Columbians Gather After-Hours for Higgs Particle News from Geneva
Some 75 Columbia faculty members, post-docs, students and friends gathered in Low Library at 3 a.m. Wednesday to experience one of the biggest developments in particle physics, watching a live feed from Geneva where news was announced of the discovery of a new sub-atomic particle—quite possibly the long-elusive Higgs boson.
As the scientists speaking for two key research projects at the CERN Large Hadron Collider laid out their findings, applause erupted and corks popped in Faculty Room, at what has been called a physics pajama party.
“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 Physics Professor Michael Tuts, who toasted the news with colleagues culminating years of research.
Tuts is the U.S. program manager for the Atlas project at CERN, one of the two to report consistent findings about the fundamental particle that has been the focus of this research by a global physics consortium.
"These are preliminary results and we should be cautious," said Tuts. "Now the hard work begins to see if this really is the Higgs and, if so, what kind of Higgs it is. I think that’s the work that’s going to go on over the course of this year at least."
The Higgs boson is the essential part of the Standard Model of Physics, a nearly 50-year-old theory that explains how the universe works at the subatomic level and provides the solution to the mystery of why objects have mass. It suggests that electricity, magnetism, light and some radioactivity are all part of a single underlying force, which is held together by an invisible force field called the Higgs field, a “molasses-like” substance that holds everything together, and gives it mass.
The Higgs boson, however, has remained the elusive piece of the puzzle.
Experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, the 17-mile-long atom-smasher buried deep in a tunnel below the Franco-Swiss border, have been conducted to determine whether the Higgs boson shows itself amid the resulting subatomic pandemonium.
In April, a group of Columbia scientists gathered to discuss the conundrum in a World Leaders Forum titled “What if we find the Higgs Particle? And what if we don’t?” The discussion included Tuts and Brian Greene, a professor of Mathematics and Physics. It was moderated by Physics Professor Amber Miller, who is also Columbia’s Dean of Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Researchers first theorized the Higgs boson in the 1960s. It is named for Peter Higgs, a professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh who was one of several physicists who theorized its existence.
Now, with indications looking positive, they expect to soon find enough evidence to demonstrate once and for all whether Higgs exists. “If this is true, we should be able to build an experiment that proves it,” said Miller. “There’s no reason to think it should exist except that theorists have cooked it up. That makes it risky, but also profound. We are looking for something that will only exist if theories are correct.”
“If they find it, it will confirm ideas that have been on the table for 30 to 40 years,” said Greene, who believes the experiment presents a win-win situation. “It’s purely mathematical, this idea that space is filled with this substance. If they can crack a little piece off, it will be an amazing confirmation of the power of math to light the way. And it’s amazing if they don’t find it, because it will tell us this idea is wrong, and force us to go back to the drawing board.”
Scientists have long known that everything has mass, and understood the properties of particles, but still have not been able to explain where mass comes from. As Miller explained, the search for Higgs is not only an opportunity to understand how nature works, but also how science itself works.
At the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN scientists from 38 countries and 175 institutions conduct experiments that smash proton beams, or hadrons, into each other at nearly the speed of light. Tuts described ATLAS as “a microscope for studying the subatomic world.” The device is so large that it would fit snugly inside Low Library.
The team is using ATLAS to take millions of pictures of these collisions, hoping to detect the Higgs, with experiments running throughout 2012. The evidence they seek is repeated indications of a “bump” in the data at a particular mass indicating the existence of the Higgs.
Tuts explained that they will be continuing to analyze data and “when we can be certain enough, we’ll announce our findings.” When an audience member asked why scientists pursue something that may not exist, especially given the expense, Professor Tuts explained, “By doing cutting edge research, we push the boundaries of technology. Basic research is the engine that drives technology. And 20 or 50 years from now, the basic research we are doing will continue to impact technology.”
Greene added that such experiments can inspire young people to pursue science, and that if the researchers prove that Higgs exists, it will just be beginning. “This is a new kind of matter that will have been discovered for the first time,” said Greene, “a particle with characteristics unlike any other.”
He added that he hoped post-Higgs research would lead to more ways to “link up the physics of the very small with the physics of the very large,” joining particle physics with cosmology, for example, looking at the Big Bang as the largest particle accelerator ever.