Probable discovery of Higgs Boson illuminates some areas of physics, brings more questions to others

When J.J. Thomson discovered the electron in 1897, he birthed a decades-long quest that inspired thousands of scientists to search for the elementary particles of the universe. It gave rise to the Standard Model, essentially the theorized periodic table of elements for particle physicists.

The discovery of the Higgs-like boson, to some physicists, means the end of an era. The Higgs boson, named after theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, is the last missing piece of the Standard Model, which accounts for the electromagnetic, weak and strong forces in the universe. But to University faculty who have been a part of the search for the Higgs boson, discovering this final piece is only the start to understanding the universe.

That search may have ended July 4. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research based in Geneva, announced its finding of a particle resembling the Higgs boson — the elementary particle responsible for making the universe come together.

Since 1994, the University has played a vital role in the manufacture of the Large Hadron Collider detector used by CERN for data acquisition, data analysis and further study in the ATLAS experiment, which sought evidence of the Higgs boson. Professor Steve Errede and his wife, Deborah, joined the University in the 1990s, when Congress shut down plans for the Superconducting Super Collider, which was to be the world’s largest and most energetic particle accelerator.

That’s when they began to build the Scintillating Tile Hadron Calorimeter — TileCal for short — for the ATLAS detector in Geneva, hiring “an army” of undergraduate students to help assemble the massive structure.

“One day, people showed up with 100 crates of steel unannounced, and we had to scramble to find a place for it. It worked out to 10 linear miles of steel covered in grease,” Steve Errede said. “Then there was the sanding it down and stacking it, and that took three years.”

The installation of the calorimeter was an enormous undertaking, but sifting through the data and having the computing power to analyze the data was another matter entirely.

Professor Mark Neubauer’s research developed the “trigger system” used in collecting and selectively recording data from the ATLAS detector.

He, in collaboration with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications launched the University’s Tier 2 computing center to process and share a portion of the 15 petabytes of data generated by the LHC annually.

Before working on the ATLAS experiment, the Neubauer lab was working at Fermilab’s Tevatron particle accelerator located just outside Batavia, Ill., before it was shut down in late 2011. Though it was unfortunate the Tevatron was shut down, the technology and advanced techniques developed there were ported over to the LHC. The issue, Neubauer said, was that significant data points could easily seem minute without using the right analytical methods.

“It’s not like we produce a bunch of Higgs and then go in and collect them. We’re looking for a little blip of a signal,“ he said. “It’s not just like looking for a needle in a haystack. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack of needles.”

Professor Tony Liss, who contributed his efforts to the muon system, which detects the states of decay of the Higgs boson, said it is very likely, however, that the identified particle may not be the Higgs boson, but a Higgs boson. There are several models, which may predict several types of Higgs bosons, so the Standard Model may not necessarily be the right one.

To Neubauer, it would be almost more exciting if it’s not the Higgs — because if it were, it would mean the end of this era of particle physics. Still, the Standard Model only explains a facet of the universe, as there are two major areas of elementary particles that are still mysteries: dark matter and dark energy.

“If we have the Higgs boson and it matched the Standard Model, we still have hope that we can still discover some new physics in some other way because the Standard Model really is incomplete,” Neubauer said.

The elementary particles — bosons, leptons, etc. — theorized by the Standard Model are one way of understanding luminous matter (everything that lights up in the sky). But luminous matter only makes up a small fraction of the universe, leaving 96 percent of the universe to uncover.

First is the concept of dark matter, Neubauer explained, which is only partly understood because of the existence of Einstein rings. When objects are out in space, they warp light that travels past it. Einstein rings are the relics of light from a distant galaxy being warped around a dark matter object located between us and that galaxy, and they indicate that dark matters exists.

Second is a concept that is much less understood: dark energy. It is well-established in the scientific community that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, and what it believed to be behind the phenomenon is something much like a negative force: dark energy. Dark energy, much like dark matter, is entirely unexplained by the Standard Model. But it’s the discovery of what may be the Higgs boson that is inspiring physicists to look further into the depths of the universe to explain these occurrences.

“What we’re trying to do is, at a very fundamental level, understand how the universe comes together and how it is today. This particle is absolutely fundamental,” Liss said.

Liss took part in finding the top quark, another part of the Standard Model, about 15 years ago. The Higgs particle, however, is entirely different, he said. The Higgs boson, which is the quantum unit of the Higgs field, is what explains how certain particles acquire mass and, essentially, describes how it is that matter comes together and is not flung out into space.

“The discovery of the Higgs is, to me, a ‘yes,’” Errede said. “This field that is hard to get your head around, that exists everywhere, we’re all immersed in it. That’s new from a discovery perspective, it’s the true ‘aether’ of science.”