On New Year’s Day, Professor of Physics Greg Landsberg will begin a two-year term as Compact Muon Solenoid Physics Coordinator at the Large Hadron Collider on the border of France and Switzerland. According to James Valles, chair of the physics department, the position is one of the top four at the LHC.
In a telephone interview from Geneva, Landsberg compared his new role to that of a cabinet member — involving both oversight and “nuts and bolts.”
The European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its European acronym CERN, built the LHC — a 27 kilometer-long particle accelerator — to reconstruct the conditions shortly after the Big Bang to study dark matter.
Physicists understand about 5 percent of the universe, Landsberg said. The LHC “is very well posed to answer the question about the 25 percent” of the universe from dark matter. He said scientists are hopefully “sitting on the verge of very fundamental discoveries about the very nature of space around us and the universe which we live in.”
The University will grant Landsberg a sabbatical for the two years, during which time he will continue to attract and work with graduate students. Brown has been very supportive of the new job, he said.
The promotion “speaks very good volumes” of the physics department, which supports “people working at the frontiers,” Valles said. While other faculty members have taken high positions outside the University, “for an active research position, this is as high as I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Valles said.
Landsberg was appointed by Joe Incandela, spokesperson-elect for CERN and a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, with consideration from others in the collaboration. Landsberg was picked for his knowledge, experience and willingness “to roll up his sleeves and do whatever it takes,” Incandela wrote in an email from Geneva.
In the classroom
At Brown, Landsberg teaches PHYS 2610F: “Special Topics in Collider Physics.” Carlos Hernandez-Faham GS said he is taking the course in large part because of Landsberg. Landsberg, who is on Hernandez-Faham’s thesis committee, is “a great teacher” who “really knows what he is talking about,” he said.
“Just because of working for him for a couple of months, I’ve surpassed all my classmates that are at the same level,” said Zeynep Demiragli GS, who is advised by Landsberg. “He trusts you in doing work … so that you start getting your hands dirty right away,” she said.
The two students agreed that Landsberg is not easily fooled by attempts to cover up a lack of understanding.
“You just have to be very honest with him. If you don’t know anything he’ll figure it out,” Demiragli said. “You can’t outsmart him in any way. It’s kind of scary.”
“If your voice quivers, he will sense it,” said Hernandez-Faham.
Compared to other professors, Landsberg is more “intense” than most and “doesn’t really hold back,” Hernandez-Faham said. “That’s a good thing in this field.”
Landsberg did not tell either student about his promotion.
The position of physics coordinator for an experiment of LHC’s scale requires both scientific knowledge and strong leadership skills.
Meenakshi Narain, professor of physics, has worked with Landsberg at the LHC. Landsberg’s new position comes out of his “great insight in trying to mine the data … and to be able to extract whichever discoveries await us at the LHC,” she said.
Landsberg’s role will be to “maximize the discovery potential of the data we’ve collected until now, and we will collect in the next year or two.”
But his vision will face challenges and demand strong leadership for success. CERN is “extremely competitive” and requires “the properties of a leader,” Narain said. “You have to be a good listener, and you have to be a good negotiator, and you have to have a vision as a scientist.”
David Cutts, professor of physics, said Landsberg is responsible for bringing a team from Brown to CERN. Landsberg made it a priority to position Brown as a leader at the project.
Landsberg is recognized for “looking into ideas of physics beyond the standard model … the well understood structure of particle physics,” Cutts said.
Landsberg has acted as a leader in the past. “He’s been very important, and I think recognized by the collaboration in his ability to have a good overview of the different analyses and to be helpful and instrumental in enabling them to move forward,” Cutts said.
Landsberg’s promotion both brings attention to the physics department and connects to previous research done by faculty members. In 1964, Gerald Guralnik, professor of physics, was part of the team that predicted characteristics of the Higgs Boson — a subatomic particle believed to have existed soon after the Big Bang.
Now, Landsberg will head a team trying to recreate and study this yet unseen phenomenon.
A previous version of this article gave an incorrect title for Meenakshi Narain. She is a professor of physics. The Herald regrets the error.