Things particle physics and Formula 1 racing have in common

Twenty-five minutes northwest of downtown Geneva lies the Large Car Collider (LCC). At the LCC, cars travel at very high speeds in a 352m circular orbit, intersecting paths at 5 main collision points. In each collision event, the energy of the cars involved is large enough to generate up to four different insurance claims per event.

A top down view of a roundabout surrounded by green plains. This roundabout is a reminder of the northwest of CERN, but this one is prettier and probably safer.
Photo by Cédric VT on Unsplash

Not to be confused with the Large Hadron Collider, the Large Car Collider is an abomination to civil engineering and inhibits scientific progress every day as scientists have to bike through a constant stream of cars on their way to work. As you will soon find out, the connection between high-energy particle physics and cars is stronger than you might think.

An aerialv view of CERN, the LHC, and the surrounding region. This image hopefully gives an idea of the scale and complexity of the LHC experiments, as well as some similarity to the roundabout mentioned earlier.
Aerial view of CERN, the LHC, and the surrounding region. Image credit: CERN

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

Twenty-two minutes northwest of downtown Geneva lies the visitor center of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). At the LHC, protons travel at very high speeds in a 26700m circular orbit, intersecting paths at 4 main collision points. In each collision event, the energy of the particles involved is large enough to generate thousands of particles per event. Not to be confused with the Large Car Collider, the Large Hadron Collider is a wonder of engineering and pushes scientific progress forward every day.

I’m a PhD student at the ATLAS experiment, which is one of the 4 large experiments at the LHC. By looking at the properties of particles created in the proton collisions, my colleagues and I search for new particles. If you ask me why we do this, it is to look for the dark matter particle. As astronomers have shown, an invisible mass is keeping galaxies from ripping apart, and we call this mass dark matter. If you ask the taxpayers why they want us to look for an invisible particle, I hope that this article should help them with their answer.

Fundamental Research, Particle Physics and Formula 1 Racing

“Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws. This general knowledge provides the means of answering a large number of important practical problems, though it may not give a complete specific answer to any one of them. The function of applied research is to provide such complete answers.”

“A Report to the President” by Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, July 1945

Fundamental research might not have the goal to solve a practical problem, but most if not all medical and technological progress this century stems from some kind of fundamental research. There are numerous examples of this throughout history. For a very long time, the relevance of the laser was so unclear that it was a common saying that “A laser is a solution seeking a problem”[1]. Nowadays lasers are everywhere from construction tools to self-driving cars.

Particle physics is not too different from lasers. Sadly, you are not going to have a Higgs boson scanner on top of your next self-driving car, not in a thousand years. However, when CERN scientists struggled to share large amounts of data with each other they started the development of what later became the world wide web in 1989[2].

Research like particle physics contributes to society indirectly, and some reasearch, like the laser, contributes more directly. But what does particle physics have to do with cars and Formula 1 racing? Well, just like particle physics provides societal benefits indirectly, so does formula 1 racing. No one drives an F1 car to work, it’s as “useful” to society as the Higgs boson. However, when reading Eurosports’ article “How F1’s best brains have made hybrid tech the future of road cars”, it gives an unreal resemblance of what it is like to work in fundamental science[3].

“Some of the best engineering brains from vehicle dynamics to aerodynamics to materials end up in the sport. They’re enticed by the excitement of such an intense engineering challenge, with the drive to constantly improve performance meaning that teams never stop developing new technology.”

“How F1’s best brains have made hybrid tech the future of road cars” by Eurosport

F1 racing gave us our modern disc brakes, direct fuel injection, active suspension, and better hybrid technology[3]. Just like in F1, at the LHC the world’s best engineers and scientists come together, enticed by the excitement of the scientific and engineering challenge, and the challenges they face force them to develop new methods and technologies which eventually end up in our everyday lives.

Dark Matter Searches at the LHC

It is a fact that fundamental research such as particle physics indirectly contributes to society, and there are hints of a more direct impact just around the corner. One of the biggest questions that I and thousands of my colleagues at the LHC are trying to answer is the decade-old question “What is dark matter”. Apart from the technology developed whilst looking for it, finding out what dark matter is would have a huge impact on all of humanity, because we don’t know much more about dark matter except that it is like water. 70% of the earth’s surface is covered in water[4], and 85% of the matter in the universe is dark matter[5]. Imagine standing at the ocean, not knowing what water is, and imagine the things you could do if you learned more about it.

Photo of a single small boat on a large body of water, with the outline of an island at the horizon. This symbolizes the opportunities humanity faces if we discover the secrets of dark matter.
Photo by Al Elmes on Unsplash




Particle physics PhD looking for dark matter.

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