Physics Professor and Student Contribute to Advanced Particle Research in Geneva

A National Science Foundation grant allowed a Manhattan College senior to assist in world-renowned science experiments being conducted this summer in Switzerland.

Alex Karlis ’16 spent his summer vacation building granite tabletops, which might sound fairly humdrum, barring a few minor details. For one, the College physics major was doing it in Geneva, Switzerland, a city considered to be the Ground Zero of particle physics research, and two, it took place in the largest, most complex experimental facility ever created.

The tabletops Karlis constructed during the month of July were actually the components of detectors that will partially comprise the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 17-mile subterranean tunnel, and the most powerful proton-proton collider in the world. When placed on top of each other, the tables weigh a combined 25,000 pounds.

Scientists will analyze data from this and other detectors, which are used to build Micromegas technology for the detection of elementary particles, to test high-energy physics theories, Karlis explains while flipping through photos of the tables on his iPhone. “Geneva is the holy grail of particle physics,” he says. “Being there was a dream come true.”

Thanks to a National Science Foundation research grant, Karlis was the third College student to spend time at the LHC with professor of physics, Rostislav Konoplich, Ph.D., who is one of the scientists involved in ATLAS, a particle detector experiment. In 2012, he was in a group of 6,000 researchers to discover the Higgs boson, an obscure particle that accounts for the creation of all mass and is often referred to as “the God particle.”

Speaking in Konoplich’s office at Manhattan, he notes the value of learning scientific principles in the classroom, but stresses the importance of field experience. “Here a student might work with a professor one-on-one, which is great, but [in Geneva] you are working with scientists from all over the world,” he said.

Karlis, who took quantum physics last semester with Konoplich, agrees. During his month in Switzerland, he worked on the particle detectors with scientists and mechanical engineers from countries including Italy, Spain, France, Russia and Greece, many of whom were putting in 12-hour shifts in the laboratory. Karlis was fortunate to be there when he was; at the end of 2017, the LHC will shut down for a year to be upgraded.

Karlis was awed by the dedication to discovery that was prevalent in all of Geneva, and is inspired to continue his physics research after graduation. He’s currently considering work as a physics teacher, and plans to eventually pursue a Ph.D. in the field. But Karlis’ summer at the LHC is already an important career achievement—should the Micromegas detectors he worked on lead to new particle research discoveries, he will have been a contributor. “I’d like to be a footnote in history,” Karlis said.

By Christine Loughran