Collaboratively stripping the cosmic onion

By Susanne Martin, Managing Editor

How do you study the glue that holds the universe together? Well, for one thing, you’ve got to stick with it, according George Lolos and Zisis Papandreou, physics professors at the University of Regina and lead researchers of GlueX, and you need to engage in international collaboration.

It’s been a 15-year process for the two researchers, but a recent milestone – the first experiment – amped up the excitement.

“We just received the first particle – the first beam, as we call it – into the detector system at the Jefferson Lab in Virginia,” says Dr. Lolos, adding there was unfortunately no champagne in sight to commemorate the momentous occasion.


“We’ve had to be entrepreneurial in developing partnerships in order to flourish. And it turns out we’re rather good at it.”

Dr.  David Malloy is the University of Regina’s vice president of research


The findings of the GlueX experiments will have implications for everything surrounding us, says Dr. Lolos, explaining that while matter consists of atoms and molecules, he is not interested in anything that big. Instead, his focus is on elementary particles, specifically quarks.

Physics professors Dr. Zisis Papandreou (right), Dr. George Lolos and Dr. Andrei Semenov work at the Detector Development Lab at the University of Regina. Department of Photography, University of Regina

Physics professors Dr. Zisis Papandreou (right), Dr. George Lolos and Dr. Andrei Semenov work at the Detector Development Lab at the University of Regina. Department of Photography, University of Regina

“Let’s take a proton that consists of three quarks,” Dr. Lolos says. “The problem is that the forces between the quarks are very, very strong.” Since the quarks cannot be isolated – they are essentially what physicists call “confined” – researchers have come up with models and calculations about what holds them together.

“The question is, which model is right,” Dr. Lolos muses, adding that the experiments will provide answers about the “nuclear glue, the mortar that holds the quarks together.”
It’s not unusual that experiments tackling problems that large take 15 to 20 years to set up. And a field like subatomic physics – where the data is very complex – requires a strong synergy between the theoretical and experimental, says Dr. Papandreou.

The 120 physicists involved in GlueX are mostly from the U.S., Canada, Australia and Scotland, he says, adding that each participating university is responsible for building a particular subsystem.

One key piece of equipment – the biggest detector weighing 25 tonnes – was built at the University of Regina.

How does a Canadian university in the middle of the Prairies get to play a pivotal role in an international collaboration like GlueX?

It doesn’t come as a surprise to David Malloy, the University of Regina’s vice president of research, who explains that the “Prairies are and have always been multicultural.”
Added to the long-standing tradition of co-operation between, for example, Cree, Irish, Ukrainian, French, Chinese and Philippine cultures is the relative geographic isolation.

“We’ve had to be entrepreneurial in developing partnerships in order to flourish. And it turns out we’re rather good at it,” says Dr. Malloy.

The university’s strength was recently recognized in its number one ranking in international research collaboration by Research InfoSource, one of Canada’s premier research intelligence firms. Dr. Malloy sees this as a testament to “a robust exchange of knowledge across borders and continents, supporting a vibrant research culture and improved student experience, all in a place not typically thought of as a global hub.”
The next stage of GlueX may well further boost the university’s image.

The recent “engineering run” at Jefferson Lab won’t yield physics result yes, says Dr. Lolos. “It’s to see whether the components of the very complex detector system are working successfully.”

While spinoff technology from setting up the experiments has already found its way into the market, Dr. Papandreou explains that the physics data – which will hopefully reveal the exotic forms of matter that makes up the nuclear glue – will be generated between 2016 and 2021 when the experiment will run continuously.

Drs. Lolos and Papandreou expect profound insights. “Everything in the cosmos is made of layers. We are looking at the deepest possible layer. We want to strip what we call ‘the cosmic onion,’” they say.

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