “God particle” in 2012 after a more than 50-year hunt, physicists are now confirming its role in the Standard Model of particle physics and using it to search for other types of hidden particles. The upgraded LHC will double the supply of Higgs bosons available for study and provide higher-precision measurements of the particle.
The collider also paves the way for further exploration of dark matter, an invisible substance believed to compose about 25% of the universe. Scientists know it exists based on gravitational pulls exhibited by distant stars and galaxies, but they don’t know what types of particles compose it.
They’ll also continue their studies into unknown aspects of the universe: new particles, interactions and physics principles.
In addition to Bloom, Nebraska physicists Dan Claes, Frank Golf and Ilya Kravchenko conduct research alongside national and international counterparts at CERN.
“At Nebraska, our research in physics has been a strength for decades, and this NSF grant recognizes that, along with our demonstrated ability to provide leadership on the international stage,” said Chancellor Ronnie Green. “We embrace yet another opportunity to collaborate with colleagues around the world under the leadership of Dr. Ken Bloom to advance on these grand challenges in physics.”
The CMS Operations Program affords hundreds of postdoctoral researchers and students the opportunity to participate in particle physics research using the world’s most advanced instruments. It also helps fund QuarkNet, a longstanding program that partners high school teachers with particle physics scientists to bring innovative research into classrooms.
For Bloom, who’s spent much of his career conducting research in top-quark physics, weak particle interactions and the Higgs boson, this project is an opportunity to give back to a research community he’s been a part of for more than 30 years. He views it as an act of community service and a chance to pass the baton to up-and-coming physicists who will lead the next generation of discoveries.
“I’m always looking for ways to make people’s lives better in this field,” he said. “How can we do things that will impact a lot of people and help them get their science done? This is what the operations program is, ultimately. If I can do things that will help other people pursue their science ideas, then that’s a useful contribution.”