Department of Energy grant to train students at the interface of high energy physics and computer science

To truly understand our physical world, scientists look to the very small, subatomic particles that make up everything. Particle physics generally falls under the discipline of high energy physics (HEP), where higher and higher energy collisions — tens of teraelectronvolts, or about ten trillion times the energy of visible light — lead to the detection and characterization of particles and how they interact.

These collisions also lead to the accumulation of inordinate amounts of data, and HEP is increasingly becoming a field where researchers must be experts in both particle physics and advanced computing technologies. HEP graduate students, however, rarely enter graduate school with backgrounds in both fields.

Physicists from UW–Madison, Princeton University, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst are looking to address the science goals of the HEP experiments by training the next generation of software and computing experts with a 5-year, ~$4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, known as Training to Advance Computational High Energy Physics in the Exascale Era, or TAC-HEP.

“The exascale era is upon us in HEP and the complexity, computational needs and data volumes of current and future HEP experiments will increase dramatically over the next few years. A paradigm shift in software and computing is needed to tackle the data onslaught,” says Tulika Bose, a physics professor at UW–Madison and TAC-HEP principal investigator. “TAC-HEP will help train a new generation of software and computing experts who can take on this challenge head-on and help maximize the physics reach of the experiments.”

Tulika Bose

In total, DOE announced $10 million in funding today for three projects providing classroom training and research opportunities in computational high energy physics to train the next generation of computational scientists and engineers needed to deliver scientific discoveries.

At UW–Madison, TAC-HEP will annually fund four-to-six two-year training positions for graduate students working on a computational HEP research project with Bose or physics professors Keith Bechtol, Kevin Black, Kyle Cranmer, Sridhara Dasu, or Brian Rebel. Their research must broadly fit into the categories of high-performance software and algorithms, collaborative software infrastructure, or hardware-software co-design.

Bose’s research group, for example, focuses on proton-proton collisions in the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) at the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The high luminosity run of the LHC, starting in 2029, will bring unprecedented physics opportunities — and computing challenges, challenges that TAC-HEP graduate students will tackle firsthand.

“The annual data volume will increase by 30 times while the event reconstruction time will increase by nearly 25 times, requiring modernization of the software and computing infrastructure to handle the demands of the experiments,” Bose says. “Novel algorithms using modern hardware and accelerators, such as Graphics Processing Units, or GPUs, will need to be exploited together with a transformation of the data analysis process.”

TAC-HEP will incorporate targeted coursework and specialized training modules that will enable the design and development of coherent hardware and software systems, collaborative software infrastructure, and high-performance software and algorithms. Structured R&D projects, undertaken in collaboration with DOE laboratories (Fermilab and Brookhaven National Lab) and integrated within the program, will provide students from all three participating universities with hands-on experience with cutting-edge computational tools, software and technology.

The training program will also include student professional development including oral and written science communication and cohort-building activities. These components are expected to help build a cohort of students with the goal of increasing recruitment and retention of a diverse group of graduate students.

“Future high energy physics discoveries will require large accurate simulations and efficient collaborative software,” said Regina Rameika, DOE Associate Director of Science for High Energy Physics. “These traineeships will educate the scientists and engineers necessary to design, develop, deploy, and maintain the software and computing infrastructure essential for the future of high energy physics.

Higgs @ Ten: UW–Madison physicists’ past and future roles

Ten years ago, on July 4, 2012, the CMS and ATLAS collaborations at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN — including many current and former UW–Madison physicists — announced they had discovered a particle that was consistent with predictions of the Higgs boson.

In the ten years since, scientists have confirmed the finding was the Higgs boson, but its discovery opened more avenues of discovery than it closed. Now, with the LHC back up and running, delivering proton collisions at unprecedented energies, high energy physicists are ready to investigate even more properties of the particle.

cover of an issue of Physics Letters B, with data plots of the Higgs discovery in the foreground and a background aerial shot of CERN
The Higgs discovery was published in Physics Letters B and received the cover

“The Higgs plays an incredibly important role in particle physics,” says Kevin Black, who previously worked on ATLAS before joining the UW–Madison physics department and is now part of CMS. “But for being such a fundamental particle, for giving mass to all elementary particles, for being deeply connected to flavor physics and why we have different generations of matter particles — we know a relatively small amount about it.”

Finding the Higgs particle had been one of the main goals of the LHC. The particle was first theorized by physicist Peter Higgs (amongst others, but his name was forever associated with it) in the 1960s.

“The basic idea was that if you just had electromagnetic and strong interactions, then the theory would have been fine if you just put a mass in by hand for the elementary particles,” explains Black. “The weak interaction spoils that, and it was a big question at the time of whether or not the whole structure of particle physics and of quantum field theory were actually going to be consistent.”

Higgs and others realized that there was a way to make it happen if they introduced a new field, which then became the Higgs field and the Higgs particle, that can interact with all other matter and give particles their mass. The Higgs particle, however, eluded experimental observation, leaving a gap in the Standard Model. In retrospect, one of the difficulties was that the mass of the Higgs — around 125 GeV — was much larger than the technology at the time could reach experimentally.

