Researchers in the UK are gearing themselves up for an influx of help. Forty thousand people have already run the LHC@home program on their home or office computers, to help scientists discover the secrets of matter and this week researchers at Queen Mary, University of London, officially launched the new base for LHC@home, which has moved from CERN, the European particle physics laboratory in Geneva.

LHC@home is a collaboration between CERN, the Helsinki Institute of Physics, the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, Queen Mary University of London and TRIUMF in Vancouver.

It distributes an accelerator simulation program called Sixtrack, and volunteers then download different sets of parameters to simulate particles circulating in the accelerator under different conditions, uploading the results every time a simulation is completed. When they sign up, users can also opt for their computer to run other projects, such as modeling climate change or controlling malaria, during gaps in LHC analysis.

Dr Alex Owen, who runs the project in the UK, explains, “Like its larger cousin, SETI@home, LHC@home uses the spare computing power on people’s desks. But rather than searching for aliens, LHC@home models the progress of sub-atomic particles traveling at nearly the speed of light around Europe’s newest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).” The LHC, currently under construction at CERN, is due to start operation in 2008.

For the LHC to crash these tiny particles together inside its cathedral-sized detectors, more than 9000 magnets around its 27km circular tunnel have to be aligned precisely. LHC@home runs a program that simulates bunches of protons traveling around the ring up to a million times, to make sure their orbits are stable and the particles don’t hit the walls. So far, users in more than 100 countries have contributed the equivalent of about 3000 years’ on a single computer to the project. Lyn Evans, head of the LHC project, says that, “the results from this initiative are really making a difference, providing us with new insights into how the LHC will perform”.

LHC@home, an international collaboration involving five institutes in Europe and Canada, is now managed by physicists from the GridPP project in the UK. Neasan O’Neill works for GridPP and explains, “We started trial running LHC@home from a computer server in the UK in June, and have spent the last few months working with the physicists who use the data it produces. Now, with the official launch of the UK base for the project, we’re ready to fully exploit this fantastic resource.”

UK scientists also have plans to use LHC@home for other types of particle physics computing. Sifting through the 15 million gigabytes of data a year that will pour out of the LHC to look for telltale signs of new fundamental particles is beyond the scope of ordinary home computers.

This is why a worldwide computing Grid with dedicated high-speed networks and huge data storage and processing capacity is needed, and 17 UK universities and research centres are contributing computing capacity to this Grid. But other important tasks, like modeling how different parts of the particle detectors operate, can be distributed to volunteers.

In this way, people around the world can help particle physicists in their search for signs of the elusive Higgs particle, and contribute to a potentially Nobel-Prize-winning discovery.

- Science and Technology Facilities Council