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Hunting for Cosmic Clues in Quantum Wreckage

Prof. Larkoski wins award for outstanding contributions to quantum chromodynamics.

By Ian Buckman ’18 | January 31, 2018

Prof. Andrew Larkoski [physics 2016–] has won the 2017 Wu-Ki Tung Award for outstanding contributions by an early-career researcher for his work on quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the study of the mysterious “strong force” which binds inconceivably tiny particles together into larger particles called hadrons, which include protons and neutrons.

Prof. Larkowski won the award for a technique he developed called “soft drop declustering,” which helps scientists sift through data produced by the CERN Large Hadron Collider, the largest particle accelerator in the world. As its name suggests, The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, works by smashing hadrons together at extremely high speeds, generating reactions which can answer questions about the fundamental building blocks of our universe.

However, as Larkoski explains, not all of these reactions are useful. He compares his work to that of a detective investigating a car crash: when cars collide at high speeds, they shower debris all around the crash site, and the overabundance of scattered pieces makes it harder for the detective to find vital clues. Likewise, when hadrons collide, the result is a myriad of extraneous reactions, and this “debris” often obscures the interactions that hold the important clue.

Larkoski’s award-winning technique focuses in on the important reactions like a detective’s magnifying glass, sorting out low-energy reactions from high-energy ones, which are more likely to yield experimentally significant results. Larkoski often teams up with Reed students to conduct research—last year he published a paper with his thesis advisee Kaustuv Datta ’17.

When asked about the best part of working with Reedies, Larkoski responded “their fearlessness.” As he explains it, theoretical physicists naturally take on a lot of “baggage” over their careers, picking up assumptions and identifying problems which can sometimes limit their perspective. Reedies just beginning their journey in the world of physics, on the other hand, have yet to accumulate this baggage, and so often come up with interesting or unique ways to approach big problems.

The award honors the late Wu-Ki Tung, a pioneer in the field of QCD. Tung is known for using the parton model, a way of conceptualizing hadrons that has proven particularly useful for analyzing interactions in high-energy proton collisions. He is also renowned for founding the Coordinated Theoretical-Experiment Project on QCD, a unique partnership of theoretical and experimental scientists which has been active since 1992.

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