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Summer travel plugs into faculty research

UB physicists Avto Kharchilava and Ia Iashvili and their son, Giorgi

UB physicists Avto Kharchilava and Ia Iashvili and their son, Giorgi, spent time this summer in Georgia, the Eastern European country where the couple’s son was born and where they still have family and friends.


Published September 6, 2012

Giorgi Kharchilava

Giorgi Kharchilava stands in front of a mockup of the Large Hadron Collider tunnel showing the string of magnets. The photo picture was taken at the Microcosm exhibition at CERN.

For many UB faculty researchers like Avto Kharchilava and Ia Iashvili, physicists and natives of the Eastern European country of Georgia, international travel isn’t a one-time sabbatical adventure or extension of their U.S. research; it’s an integral part of their lives year-round.

This summer was no exception. Kharchilava and Iashvili, who are married, and their son, Giorgi, had a packed itinerary, bouncing from the Netherlands in June to Melbourne, Australia, and Georgia in July, and then to Geneva, Switzerland, before heading back to Buffalo for the start of the school year.

“We were born in Georgia and try to visit our parents, relatives and friends there almost every summer,” Kharchilava explains of their July vacation, which included relaxing in the mountains and served as a much-needed break between their professional gigs.

In Melbourne, the couple participated in the 36th International Conference in High Energy Physics (ICHEP 2012), a series of conferences held every other year in various countries that Kharchilava describes as “the most important events in our field of research where the current state of particle physics, particle astrophysics and cosmology are discussed.”

The highlight of this year’s ICHEP trip was the announcement of a new subatomic particle that resembles the elusive Higgs boson, a particle that, if it existed, would explain one of nature’s biggest secrets—why objects have mass.

When the particle’s discovery was announced July 4 at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) facility in Geneva, Switzerland, it was broadcast live to research labs and universities around the world. CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the world’s largest particle accelerator, designed to replicate the Big Bang and reveal subatomic particles like the Higgs boson.

Kharchilava and Iashvili have been working for years with research teams at CERN to plan and build the LHC’s Compact Muon Solenoid detector (CMS), a massive device that uses magnetic fields to conduct a wide range of physics experiments.

Kharchilava, who called the announcement of the particle’s discovery “breathtaking,” watched it unfold from the Melbourne Convention Center, where he gave a talk about Higgs particles as part of the ICHEP conference.

On July 12, Kharchilava and Iashvili left for Georgia to work with physics colleagues and take their long-awaited vacation. From there they traveled to Geneva, where the CMS team’s observations of the Higgs particle culminated in the July 31 publication of what Kharchilava proudly calls “one of the most important papers for many decades.”

During their stay, Kharchilava and Iashlivi skipped the usual leisure activities; the particle discovery was just too exciting and hectic. Like many scientists who work on large international teams, Kharchilava says, they only dropped in for a few days, ready to work. “There is virtually no time needed for adaptation—we come and are immediately at task,” he says.

Luckily, he and Iashvili are familiar with the CERN facility and its surrounding neighborhoods, where they lived in the 1990s before moving to the U.S. in 2000.

“Geneva, and especially CERN, is probably the best place to work in particle physics these days,” Kharchilava adds. The couple calls the city an “exceptional place in every sense,” on par with other places where they’ve spent extended time, including Berlin, Hamburg, Strassbourg and Chicago.

An Arctic summer

Also traveling this summer was Jason Briner, associate professor of geology, who visited Greenland and remote parts of Alaska as part of his ongoing research to study climate and glacier changes in the Arctic.

Briner specializes in exploring Earth’s frozen regions; he’s been to Alaska, Arctic Canada, Greenland and Norway. Each place has a different feel, he says. Alaska is all about the wildlife, and it’s buggy and stereotypically rugged. Baffin Island in Arctic Canada, where Briner has done extensive geological work, is “extreme, remote, spectacular and raw,” replete with polar bears and long hours of daylight.

Briner has visited Greenland since 2008 and sees it as a home base for his climate research. He left the U.S. for his annual trek in early August. “Although it can be harsh if there is bad weather, summer is relatively mild and pleasant,” he says.

When Briner’s team is stationed in the western region, team members pass through a logistical hub for National Science Foundation researchers in a town called Kangerlussuaq. This July, during a surprisingly fast melting of the vast Greenland Ice Sheet, most of the ice disappeared in less than a week. Two nearby rivers fed by a glacier at the end of the ice sheet filled with meltwater and flooded the area, washing away major roads and bridges.

Briner was still in Alaska at the time, but shared some startling YouTube videos of the destruction and was eager to catch up on this major geological phenomenon.

“I’m amazed. I would have supposed that these types of extreme events will become more common, but that melt episode was totally extreme. I don't think there is any hint of that kind of thing happening before in the historical records.”

From August to November last year, Briner spent his first sabbatical in residence at the University of Bergen in Norway. His enthusiastic account of the trip reads like a travel guide, from his field studies in the southern region (a rich agricultural area he describes as “majestic” and great for car camping), to his travels to North Norway, called Svalbard, which was “stark and beautiful,” and full of amazing sea life. He hopes to return to collaborate again with his new Scandinavian colleagues.

Like some other UB faculty, Briner and his colleague, associate professor of geology Beata Csatho, often bring undergraduate and graduate students with them on international trips. In the field and back at the lab, professors and students form lifelong relationships, and together they can take their research further than either could do alone.

“For my program, off-campus research is key,” Briner says. “The work forms the basis of my graduate student theses. Having students visit the Arctic makes for a fantastic introduction to the discipline and is an ideal situation to teach the concepts. The inspiration one gets from these visits has lasting effects.”

UB physicists Avto Kharchilava and Ia Iashvili and their son, Giorgi

For many UB faculty researchers, international travel isn’t a one-time sabbatical adventure or extension of their U.S. research: It’s an integral part of their lives year-round.

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