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February 9, 2006 - What will your $200 digital camera have in common in 2007 with Geneva-based CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory? A digital image processor—though the one in your camera is very different from the one being built for Switzerland’s CERN by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Physics. And while your 4 x 2 x 1-inch camera may contain a DIGIC II or a Venus Engine Plus processor that’s suitable for processing 5 megapixel images, the Regional Calorimeter Trigger, once completed, will be able to handle four trillion bits of data per second—and will be composed of hundreds of custom-designed circuit boards, each over one foot square, built into crate-like racks 8 to 9 feet tall.
That’s hardly portable, but it doesn’t need to be. The Regional Calorimeter Trigger is a component of a detector on the aptly named Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerator—or "atom smasher," though strictly speaking, the experiments will involve subatomic particles—over 5.3 miles in diameter. The accompanying massive image processor has an equally massive price tag of US$6 million, and it has taken more than 20 people over 5 years (and counting) to construct.
The Regional Calorimeter Trigger will process incoming image data from the aftermath of proton collisions that encompasses a window of time lasting for not even two billionths of a second (or less than two nanoseconds). The device will be receiving image data from an event every 25 nanoseconds; part of its function is to monitor the collisions and save data from collisions it determines to be of potential interest.
The Department of Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says that the processor is specifically designed to look for evidence of the Higgs Boson, an as-yet theoretical particle that conveys the properties of an as-yet theoretical field (the Higgs field) that could explain the phenomenon of why particles have mass. Until now, no processor has been quick enough to catch any evidence of the supposedly fast-decaying Higgs Boson; its existence was first proposed in the 1960s by the University of Edinburgh’s Peter Higgs, when digital processing power was still extremely limited.