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What Is A Particle Physics Experiment?

The word "experiment" often makes people envision a scientist in white lab coat and goggles walking into the lab, pouring some test tubes into each other, and then walking out - and the experiment is done.

A modern particle physics experiment is nothing like that. This "experiment" requires years of design and planning, research and development, and finally construction of a particle accelerator that is miles long and a particle detector the size of a house. Read all about it on the BABAR detector page.

Construction of the accelerator and detector is followed by years of colliding particles together and collecting data from many billions of collisions. The properties of these collisions are analyzed by the members of the international collaboration that built and operates the experiment. Hundreds or thousands of data analyses are typically performed, each focusing on a different aspect of the physics being studied or using different parts of the data. Data analysis projects are done very carefully, typically reaching publication quality only after a period of months or years.

Particle physics experiments typically run for several years or even decades, during which the experiment undergoes various improvements and physicists continuously publish the results of the research performed with it. The long-running periods are often needed in order to collect the large numbers of collision events that are necessary for the discovery of very rare processes.

Much of the research at a particle physics experiment such as BABAR is conducted by graduate students. Each student gains experience in different aspects of physics research and writes a M.Sc. or Ph.D. thesis on this research.

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