In earlier generations of experiments, UW–Madison physicist Sau Lan Wu participated in searches using the ALEPH experiment that placed a strong lower bound on the mass of the Higgs boson. Also at UW–Madison, Duncan Carlsmith, Matthew Herndon and their groups participated in searches at the CDF experiment that placed an upper bound on the mass of the Higgs boson and saw evidence of Higgs production in the region of mass where it was finally discovered.

Wesley Smith holds a large electronics board full of circuits and wires
Wesley Smith shows the electronics of the trigger system which led to the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Smith led the team that designed and developed the trigger system.

This research set the stage for the experiments that were perfectly designed to discover the Higgs boson: the world’s most powerful hadron collider, the LHC, and the most capable pair of high energy collider experiments ever built, CMS and ATLAS.

The UW–Madison CMS group had three major projects: the trigger project led by Wesley Smith (now emeritus faculty), and the end cap muon system led by Don Reeder (now emeritus faculty) and Dick Loveless (now emeritus scientist), and a computing project led by Sridhara Dasu, who is current head of the group. Having made essential detector contributions, the UW–Madison CMS group, including Herndon, moved on to Higgs hunting and the discoveries. The group, now bolstered by the addition of Black and Tulika Bose to the physics department faculty, continues the work of understanding the Higgs Boson thoroughly.

The UW–Madison ATLAS group, founded and led by Wu, is an important leader of Higgs physics. The group is fortunate to attract another important leader of ATLAS, Higgs physicist Kyle Cranmer, who recently joined UW–Madison as physics department faculty and the director of the American Family Data Science Institute.

Both CMS and ATLAS announced the discovery, made separately but concurrently, in 2012. When it was first discovered, it conformed to expected energies and momentum of the Higgs, but finding it in this rare decay mode was unexpected, so LHC scientists called it the Higgs-like particle for a while.

a group of very happy scientists pose for a shot, all holding a printout of the same graph
The UW–Madison ATLAS group at CERN at the time of the Higgs discovery all celebrated with printouts of the data confirming 5sigma. | Provided by Sau Lan Wu

Wu recalls her and her group’s involvement in a recent essay published in Physics Today:

At 3:00pm [on June 25, 2012], there was a commotion in the Wisconsin corridor on the ground floor of CERN Building 32. My graduate student Haichen Wang was saying loudly, ‘Haoshuang is going to announce the Higgs discovery!’ Our first reaction was that it was a joke; thus when we entered Haoshuang’s office, we all had smiles on our faces. Those smiles suddenly became much bigger when we got to look at the result of Haoshuang’s combination: It showed the 5.08s close to the Higgs mass of 125GeV/c2. Pretty soon, cheers were ringing down the Wisconsin corridor.

ATLAS had a discovery!”

The Higgs-like announcement from ten years ago has since been confirmed to be the Higgs particle. Several years later, Dasu’s group’s work saw the Higgs decay into the tau, and provided the first evidence of the particle coupling to matter particles, not just to bosons.

a screenshot of a newspaper front page, with an artistically-rendered photo of 5 key scientists involved in the Higgs discovery
Sau Lan Wu and other Higgs scientists were featured on the cover of the New York Times for a story about the chase for the Higgs boson.

On the ten-year anniversary, both ATLAS and CMS collaborations published summaries of their findings to date and future directions. Experimental questions still being addressed include continuing to measure higher-precision interactions between the Higgs and particles it has already been observed to interact with, and detecting previously-unobserved interactions between the Higgs and other particles.

“One big question that immediately comes to my mind is the mass problem. The breakthrough generated by the Higgs discovery was that elementary particles acquire their masses through the Higgs particle,” Wu writes in her Physics Today essay. “A deeper question that needs to be answered is how to explain the values of the individual masses of the elementary particles. In my mind, this mass problem remains a big topic to be explored in the years to come.”

“Another one of the big things that we’re looking for in future data is to understand Higgs potential,” Black says. “Right now, by measuring the mass, we’ve only measured right around its ground state, and that has great implications for the stability of our universe.”

Also on the ten-year anniversary, CERN announced that the LHC — which had been shut down for three years to work on upgrades — was ready to again start delivering proton collisions at an unprecedented energy of 13.6 TeV in its third round of runs. It is expected that the ATLAS and CMS detectors will record more collisions in this upcoming run than in the previous two combined.

The LHC program is scheduled to run through 2040, and the UW–Madison scientists who are part of the CMS and ATLAS collaborations will almost certainly continue to play key roles in future discoveries.

UW–Madison’s current CMS collaboration members include Kevin Black, Tulika Bose, Sridhara Dasu, and Matthew Herndon, and their research groups. Current ATLAS collaboration members include Kyle Cranmer and Sau Lan Wu and their research groups.