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Physicist receives CAREER award to explore mysteries of universe, help high school students

UB faculty member Ciaran Williams will use his NSF CAREER award to continue his work exploring the mysteries of the universe. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published July 11, 2017

“In some ways it is some of the most exciting times because we do not know what’s going to happen next.”
Ciaran Williams, assistant professor of physics
Department of Physics

A UB physicist has won a prestigious grant that helps science at both ends of the academic spectrum.

Ciaran Williams, assistant professor of physics, has been awarded a five-year, $400,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award to continue his theoretical work for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project and also reach out to Native American high school students about interesting scientific possibilities and opportunities.

The LHC is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, a 17-mile ring built hundreds of feet underground on the border of Switzerland and France. The machine — the world’s most complex experimental facility — is designed to smash beams of protons together at near the speed of light to create conditions similar to those of the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe.

The energetic collisions create new particles — for split seconds — and reveal secrets about how matter is formed. In 2012, physicists at the LHC succeeded in creating a Higgs boson, the final missing piece of experimental data needed to complete the Standard Model, upon which modern physics is built.

Williams has been doing theoretical work for the LHC, making mathematical models to predict what the LHC experiments will show. With the grant, he will be performing cutting-edge calculations at “next-to-next-to-leading order” accuracy and beyond, and implementing the results into a publicly available computer code, MCFM.

“Most particle physicists are in some way connected to the LHC,” Williams says. A community of approximately 2,000 physicists around the world work on the theoretical side of the collider’s experiments, and up to 3,000 work on the larger experiments themselves, he adds.

“As far as we know, it’s the coldest place in the universe” at -456 degrees Fahrenheit (-271 C) Williams says of the collider. “It’s colder than deep space. It takes months to cool down.”

The calculations Williams tackles can take up to a year to solve. He works with others, and they compare their calculations to make sure they are on target. UB has a robust physics department, with several PhDs focused on particle physics and cosmology, in addition to a strong LHC experimental program.

So how will students at Salamanca High School relate to such high-level physics?

“The idea is it will be an after-school club,” Williams explains. “Every couple of weeks, two or three undergraduates and I will go to Salamanca to do lectures on interesting aspects of physics. The main emphasis is to encourage their participation in further education by showing them that physics students are no different from themselves, and engaging them in interesting aspects of fundamental science.”

Native Americans are underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

In addition, Williams plans to take two or three of the top students to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, a particle physics lab in Illinois where he performed postdoctoral research. In addition to physics, the laboratory has an environmental science component, including ecology and prairie restoration.

“The idea is we encourage the students to maximize their ability,” Williams says. “It doesn’t have to be in physics.”

Expanding CERN’s machinery

The LHC was built and is operated by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), and since the Higgs boson was discovered, its mission has entered an unknown phase.

“In some ways it is some of the most exciting times because we do not know what’s going to happen next,” Williams says.

One possibility for the next discovery could be dark matter, a material that occupies more than a quarter of the universe but has never been examined. Or it could be discoveries related to supersymmetry, a theory that would balance all of the universe’s forces.

“If no discoveries are made, the LHC will push the boundaries of these hypotheses far beyond our current understanding,” he says. “However, to conclusively rule out supersymmetry a much larger collider will be needed, and one is being planned.”

In addition to being a “beacon for international cooperation,” Williams says the collider and the effort behind it represent something profound about the human experience. “All of our modern technology is based upon ideas that were once completely abstract ‘blue skies’ research. We don’t know exactly which of our current pure science investigations will lead to breakthroughs, but by pushing the boundaries of human knowledge further, we allow for possibilities in the future we can’t even imagine right now.”