New supercomputer aids York researchers in search for elusive Higgs particle

A new Canadian-built supercomputer will aid researchers from York University and a consortium of Canadian universities in their search for an elusive subatomic particle, which could radically alter our understanding of physics.

Wendy Taylor and Sampa Bhadra, professors in York’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, Faculty of Science & Engineering, are part of a team of 70 Canadian researchers working on an experiment dubbed ATLAS, which aims to uncover the mysteries of the Higgs particle. It’s a huge undertaking, involving nearly 2,000 researchers worldwide; they believe the Higgs particle is the last missing piece in the standard model of particle physics, and could explain the origin of mass.

Left: The Higgs particle. Image courtesy of CERN.

The new IBM System Cluster 1350 supercomputer, launched Oct. 18 at TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for subatomic physics, is the latest addition to the project’s international grid of high-performance computing centres.

It will help researchers analyze reams of data generated by the world’s largest nuclear collider, located at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva.

“What we’re attempting to accomplish is similar to searching for an invisible needle in the world’s biggest haystack,” said Taylor, York’s Canada Research Chair in particle physics. “A billion collisions occur each second and we need to understand which ones we should be looking at."

Taylor and Bhadra are charged with a crucial task: they’re designing “trigger algorithms” – a method of distilling the data generated by these collisions down to 200 per second, which are then stored for analysis at remote sites, such as the supercomputer at TRIUMF. These algorithms will help identify “jets” or “sprays” of particles that could indicate the presence of a Higgs boson.

“It’s very exciting,” said Taylor. “It would be even more interesting if we don’t discover the Higgs boson, since that would reveal incredible secrets about the fundamental forces of nature and the smallest particles of matter."

Right: Wendy Taylor (left) and Sampa Bhadra

Just how much data can the supercomputer handle? “It’s estimated to be the equivalent of half a million DVDs worth of data, per year, for as long as the experiment will run,” said Taylor.

The IBM System Cluster 1350 is part of the ATLAS Tier-1 Data Centre, which was funded by grants to the consortium universities from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and the British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund, as well as a contribution by IBM.

The ATLAS-Canada Collaboration consists of: University of Alberta, University of British Columbia, Carleton University, McGill University, Universite de Montreal, University of Regina, Simon Fraser University, University of Toronto, University of Victoria, York University, and TRIUMF.

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