September 16, 2008
Scotland’s Role in the Search for the Origins of the Universe Scientists Working on the Large Hadron Collider Hail Spin-Offs for Cancer Treatment and the Successor to the Worldwide Web Scientists Working on the Large Hadron Collider Hail Spin-Offs for Can
By EDD McCRACKEN
EDINBURGHTHE technology used in the search for the "God particle", which got under way in Switzerland last week, should have radical implications for how cancer is treated in Scotland, according to one of the top scientists involved in the project.
Professor Peter Clarke, head of the University of Edinburgh's Institute for e-Science and a particle physicist, said the technological advances used in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), combined with the knowledge of physicists in Scotland, means the country could lead the UK in developing Hadron therapy.
"There could and should be an advanced radiation treatment centre in Scotland, " said Clarke. "The LHC spin-off is that some of our simulation programmes can be used in real time to simulate patient doses."
Traditionally, radiotherapy damages a tumour and the healthy tissue around it. Hadron therapy, however, targets protons directly at the cancer, leaving surrounding cells relatively unharmed.
It is a standard procedure in Europe, but unavailable on the NHS.
"England could clearly do this, " he said.
"My guess is it chooses not to because of the enormous momentum needed to get change in a country the scale of England and in the NHS. So its attitude to Hadron therapy is to send people to France, which I think is disgusting.
"Scotland is like Switzerland and Canada in terms of population. It is small enough so it doesn't suffer with inertia. I believe if the will was there, from the Scottish parliament down, with some amount of direction in policy and funding, Scotland could take an initiative in Britain with Hadron therapy. We have the expertise in Scotland."
Professor Anne Glover, chief science adviser to the Scottish government, said the willingness of Scottish universities to pool their expertise in such areas as physics, bio-science, and engineering puts them at a huge advantage for developing Hadron therapy technology.
"Here's a great example for how we can use the cross- disciplinary research that has proved so fruitful in the past, " she said. "It is a real possibility we could be getting that treatment to a point where it can be used and take advantage of the experiments at Cern [the European Organisation for Nuclear Research]. I think we could be optimistic."
One of Clarke's offices is in Edinburgh University's King's Buildings, just several doors away from where particle physicists made one of the key components of the LHC: the hybrid photon detector.
When the experiment smashes protons together at 0.999998 times the speed of light, the resultant shattered particles fl y around the chamber, passing through 484 of the University of Edinburgh's inventions.
The hybrid photon detector works out what kind of particles were produced in the collision. It is a vital cog in the search for the elusive Higgs Boson - the God particle - the reason why everything has mass and the main reason for the GBP5 billion project in Geneva.
The University of Edinburgh, like the University of Glasgow, has a 15-strong team of particle physicists who will be sifting through the raw data produced by LHC experiments searching for evidence of Higgs Boson, dark matter, and other mysteries that until last week appeared out of mankind's reach.
"When I was an undergraduate they were talking about the LHC, " said Dr Phil Clark, a lecturer in physics at Edinburgh and one of the team. "And now 15 years later it has finally materialised. We're quite lucky to be here at the right time to be sitting on this data."
As well as the potential advancement of cancer treatment, particle physicists in Edinburgh believe the HLC could have other spin-offs.
"Many of the techniques used to keep the machines running at Cern are directly applicable to what you need for fusion, which could be the massive saviour in our search for new, clean energy sources, " said Clarke.
Another less obvious spin-off could be a new breed of stockbrokers. According to Clark, the chaotic patterns generated when protons collide are similar to the rhythms of the stock market.
"The analysis techniques used to find this small event among a noisy large background can be used in many other fields, including finance, " he said.
"Many people have gone on and worked in the city. When a similar experiment to the HLC in the US stopped, a lot of them went to New York, and there's now a think-tank of particle physicists on Wall Street."
PROFESSOR Tony Doyle from the University of Glasgow didn't get much sleep on Tuesday night. As technical director of the Grid, the lightning-fast system linking up 100,000 computers around the world, the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern was the moment the potential successor to the world wide web came of age.
By the end of last week there was a steady stream of raw data coming from Switzerland, turning the map of the Grid green on Doyle's screen.
"We got data from the first event in the Atlas detector, " he said, referring to the search for the Higgs Boson. "It lit up the detectors. It was an amazing day for us. " The University of Glasgow is playing a vital role in the UK's contribution to the world's biggest experiment. It is Britain's leading area for Grid computing .
"We started in 1999 on this, " said Doyle. "We happened to be a footstep ahead of everyone, and that footstep ahead subsequently meant we advanced better UK-wide. From 2000 we were building that up over this period in preparation for the LHC."
The Grid's total disc capacity is more than 30 petabytes (one petabyte is 1000 terrabytes). The UK will provide 15per cent of the computer resources needed by the LHC experiments.
"That's the killer application, " he said. "That's when you need a computing system which is distributed all over the world. It has huge computing and data requirements. There aren't usually many cases where you need to scale up at this level. Of course, the benefit is if you have one large infrastructure, everyone can use it ."
Data from the experiments will be sent to institutions around the world, including Glasgow and Edinburgh, for particle physicists to sift through, looking for the Higgs Boson.
Doyle said it was "like panning for gold".
"To find the Higgs Boson you have to find a one-in-a-trillion type search, " he said. "So it's a very deep and complex problem to do that kind of filtering, involving comparing simulated models with the real data. And where you see differences is where you'll hopefully find the gold you are panning for. " The University of Glasgow worked on the main silicon detectors in the LHC, in the heart of the Atlas experiment.
Next month, when head-on proton collisions start and the experiments begin in earnest, Doyle and the Grid will be ready to start panning.
Originally published by Newsquest Media Group.
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