Dr. Randall Sobie has spent his career trying to understand the nature of the universe, including its fundamental particles and the forces with which they interact.
“To understand the universe, you need large devices,” says Dr. Sobie, Professor and Director of the Subatomic Physics and Accelerator Research Centre at the University of Victoria. “We’re looking back in time to the origin of the universe — the Big Bang.”
He uses accelerators — which he says are essentially microscopes — to look at smaller and smaller dimensions. One such accelerator, which is located at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, is a 27-kilometre tunnel and the energy of the particles that go through it is equal to that of an undercar freight train. That’s useful when one’s goal is to make the particles collide and examine how they interact.
“This gives us a feeling for the nature of the universe; it allows us to understand basic concepts and then maybe eventually, you’ll find an application,” he says.
The applications that have come from particle physics are innumerable. Electricity came to be because physicists learned how electrons interact. Nuclear isotopes, now commonplace in hospitals for cancer treatment and imaging, are similarly useful applications that came out of the science. Then there are more tangential spinoffs, including the internet, which was developed because physicists worldwide needed to communicate.
“That’s an example of how something that spun out of basic research has changed the way we do things,” Dr. Sobie says.
In addition to working with Canada’s academic team at CERN, Dr. Sobie is working on a Japanese project trying to find out where the world’s anti-matter went. "The universe was created with equal amounts of matter and anti-matter; the project in Japan will help us understand why the anti-matter has disappeared.”
For Dr. Sobie, digital research infrastructure resources are invaluable.
"Our experiments collide particles in the middle of large detectors, which are like electronic cameras," he says. "We collect billions of particle collisions per second and select the most interesting ones. The collision data collection is extremely large and is distributed to centres around the world, including some in Canada."
The Canadian and international computing centres analyze the particles in the collisions and help researchers understand the nature of the universe. "These computing resources in Canada are a key contribution to international projects," Dr. Sobie says. “They are critical to our research, and they help contribute to Canada’s reputation abroad."