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Physics professors analyze discovery of God Particle

Austen Hufford/Daily
Physics professors speak about the discovery of the HIggs boson particle on Wednesday. Buy this photo

By Ian Dillingham, Daily Staff Reporter
Published December 5, 2012

The fourth-floor Rackham Amphitheatre was filled to capacity on Wednesday night as panelists and the University’s physics community gathered to discuss one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of modern physics: the Higgs boson.

Nicknamed the God Particle, the Higgs Field, proposed by Peter Higgs and other scientists in the 1960s, provides an explanation for why subatomic particles, such as quarks and electrons, have varying masses. The theory states that particles interact with the field in varying degrees, leading to differences in masses.

The particle was discovered at the ATLAS lab of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland last summer. The LHC is part of the larger European Organization for Nuclear Research, also known as CERN.

The Higgs boson is considered the smallest manifestation of the Higgs Field and is extremely difficult to detect, even at the LHC. Only one in a billion particles produced resembles a Higgs particle. The large numbers of undesired results are referred to as “background” events, which must be separated before the data can be analyzed.

Additionally, the few Higgs particles produced decay after approximately one-billionth of a second. The decayed particles take on three different forms, requiring three unique approaches by physicists to measure their presence.

Physics Prof. Gordon Kane, the director emeritus of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics, presented a general background of the Higgs research and its impact on the Standard Model — an overarching set of principles that define the majority of physical interactions in the universe.

“The long term goal of particle physics is to understand as well as we can the laws of nature,” Kane said. “The discovery of the Higgs boson is the last step in completing the Standard Model.”

An announcement this July said a CERN lab had detected a “Higgs-like particle,” but more analysis of the data is required before a confirmed result can be published.

In the 1980s, the University was a key proponent of a U.S.-based supercollider, an experimental device used to test particle theory. The project was initially approved by the Bush administration, but halted in 1992 after funding was canceled.

Physics Prof. Homer Neal discussed the proposal and subsequent demise of the project.

“The supercollider is basically just a big microscope,” Neal said. “We needed a machine in the mid-80s when we were ready to start working at smaller distances and higher energies.”

Several of the panelists expressed their belief that the U.S.-based supercollider would have made the discovery of the Higgs particle long before the recent discovery by the CERN laboratory in France and Switzerland.

“If it were on schedule, they would have turned it on in 1996 and found it within the first year,” Kane said.

At the time of its discontinuation, the project had already spent $2 billon and constructed 15 miles of underground tunnels in Texas. Neal said University researchers, many of whom took sabbaticals to help with the facility’s design, were distraught at the project’s death.

“Most of our faculty were just outraged that our country would cancel the (supercollider),” Neal said. “Many swore they would not join a large project like this again.”

Through personal negotiations and meetings, Neal said many faculty members were eventually convinced to return to their work at the University.

Recently, U.S. involvement in the European LHC is threatened due to the recent closure of the Tevatron Collider outside of Chicago, also prompted by a lack of funding. Historically, American access to CERN has been contingent upon equal European access to this facility.

“A lot of Europeans use that machine, so it was okay for us to use the CERN facilities — we presumed some sort of balance there,” Kane said. “It’s a whole new ballgame now.”

Regardless of the lack of U.S. funding, the panelists all acknowledged the significance of the discovery for the larger physics community.

Jay Chapman, a professor emeritus of physics, delivered a portion of the presentation titled “Physics in the Extremes,” in which he discussed the large scale implications of the project and precise nature of the measurements and findings.

“We’re looking for the smallest things known to man with the largest device ever built,” Chapman said.

Chapman also noted the difficulty in organizing such a massive international project, with contributions coming from 173 institutions in 40 different countries.

“We have to coordinate 3,000 people collectively and in a common direction,” he said. “There are a lot of very big egos, but there’s an immense amount of talent.”