Gulps from a fire hose: Sifting particle collisions in the Large Hadron Collider

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By Roger Snodgrass

A computer device built at Los Alamos National Laboratory will play a role in the hunt for a missing particle known as the Higgs Boson, when the Large Hadron Collider begins to power up next month near Geneva, Switzerland.

The LHC, 17 miles in circumference, is about to become the biggest and most energetic atom smasher ever built. Supercooled, synchronized magnets will steer protons going one direction into protons going the other at nine-tenths the speed of light, producing seven times the energy of the existing Tevetron at Fermi Laboratory and creating a chaotic storm of some 600 million subatomic collisions a second.

“The central problem with a big science detector is that it is literally impossible to store all the information coming out,” said Matt Stettler of the laboratory’s International, Space and Remote Sensing Division. “You have to figure out on the fly what’s interesting and what’s not.”

The Los Alamos contribution, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin and the Imperial College of London, among others, amounts to a “real-time supercomputer,” able to network enormous volumes of information (40 terabytes per second) as they arrive, so that trigger arrays can instantly recognize the data most likely to be worth saving.

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