Physics group gets funding to keep probing the unknown

Three University of Oregon physicists are able to continue their mission to uncover the fundamental secrets of the universe, thanks to continued funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The department’s high energy physics program awarded $1.28 million over four years to professor Graham Kribs and associate professors Spencer Chang and Tim Cohen, all members of the UO’s Particle Theory Group in the physics department. The funding will further research into mysteries like the theory of dark matter and dark energy, the constituents of atoms, the behavior of recently discovered particles, and other tools to help theoretical physicists explore the unknown.

“As you gain more knowledge about how the world works, you’re able to discern the kinds of things that you can and can’t do,” said Kribs, who is also the director of the Institute for Fundamental Science at the UO. “In the end, physics is always going to be the ultimate limit.”

The grant won’t fund experiments but rather supports the team’s ongoing work of synthesizing the findings from experiments on cutting-edge instruments such as the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. Kribs, Chang and Cohen consider themselves “phenomenologists,” which means they theorize on phenomena, or the data collected in tests. They use evidence to draft new laws of physics and ask more questions.

The team will work to expand the Standard Model of particle physics, which maps everything already known about the universe in terms of fundamental particles, which are its basic building blocks. One way they’ll do that is by using test data on the Higgs boson, a particle whose existence was confirmed in 2012, as a new tool for exploration of particle parameters.

Ultimately, the team’s theoretical research will lay the groundwork for new experiments. The physics community is in discussion about the next phase of international collaboration on experimental tools. The Large Hadron Collider will not operate indefinitely; it is far too expensive to power, and predictions made from the data it can collect are becoming exhausted. Part of the group’s work will inform decisions about what type of collider will come next.

“We’re all thinking to the future,” Chang said. “What can be done now to impact the thinking about which of these colliders should be selected next?”

Spencer Chang, Tim Cohen, Graham Kribs

The theory group has a healthy dialogue with another research group at the UO: the experimental particle group, which works directly with the collider. Their exchange of ideas, which Cohen described as a “beautiful synergy,” lets the phenomenologists help steer the ship toward new tests, and eventually, discoveries, but those can take years to arrive. Knowledge of theory has to come first.

“The experimental group has this huge, 20-plus-year program of taking data and analyzing it, but they need the input from the theory community,” Cohen said.

Helping those researchers decide what data to analyze, and how, ensures that future experiments are the ones most likely to lead to the discovery of a new particle.

The U.S. Department of Energy has been supporting the UO’s particle physics team for decades, Kribs said. Funding every few years isn’t taken for granted; it’s a big deal to emerge from the competitive review process with a large awards. What makes securing funding tricky is that the grant isn’t aimed at funding a discrete project.

“The best projects are the ones you don’t plan for,” Cohen said. “So writing these grant proposals is actually quite difficult, because it’s pretty disconnected from how we do our best work.”

Without expensive lab experiments to run, the particle theory group uses the award to retain people, especially its two postdoctoral students, several graduate students and one undergrad. Along the way, students working with the group are trained to be self-motivated critical thinkers. Cohen said contributing brilliant students to society is one of the biggest direct outcomes of this work.

“There are lots of things that smart people get interested in, and this is definitely one of them,” Cohen said. “The questions we ask really inspire people to work hard and think hard.”

—By Anna Glavash Miller, College of Arts and Sciences