University professors contribute to Nobel Prize-winning research

Three University professors saw their research validated when the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs for their theory of the Higgs boson particle.

Mark Neubauer, Steven Errede and Tony Liss, all professors of physics, participated in experiments that confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, a particle essential to understanding how matter gets its mass.

“For us it was very much a validation of all the efforts we’ve put in,” Neubauer said. “Not only did we analyze the data, which we did here at the University of Illinois, but we also contributed strongly to building parts of the detector, and, also, we end-processed the data.”

The professors participated in the ATLAS project, which was one of two working to locate the Higgs boson at CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. Errede began his work with ATLAS in 1994 when he and his wife helped build a major portion of the Large Hadron Collider, which was used to conduct the experiment.

The Large Hadron Collider accelerates protons, collides them together and creates foreign particles, Neubauer said. The ATLAS detector collects data from the collisions.

Prior to the Large Hadron Collider’s activation in September 2008, researchers believed they had seen every particle existent, except for one — the Higgs boson. Englert and Higgs theorized about the particle’s existence in 1964, and more theories appeared until the discovery of the Higgs boson last year.

“(The theories are) all descriptions of what theoretical physicists think could’ve happened,” Errede said. “But nature did what she did, and it’s up to us to figure out what the choice was. Some of them to me were very appealing, so it was rather a shock to discover that of all these possibilities, nature had selected what was proposed way back in 1964.”

Errede and Neubauer agree that the discovery was exciting and were able to share the excitement with University students. To facilitate the task of analyzing data, a large computing center for ATLAS was established at the University, allowing data from the discovery to flow through the University.

Physicists from all over the world come to use the computers at the University to analyze the data, Neubauer said.

“The Higgs discovery, in a lot of ways, was a culmination of all the work we had put in to build components of the detector, to build systems to monitor the quality of the data, to process the data at our computer site here at Illinois and also to analyze the data by our students,” he said.

Although Neubauer said it was a massive undertaking to contribute to the Higgs boson discovery, he and Errede are eager to see what advances in physics the discovery could lead to.

The Large Hadron Collider was shut off following last year’s discovery and will remain off until 2015 after it undergoes improvements. Once it is on again, Neubauer said they hope to continue research to determine if the Higgs boson they detected is really the particle the theory describes, look for additional Higgs bosons and look for other signs of new physics that may be revolutionary.

“We could be producing dark matter in our experiments, we could be producing extra dimensions, black hole production,” Neubauer said. “Basically, searching for new phenomena.”

Angelica can be reached at [email protected]