Matthias Danninger named Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in experimental particle physics

PHOTO: Josh Gordon / Unsplash

Written by: Alex Masse, Staff Writer

Matthias Danninger is one of several new Canada Research Chairs elected in 2020 from SFU, who will receive funding for their ongoing work. Danninger’s official title is Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in experimental particle physics, where he partakes in the ongoing ATLAS experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). 

Through the ATLAS experiments, Danninger and his colleagues hope to look into the past of our universe, with a particular focus on “why matter prevailed over antimatter in the early universe, or what exactly dark matter is.” This includes looking for signals of long-lived particles and other “unconventional exotic signals.”  

The process involves taking protons, energizing them, and forcing them to collide. Through these experiments, “unprecedented” levels of energy are created. These collisions are then analyzed in hopes of finding particles that can be studied, particles that “poke holes into that standard model” of particle physics used today, in hopes of finding new particles beyond it. Through these collisions, the LHC creates environments similar to the early universe, in hopes of recreating the particles that existed at that time.

“We are trying to understand nature, we try to understand the building blocks of nature and that is just fascinating,” Danninger said. 

Danninger’s academic journey, as he put it, “is a long one.” His studies began in Munich in general physics, with a final undergraduate course highlighting neutrino physics. “The way the course was taught was a little bit less traditional,” he said. “The assignment was you [giving] a one-hour long seminar about one specific special topic.” Danninger chose the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, where he ended up working for his Masters and PhD. 

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is an Antarctic telescope that hopes to detect neutrinos, known as “ghost particles” for their low interaction rate, which makes them hard to track. The IceCube is the largest neutrino detector ever built. 

“IceCube was such a bizarre experiment — let’s call it — to be at the South Pole,” he said.

“I was always interested in particle physics, and maybe nuclear physics.” He added, “This kind of flipped the coin by itself, sort of. I just got excited, and I thought ‘man, [studying this] would be amazing, to build an experiment at the South Pole.’” 

While there are four current experiments underway at the LHC, the ATLAS detector experiment is “even bigger,” according to Danninger. It is one of the collider’s two major experiments, employing approximately 3,000 scientists. Danninger started at SFU for his postdoctorate, and continues to teach at the university.

“For me it’s a job, it’s kind of if you’re doing your hobby, what you’re excited about, and trying to understand the universe, the origins of the universe [ . . . ] we are able to study this, and I am able to do this as my job.”