Hongkonger right in the thick of the search for 'God particle'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 April, 2011, 12:00am

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Jacky Lie Ki is looking for God, or rather what is known as the God particle.

The physics doctorate student from Hong Kong has been working for more than a year alongside hundreds of the world's best physicists and engineers at CERN to study the forces of nature that created the universe and shape space-time itself.

CERN - (Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire) or the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, outside Geneva, is home to the world's largest particle collider - the large hadron collider. Since it was switched on in late 2008, scientists have been smashing particles into each other after running them around a 27-kilometre ring in the hope of finding traces of the Higgs boson, often referred to as the God particle. It is the missing link in the standard model of particle physics which would explain what gives mass to all matter in the universe.

Lie works on the ATLAS detector of the collider, which is where the Higgs boson will be detected if it exists as predicted.

'It's not easy to explain how we go about doing this,' he said. 'But we ask a basic question: where do particles in the universe come from?'

The physics student from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the United States said it was a rare opportunity to study the most basic forces in the universe at one of the most advanced facilities.

He said the laboratory was a fascinating place to work in, with the world's best scientists and engineers, though there were times when he thought 'it's just a job'.

'I enjoy doing science and CERN is a great place to do it,' he said. 'I get much practical training from working here because what I learned at school was quite theoretical.' His work at CERN helps his research.

Lie confessed he used to be a mediocre pupil in Hong Kong. He went to the US and hoped to major in computer science. But gradually, it dawned on him that his passion was physics. Once having found his true interest, he became a stellar student. 'For me the most important thing is to know what you really like,' he said. 'If you know what it is, the rest is a lot easier.'

Lie said what made finding the Higgs particle difficult was that scientists did not know its mass, making it difficult to identify. But Dr Lyn Evans, a Welsh scientist and project leader at CERN, is hopeful. 'I hope we find the Higgs particle this year,' she said. 'If not this year, next year. And I hope that will be within my lifetime.'

Lie said he hoped that he would witness the discovery.

Smashing science

Protons - produced by stripping electrons from hydrogen atoms - smash together at four'collision points'

Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

Accelerates two beams of protons around a 27km ring and smashes them together at 99.99% the speed of light. Its 9,300 magnets guide the particles through a vacuum at minus 271 degrees Celsius, recreating conditions in deep space moments after the Big Bang

ALICE

Studying quark-gluon plasma, form of matter that is believed to have existed 10-25 seconds after the Big Bang, some 14 billion years ago.

Scientists: 1,000-plus

ATLAS

Searching for elusive Higgs boson sub-atomic particle that is thought to give mass to all matter.

Scientists: 1,700-plus, including Hongkonger Jacky Lie Ki

LHCb

Studying particles called B mesons and investigating differences between matter and antimatter.

Scientists: 650

CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid)

Searching for new particles using magnetic field 100,000 times stronger than that of earth.

Scientists: 2,000-plus

SOURCE: CERN