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Full Speed Ahead

By Charles Spencer

Travis Volz CERN

When Travis Volz ’14 was a student back home in Whitehall, Montana, he would sometimes hear an abstract number—the national debt, say—and find himself calculating how far that amount in pennies would stretch into the solar system. 

Calculating the miles that the physics and math major has traveled this year would yield some pretty interesting numbers as well. After a trip home for spring break, he flew from D.C. to Russia as part of a 14-day concert tour with the AU Chambers Singers. (He’s a baritone who also plays piano and the French horn.) He then returned to D.C. before embarking for Switzerland for a nine-week National Science Foundation-sponsored summer research and study trip to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, organized by George Mason University. 

Not a bad itinerary for a young man whose only previous trip out of the country had been a jaunt across the border to Canada when he and his family lived on a dairy farm in Michigan.  

Chatting on campus just before the trip to Russia—in fact moments after he’d been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa— Volz acknowledged that his family was proud of his accomplishments and his upcoming trip to CERN.  

“It’s funny,” he says. “When they tell people, either [people] know what it is and say that’s pretty cool, or they’ve not heard of it and [my parents] have to explain— and then, ‘Oh, it’s in Switzerland, oh wow.’”

The CERN particle collider—essentially a huge series of magnets and scientific gear arrayed inside a 27-kilometer–circumference underground ring, as well as smaller rings and a linear accelerator —pushes beams of particles to velocities approaching that of the speed of light. At key sensor points the beams collide, allowing scientists to study subatomic particles in a quest to solve important gaps in the Standard Model theory of physics, such as the existence of dark matter and the apparent absence of antimatter in the universe. 

CERN made headlines last year when scientists there apparently ended a long and costly investigation by identifying a particle that is strongly indicated to be a Higgs boson, which would indicate the Higgs field, an explanation of how particles gain their mass. Confirming that the particle was indeed the Higgs boson of the Standard Model would go a long way toward bolstering the model. 

The huge collider has six installed experiments. Volz worked on one of them, the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), which employs 2,000 researchers from some 180 institutes. The CMS detector has a huge superconducting solenoid that generates a magnetic field 100,000 times as great as Earth’s. CMS has several missions, among them investigating the Higgs boson; supersymmetry, which balances bosons and fermions (comprising elements such as quarks); and extra dimensions. 

A few weeks after arriving in Switzerland, Volz described his life at the scientific complex: attending morning lectures on such topics as CERN operations and the Standard Model; hanging with his super-smart roomy (he can solve Rubik’s Cube in about 30 seconds) and other fellow students; hiking and biking around Lake Geneva; spicing up picnics with Nutella, salami, and Pop-Tarts; learning a simulation program called Garfield; laboriously testing the cables attached to the CMS detectors; studying for the GRE. And more hiking and biking. 

The trip, as he explains, also had another attraction: helping him figure out what he wants to do with his life. “So this experience is a very important step in my education and life,” he says. After returning from CERN in August, Volz took still another plane trip, this time back home to Montana before the start of fall semester to spend a couple weeks with his family, who share his interests in science and music. (Both sisters excel in the subjects and consistently stand out in state music competitions; his mother earned a master’s in mathematics at the University of Texas; and his father studied dairy technology at Michigan State.) 

Asked whether he considered himself a cowboy, having grown up in Montana from age nine, he laughs. “I’ve been on cattle drives and ridden horses,” he says, “but I like four-wheelers better. You can control them more.”