Less than two months ago, the Large Hadron Collider — a particle accelerator located in a 17-mile tunnel beneath Switzerland and France — set the world record for the highest-energy particle collision. Many physicists believe the feat marks a significant step forward in discovering the origin of all mass in the universe.

A three-day conference hosted by The Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics recently brought together theorists from around the world to discuss the next step in finding the elusive particle known as the Higgs boson.

Aaron Pierce, University professor of physics and co-organizer of the spring symposium, described the Higgs boson as the particle which, among other things, is theorized to give mass to all other subatomic particles, such as electrons and protons.

“The Standard Model is a spectacularly successful theory that explains most of what we know about particle physics so far,” Pierce said. “There is one piece missing, and that one piece is a particle called the Higgs boson.”

Pierce added that physicists have long been unable to explain that photons — particles responsible for electricity and magnetism — are massless while other particles with a definable mass are capable of facilitating processes like radioactive decay. The Higgs boson, he said, could resolve the mystery.

James Wells, who is also a University professor of physics and co-organizer of the symposium, said the conference provides a timely response to the recent developments at the LHC.

“It’s the first time in history that we’re able to get direct experimental access to what gives mass to elementary particles,” he said.

Wells said that as an institution that has “traditionally been extremely strong in particle physics,” the University of Michigan is a key player in the discussion of the Higgs boson. He added that the University’s strong global reputation makes it an ideal forum for researchers to collaborate and share ideas.

Joey Huston, a physics professor at Michigan State University, was one of more than 60 conference attendees. Huston, who said he communicates with his team in Geneva at the LHC, added that he also collaborates with theorists from the University of Michigan to interpret data from the LHC in Switzerland and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory based near Chicago.

“We’re exploring a new energy range (at the LHC), and whenever that happens you almost always find something unexpected,” he said. “It’s not the case that if we produce one of these Higgs bosons that a siren goes off or a bell starts ringing. It’s very tricky to do the kind of analysis to be able to say that we definitely have it.”

Huston,who was given a bottle of champagne as a gift for delivering lectures at Fermilab, said the LHC particle collision in March was an important milestone — one worth celebrating. Though the data collected in the next few years will be critical to the search for the Higgs boson, the total amount of information will dwarf the initial findings, he said.

“Right now, (researchers at the LHC) are taking things slowly and cautiously, increasing the intensity of the collisions as they start to understand the machine better and better,” he said.

Huston said he believes the data collected over the next decade may not only uncover the truth underlying the Higgs boson but also provide insight into other physical dimensions not normally perceived in everyday life.

Pierce echoed Huston’s sentiments, adding that the work being done at Fermilab and at the LHC could answer some of the fundamental questions long asked by physicists.

“People are explorers, and we have a long history of exploring,” Pierce said. “This is part of that history. We’re trying to understand more about the Universe around us, asking some basic questions (about) how it all works.”

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