Unlocking the Universe

Unlocking the UniverseA lucky group of Houston-area high school students got a sneak-peek at the particle collider in Switzerland that had the whole world talking about big bangs and black holes. They chatted with Nobel laureates and toured an underground scientific marvel that could help physicists unlock the origins of the universe.

It was all part of a University of Houston outreach program in which physics faculty at the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics take some of the brightest science students in Houston to the frontiers of matter, energy, space, and time.

Through UH's involvement in QuarkNet, an international program for high school physics students and their teachers, the physics department works with high schools in the Houston area to expose students to cutting-edge research.

In April 2008, two teams of students from Pasadena, Texas, were selected by QuarkNet to travel to Switzerland to get a rare look at the recently constructed particle collider in Geneva. The student teams were among only six selected nationwide.

The students were accompanied by physics department chair Larry Pinsky and Robert Dubois, a visiting assistant professor of physics who coordinates the department's outreach efforts.

The Geneva facility, built by a consortium of European nations, is the largest and highest-energy particle accelerator in the world. The April event attended by the students was the only glimpse the public will get into the inner workings of this billion-dollar project.

Students got a peak at technology that could tackle some of the most profound questions of the universe, Dubois said. Experiments at the collider could shed light on the physics of the universe at the time of the Big Bang, he said. 

"The students were totally awestruck," Dubois said. "They were rubbing elbows with Nobel laureates."