October 8, 2013

University researchers integral to Nobel-winning theory

The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to the two scientists, François Englert and Peter Higgs, who created the theory that supports the idea of the Higgs boson, the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences announced this morning. While neither man is UChicago-affiliated, the contributions of numerous scientists at UChicago helped inform the process of discovering the so-called “God particle” last year.

According to a University news release, six UChicago physicists participated in the ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) collaboration, a group which conducted key experiments that proved the particle’s existence. In addition, researchers at Argonne National Laboratory built much of the equipment used in the experiments.

A number of University students assisted the physicists throughout the experiments. Some worked on assembling the equipment at the Enrico Fermi Institute on campus, while others tested and analyzed data at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland, the hub for the experiments.

Researchers at Fermilab were part of CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid), another group of experiments which contributed to the particle’s discovery. Both Argonne and Fermilab are University-operated laboratories affiliated with the Department of Energy. Joseph Incandela (B.S. ’81, M.S. ’85, Ph.D. ’96), a professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the scientific spokesman for the CMS collaboration—yet another University connection to the project.

Ian Foster, the director of UChicago and Argonne’s Computation Institute, helped make it possible for all of the scientists working on the project to easily share information and tools. He contributed to the invention of grid computing, which provides a secure network to transfer large amounts of online data, an integral step in allowing all of these scientists to work on finding the particle.

The UChicago affiliates form part of a group of nearly 2,000 U.S. scientists and countless others who work with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN facility.

The particle, sometimes nicknamed the “God particle,” is considered a monumental discovery because it may provide scientists with the secret to understanding how particles acquire mass, which can explain the formation of everything in the universe.

“Finding the Higgs represents one of the biggest, if not the biggest, achievements in high-energy physics in the past several decades,” Argonne physicist Tom LeCompte said in the news release.

Last October, physics professor Mark Oreglia, who worked on the ATLAS experiments, explained in a campus lecture that the discovery “completely transforms particle physics” but that it “does not answer all the questions.”