OU professors, graduate students play role in Higgs boson discovery
AT A GLANCE
All over the world, physicists celebrated the discovery of a particle that could change their understanding of the universe, including OU faculty members involved in the project. The half-century quest for the Higgs boson particle may have finally come to an end.
The news wasn’t shocking for many of the high-energy experimental physics professors and graduate students, OU professor Brad Abbott said. The university has more than a dozen professors and students who are part of the ATLAS research project at CERN.
OU professors Brad Abbott, Patrick Skubic, Mike Strauss and Phillip Gutierrez work on projects for CERN — the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland — and Fermilab — the U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory located in Batavia, Ill., near Chicago.
There are 89 universities working on two major experiments — Atlas and CMS. The research to indicate the existence of the particle combines both experiments, Skubic said. He said it is the collaboration of multiple people from all over the world, and everyone is treated equally in the collaboration.
"The projects are so large, it makes it quite amazing — a cooperative effort from different countries," Skubic said.
OU faculty have been working on the project for 14 years and helped build parts of the detector used at CERN, as well as performed data analysis with supercomputers.
Skubic said the team performs experiments in campus labs in Nielsen Hall and at CERN at Geneva, Switzerland.
The Higgs particle is an important discovery because it verifies the Standard Model of Particle Physics, which predicted the existence of Higgs boson, Abbott said. According to the Standard Model of Particle Physics, the Higgs boson gives everything in the universe its mass.
The discovery is particularly important because it may allow physicists to understand the origins of mass, Gutierrez said. Gutierrez was at CERN a few weeks before the announcement. The findings were described to physicists, and Fermilab had complementary findings, he said.
“This is just the beginning," Gutierrez said. “Now we can try to understand its properties.”
ATLAS is a particle physics experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, according to the ATLAS Experiment website.
Physicists have been aware of the mounting evidence for the Higgs boson for some time, but the broadcast of the two independent experiments' results was momentous, said Carolyn Bertsche, physics graduate student.
“When ATLAS showed their final results, it was the most exciting moment I can think of in my research career,” said Ahmed Hasib, physics graduate student.
Scarlet Norberg, physics graduate student, has been at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland for the past two months. Norberg helps monitor detectors and does photon analysis at the lab.
“Having even a small impact on it is exciting,” Norberg said in an email. “When I have kids, I can tell them I was there for the announcement.”
This is an exciting time for physics graduate students interested in experimental high-energy particles, Hasib said. The discovery opens up opportunities for more theoretical and experimental research.
“This discovery gives us the satisfaction that all our efforts are not in vain and we are going in the right direction,” Hasib said.
Hasib said this discovery came at an important time for him. He will join other researchers at CERN in September to work on upgrading the ATLAS detector during its shutdown.
Bertsche said she hopes the publicity of the Higgs boson particle may bring more funding to high-energy particle research and grants for students seeking research positions.
“I’m chronically asked what the goal of particle physics is,” Bertsche said. “In true research, we often don’t know what we may discover, and that can lead to the most amazing discoveries.”
Bertsche said she hopes to move to the CERN lab in Switzerland early next year with her husband to do full-time research.
The international collaboration of more than 3,000 scientists, engineers and researchers from more than 80 countries is as amazing as the result of their collaboration, Gutierrez and Abbott said.
"This is the tip of the iceberg," Skubic said. "A starting point."
OU theorists Howard Baer or Chung Kao will be consulted to explain inconsistencies with the particle, Skubic said.
Skubic said scientists will continue to study the properties of the particle for the next several years to pin down its role in the standard model because there may be more than one.
"All the very basic knowledge that we will gain from this, hopefully, it will allow us to make further progress in understanding the forces in the universe," Skubic said.
Kendra Whitman contributed to this report.