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Argonne National Laboratory

Scientists seek to understand the physical world through fundamental studies of our universe

From a history-making quartet of lightbulbs powered by nuclear energy to discoveries enabled by the one of brightest light sources in the Western Hemisphere to insights into the dark corners of the universe, 75 years of Argonne research have produced breakthroughs that have changed our society and made our lives safer, healthier and more prosperous. This article is part of a 75th anniversary series describing Argonne’s history of discovery, current science program and future research thrusts.

This visualization using Argonne’s supercomputing resources shows the large-scale structure of the universe as a thin slice through the full simulation (lower left) and zoom-ins at different levels. The lower right panel shows one of the largest structures in the simulation. (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Since its early days, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has embarked on studies of our universe from the subatomic to the galactic. In 1963, Argonne’s Zero Gradient Synchrotron (ZGS) came online. The nation’s first proton accelerator for conducting high-energy physics research, ZGS was also the first user facility at a national laboratory. After the addition of a hydrogen bubble chamber to the ZGS in 1970, Argonne scientists used the chamber to study a subatomic particle called the neutrino. This experiment marked the first use of this method for studying the particle, adding to our understanding of the neutrino and the Standard Model of particle physics, which attempts to explain what the universe is made of (in terms of the nature of matter) and how it operates (in terms of fundamental forces).

Today Argonne plays a major role in the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, the flagship high-energy physics experiment in the United States, led by the DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab. Argonne is also part of the international collaboration for the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider, located at CERN in Switzerland. The ATLAS collaboration co-discovered the last fundamental constituent of the Standard Model, the Higgs boson, in 2012.

Argonne has put its DOE Office of Science user facilities — including the Center for Nanoscale Materials, the Argonne Tandem Linac Accelerator System and the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility — at the forefront of cosmology and nuclear and high-energy physics to probe the fundamental nature of energy and matter. Argonne researchers are building on core activities undertaken throughout the last decade, including efforts to establish computation-based discovery in the study of dark matter and dark energy, given that regular matter accounts for only about five percent of what we observe. Understanding the nature of the remaining 95% high-energy physics dark matter and dark energy high-energy physics remains one of the biggest scientific quests of our time, and Argonne researchers are actively engaged in their identification.

Argonne is also at the forefront of studying the fundamental building blocks of the visible universe, one composed primarily of protons, neutrons and the nuclei they constitute. These subatomic particles are further composed of quarks and gluons. It is one of the many surprising aspects of particle physics that even though quarks carry a small amount of mass and gluons are massless, when confined, they can, together, account for the mass of protons and neutrons. Scientists at Argonne continue to study the complicated interactions of quarks and gluons in particle physics and determine whether they play a role in the dark matter that dominates mass in the universe. The next generation of experiments will soon be focused on the Electron-Ion Collider at the DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, where Argonne will also play a key role.

Argonne researchers are also modeling the universe’s expansion from 50 million years after the Big Bang to the present, as well as fabricating advanced detector components in a cutting-edge cleanroom environment that will be integrated with a telescope located at the South Pole that can see” cosmic microwave background radiation from the universe’s earliest moments. This radiation provides a signature residue left over from the Big Bang.

Additionally, scientists are readying for the Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST), carried out with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, to begin observations soon. LSST will capture a continuous stream of images and generate massive datasets of roughly half the visible sky every night to map the billions of objects in the visible universe. To help prepare for data arrival, Argonne scientists have made crucial contributions to the generation of a simulated LSST-like sky survey to enable early testing of analysis capabilities. The laboratory’s activities in cosmological surveys and simulations, accelerator-based science and low-background-radiation experiments will pave the way to a deeper understanding of how our universe formed, reveal what matter actually consists of and give insight into the often paradoxical physical world.