BU Shares Credit for Big Discovery of Small Particle
Physics professors, interns join Higgs hoopla at CERN| From Changing the World | By Susan Seligson. Video by Devin Hahn
Watch a video of Jeremy Love (GRS’08,’12), a former BU physics graduate student, talking about his work at CERN. Photo courtesy of CERN
Kelsey Bilsback had to pinch herself. Rarely do the arcana of particle physics dominate global headlines, but physics major Bilsback, an intern at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva, found herself among the physicists from around the world who were flying high after CERN’s confirmation on July 4 of evidence of a new subatomic particle that could dramatically advance our understanding of the universe.
With its faculty and graduate presence at CERN, Boston University has played a notable role in the collaborative effort that after half a century of experiments and analysis of unprecedented amounts of data has found a particle that could prove to be that subatomic Holy Grail known as the Higgs boson.
The elusive particle could provide the last ingredient in science’s working model of the universe.
Bilsback (CAS’13) is fortunate in many respects: BU is the only university to offer an academic-year undergraduate internship program at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the firmament of particle physics research. In the program’s three years of operation, 23 BU undergraduates have participated.
Kevin Black, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of physics, has been working on the LHC since 2005, three years before it was officially completed. “One thing I should point out,” Black says, “is that in ‘big science,’ there can often be 10, 20, or even 30 years between the conception, design, and execution of a successful experiment, many of which end in disappointment. When you get a big result—those are typically far and few between.”
Black reports that 83-year-old Peter Higgs, the University of Edinburgh professor emeritus who proposed the existence of the Higgs boson in the 1960s, was at CERN for the announcement and was in tears when he saw the data.
BU undergraduate interns at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva witnessed firsthand the July 4 announcement of a major discovery in particle physics. Photo courtesy of Lawrence R. Sulak
The LHC, a 16-mile underground vacuum tube lined with 4,000 of the world’s most powerful super-
conducting magnets straddling the Franco-Swiss border, is the flagship project of CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire), now officially called the European Organization for Nuclear Research, a joint venture recognized by the scientific community as the world’s largest particle physics center. The LHC can accelerate two beams of protons so they collide at close to the speed of light, creating explosions of particles similar to the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang. Researchers analyze the debris of the fleeting particles as they decay.
Exceeding its design specifications, the LHC computing grid has analyzed an unprecedented torrent of data to pick out Higgs-like events from the millions of collisions occurring every second. In fact, in the two weeks preceding the July 4 announcement, researchers analyzed about 800 trillion proton-proton collisions that had occurred over the last two years.
Lawrence R. Sulak, David M. Myers Distinguished Professor of Physics and director of BU’s internship program, who is on sabbatical at CERN, was among the 3,000 signatories to the research update that shook the world. “If the accelerator performs as anticipated, by the end of this run in February 2013, we hope to verify whether the new particle is the boson of the Standard theory,” says Sulak.
The theory Sulak refers to is the Standard Model of particle physics, for which Sheldon Glashow, Arthur G. B. Metcalf Professor of Mathematics and Science, shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics. Glashow’s theory has been extended by colleagues Andrew Cohen and Kenneth Lane, CAS physics professors, and Martin Schmaltz, an associate professor. The existence of the Higgs boson and the related Higgs field would provide the missing piece of the model and solve one of physics’ persistent mysteries—why some subatomic particles, like the quarks that make up protons and neutrons, have mass and others, such as electrons, are superlight.
Tulika Bose, a CAS assistant professor of physics and a 2012 Sloan Fellow, was also working at CERN. If the particle proves to be something more exotic than the Higgs boson, that would be “particularly exciting,” says Bose, “since it would revolutionize our current understanding of particle physics.”