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Understanding the Moments after Creation

Assistant Professor of Physics Julie Hogan takes students to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland to learn more about particle physics.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

December 14, 2018 | 3 p.m.

Assistant Professor of Physics Julie Hogan at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland.

Assistant Professor of Physics Julie Hogan at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland.

“Forget molecules. Forget atoms. Those are all humongous. We’re looking at individual, fundamental particles,” says Assistant Professor of Physics Julie Hogan, visibly excited about the work she does searching for new supermassive particles in one of the premier scientific collaborations in the world. “We’re working in an international collaboration with thousands of other people and really asking ‘what is new out there that we’ve never thought of before, that we’ve never had a model to describe?’”

After earning a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) grant this summer, Hogan is more directly connecting Bethel students with the global science community. The Research in Undergraduate Institutions grant, totaling $208,260, will fund Hogan’s project, “Digging Deep for New Physics with the CMS Experiment.” This is Bethel’s sixth NSF grant and it will fund Hogan’s project through the summer of 2021.

Hogan’s research continues an international search for new types of particles using the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a general-purpose detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland. Scientists aim to reproduce, in a lab setting, “conditions similar to what was common in the universe about a trillionth of a second after creation,” says Hogan. Her research group will analyze collision data from the CMS Experiment for evidence of new particles, using newly-developed deep computer learning algorithms that will help them search for more and more massive particles.

Assistant Professor of Physics Julie Hogan explains her work and its connection to CERN in Switzerland.

The opportunity is one that connects the Department of Physics and Engineering with some of the top scientists in the world and elevates the research being done at Bethel. "One of my jobs is to get students excited about physics,” says Hogan. “This is a real branch-out for the department in terms of the type of research we do here. I’m the first particle physicist on the faculty, and this is the type of experiment whose impact will last for a really long time. We're doing fundamental research on the energy frontier, and it could literally shape our understanding of the particles and forces that make up our universe.”

In summer 2018, Hogan traveled with math and physics double majors Sam Johnson ’19 and Greta Knefelkamp ’18 to CERN and also to Paris. There Johnson and Knefelkamp presented results of a deep-learning study as some of the only undergraduate students at BOOST, a workshop focused on similar analysis techniques in particle physics.

Assistant Professor of Physics Julie Hogan and physics and mathematics double majors Sam Johnson ’19 and Greta Knefelkamp ’18.

Assistant Professor of Physics Julie Hogan and physics and mathematics double majors Sam Johnson ’19 and Greta Knefelkamp ’18.

Hogan explains that CERN was founded in the 1950s to help restore relationships across Europe and encourage scientists to participate in research together after World War II. In 1993, the scientists at CERN couldn’t share large amounts of data efficiently, so the World Wide Web was developed. CERN has a history of uniting the world’s top scientists, both to engage in ground-breaking research but also to improve collaborative practices that have implications far beyond their work.

“It felt very cool to be a part of something so big—you say you’ve worked at CERN, and everybody knows what that is,” says Knefelkamp, who first came to Bethel as a PSEO student and fell in love with the study of physics in Keith Stein’s General Physics course. When she realized the tight-knit, research-oriented nature of the department, she was sold. She says being at CERN has been a dream of hers ever since she found the field of particle physics.

“God created this world in such a unique way that there’s something interesting for every brain. We’re never going to understand the whole universe…He engrained this puzzle into the world, and I think that shows that God cares about each of our interests. It’s very exciting.”

— Greta Knefelkamp ’18, math and physics double major

“There’s such a sense of accomplishment that comes with that—there were Nobel Prize winners eating in the cafeteria with me! At my age, it was difficult to feel well-enough equipped to be there—especially as a woman, because we’re not well-represented,” Knefelkamp adds. “I felt like a minority in some ways, but I also still felt like I could contribute. Bethel has equipped me very well to be able to hold my own in that setting.”

Johnson agrees, adding that doing particle physics at that level animated his curiosity in a way that classes can’t. And doing research of this kind—connected to how the universe developed right after its creation—also solidified his faith in a unique way.

“We’re never going to know everything about the universe. And the more I learn about physics, the more I realize that there are just too many details that line up and point to a Creator,” says Johnson, who plans to go to graduate school after graduation. While academic questions—like how vector-like quarks behave and what that means—interest him, his faith also gives him an additional lens through which to view his work. “It really seems impossible for all of this to have happened by chance,” he says.

Knefelkamp adds that at CERN, she and her Bethel colleagues were likely in the minority as people of faith. That wasn’t a stumbling block, but simply gave them a deeper appreciation for what they were learning. “God created this world in such a unique way that there’s something interesting for every brain,” says Knefelkamp. “We’re never going to understand the whole universe…He engrained this puzzle into the world, and I think that shows that God cares about each of our interests. It’s very exciting.”

Physics and Engineering at Bethel

There has never been a better time to study physics or engineering at Bethel. The department—which ranks in the top 15 largest undergraduate physics departments nationally—underwent an expansion and renovation in 2017. New majors include Computer Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and Software Engineering. Students entering the department’s growing degree programs for Fall 2019 are encouraged to apply for the Physics and Engineering Program Scholarship.

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