Torrence and the Machine

Professor Eric Torrence, reclining

Professor Eric Torrence, reclining

A UO physics professor balances his life in America with his work at the Large Hadron Collider

by Ben Stone

Eric Torrence seems to be sitting at his computer. If you passed his office, you would see a reclined man in a black fleece and corduroys, gazing at a screen full of numbers. You wouldn’t know that this data represents the world’s most cutting-edge effort to understand the properties of the universe. You wouldn’t know that, because of this data, Torrence will soon leave his family for two years. You would simply see a tired professor, waiting until it’s time to go home.

But he’s in no hurry. Torrence is at ease in his fourth floor office, overlooking the concrete chasm of Willamette Hall. He hasn’t exactly made the room his own—besides small portraits of his wife and children and neat stacks of technical documents, the only personal object is a small box with a green screen that looks like it was once used to detect something rare and complicated. The only thing not understated about Torrence is his long grey goatee, which, judging by pictures, he has maintained for more than a decade. As he talks, he stares calmly down at his desk in focus.

Forty percent of the time, Torrence is a physics professor at University of Oregon, a job he (repeatedly) says he loves. Several of Torrence’s former students say that he makes this passion very clear. “He still had a lot of care and concern for us understanding what he was talking about,” says junior Cole Lendrum. “Even though I knew these concepts were the most elementary thing to him.”

The other 60 percent of the time, Torrence works for ATLAS, a 3,000-strong group of physicists from around the world with pretty modest goals.

“Fundamentally, what we want to know is what the universe is made of at its most fundamental scale, and the rules that govern what holds it all together,” he says.

ATLAS tackles these problems inside the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland. The Collider is a particle accelerator—a huge underground tubular machine that scientists from around the world use to slam together protons at speeds close to the speed of light, 600 million times per second. The LHC made headlines in 2012 when physicists discovered proof of the Higgs boson (dubbed the “God particle” by some), which explains how particles like protons have mass.

“The Higgs discovery was the first time in a really long time that there really is something major and new that has come along,” Torrence says. “To have the opportunity to be a part of that at a very insider level…it could be sort of a career-defining moment.”

The volume of data that LHC detectors create during experiments is so mind-bendingly large that cloud computing was originally developed as a way of managing it. So, for the past three years, Torrence has had the mystical job title of “luminosity convener,” which means he is responsible for understanding how much data the machine is creating. And it is through his conclusions that physicists at the LHC can determine the probability of certain events and determine whether fundamental physics theories are incomplete.

Back in the office it’s time for work. With a flick of the wrist Torrence logs onto an online archive of data from the Collider. He scrolls smoothly through a numbingly deep webpage of raw numbers, graphs, and 3D representations of collision data. Torrence pulls up a 3D dissection of some sort of exploded neon tube, which he explains is a “candidate of a Higgs decaying to a pair of tau leptons.” He smiles.

“Yeah, this looks nice.”

Torrence examining a visual representation of a “candidate of a Higgs decaying to a pair of tau leptons”

Torrence examining a visual representation of a “candidate of a Higgs decaying to a pair of tau leptons”

The data Torrence is looking at was collected from the LHC’s past couple years of experimentation. The LHC shut down this February for the next two years so that technicians can fix all of the faulty connections around the circular tube of the collider that have prevented the Collider from running at its full energy capacity. In October, Torrence will move to Geneva for the next couple of years in order to act as the coordinator of data preparation during the renovation. And this is where the surreal, transcendently important world of high-energy particle acceleration collides with real life. In Eugene, Torrence has a wife and kids, the oldest of whom is just entering high school.

“Basically, my family is going to stay here, and I’m going to leave them and go do this thing. So that’s a little harsh,” Torrence says quietly. “It’s been a big topic of discussion around our family.”

Torrence says these discussions have made him seriously question what he’s doing, though he has worked his entire life to get where he is. “It’s like if you ask somebody, was it really worth running for president?” he says.

Regardless of whether he is glad or not, Torrence is running. And come October, he will be with his Italian and Swiss physicist buddies, spending lunchtime above the LHC discussing the developments that will forever change the way we understand the universe. Torrence looks up for a rare moment.

“We are taking data that’s really in a new regime that nobody, at least on this planet, has ever looked at before,” he says.

And without a word, but with a slight smile, Torrence swivels back to his screen, and back to the numbers.

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