Columbia Physicists Play Key Role in Higgs Particle Research

Andrea Retzky
August 27, 2012

More than 75 Columbia students and faculty erupted in cheers early in the morning of July 4 when researchers at the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva presented data showing the existence of a subatomic particle strongly suspected of being the Higgs boson—the elusive particle thought to give objects mass, which is at the center of the Standard Model of particle physics.

The announcement from CERN, the European council for nuclear research, carried special weight on Morningside Heights because 19 Columbia physicists, including professors Michael Tuts, Gustaaf Brooijmans, Emlyn Hughes, John Parsons, Brian Cole and William J. Willis, along with dozens of students and postdocs, played a key role in the research.

Tuts, who hosted an all-night viewing party in Low Library for the live announcement from Europe, is the U.S. operations program manager of the ATLAS project at CERN—one of four teams studying particles produced in the head-on collisions of protons at the 17-mile-long atom smasher buried deep in a tunnel below the Franco-Swiss border. He and several colleagues popped a bottle of Prosecco after the two-hour presentation, which prompted a standing ovation at CERN and made front-page headlines worldwide.

“It’s tremendously exciting with this being the last piece of the puzzle, the kind of holy grail that we’ve been looking at for a long time,” said Tuts. “Now the hard work begins to see if this really is the Higgs and, if so, what kind of Higgs.”

Columbia has been deeply involved in the ATLAS project since 1994, when it was first proposed. University researchers designed many of the electronic components in the detector, including the circuit boards, an example of which is on display in the lobby of Pupin Hall. Each of the more than 1,600 boards had to be tested at Columbia’s Nevis Labs before being shipped to Geneva, where Columbia scientists installed them and continue to play a lead role in their operation and maintenance.

“I am happy to say that our electronics are performing beautifully—a real testament to the talents of the team we assembled,” said Parsons. With so many of the University’s physicists involved, the Columbia team ranks among the largest from the 43 U.S. universities working on the project.

Emily Thompson, a Columbia postdoc based at CERN, spoke of the euphoria surrounding the announcement. “People camped out to be in the auditorium. We couldn’t get seats, so I watched the feed from CERN in my apartment in Geneva with friends.”

Among those present in the auditorium was Peter Higgs, a professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh for whom the particle was named. He and a few other physicists first predicted the existence of the particle in 1964. He had visited CERN in the past, Thompson said, sparking jokes among the researchers. “We might e-mail each other and say, ‘I found Higgs… in the cafeteria.’ But this was special,” she added. “He said he didn’t know that he’d live to see his discovery proven.”

The Columbia team will continue to analyze data from ATLAS to bolster the identification of Higgs and explore what else the collider might reveal, including the existence of other exotic particles and evidence of extra dimensions or black holes.

The Standard Model leaves many important questions about the universe unanswered. Physics Professor Brian Greene hopes that data from the accelerator will shed light on string theory, which seeks to incorporate Einstein’s theory of relativity into the Standard Model. In the days following the news he and Tuts appeared together on The Charlie Rose Show to explain the significance of Higgs.

Last spring they addressed the topic at a World Leaders Forum on campus moderated by fellow physicist and Dean of Sciences Amber Miller. Thompson says her family sometimes asks her to explain the real value of Higgs. “When you have scientific discovery and you fund research, in the wake of that comes technology,” she said. “No one knew what the space program would produce—like microwaves and heat-resistant tile—but technology exploded in that time.”

Tuts says the large turnout in Low Library in the middle of the night to hear technical talks from CERN underscores the historic nature of the event. “I hope the young students in the audience look at this and say, ‘Wow, these guys are asking really big questions about the universe, they’re finding answers, and maybe I could be one of them.’ They might be inspired enough to consider a career in science. And we desperately need that.”