Research Spotlight: CERN scientists close in on Higgs boson

An event showing four muons (red tracks) from a proton-proton collision in ATLAS. This event is consistent with two Z particles decaying into two muons each. Such events are produced by Standard Model processes without Higgs particles. They are also a possible signature for Higgs particle production, but many events must be analyzed together in order to tell if there is a Higgs signal. (Image courtesy of CERN.)

In a giant game of hide and seek, physicists say there are indications they finally may have found evidence of the long sought after fundamental particle called the Higgs boson.

Researchers at Switzerland-based CERN, the largest high-energy physics experiment in the world, have been seeking the Higgs boson since it was theorized in the 1960s. The so-called “God” particle is believed to play a fundamental role in solving the important mystery of why matter has mass.

Thousands of scientists from around the world seek evidence of the Higgs particle through experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. The researchers analyze a flood of electronic data streaming from the breakup of speeding protons colliding in the massive particle accelerator. Scientists on Tuesday announced in a seminar held at CERN that they’ve found hints of the Higgs.

SMU physicist Ryszard Stroynowski“Now we have a strong indication, but not yet a confirmation, of a discovery,” said SMU physicist Ryszard Stroynowski (left), the leader of SMU’s team of scientists working on the experiment.

Theorists have predicted that some subatomic particles gain mass by interacting with other particles called Higgs bosons. The Higgs boson is the only undiscovered part of the Standard Model of physics, which describes the basic building blocks of matter and their interactions.

Higgs bosons, if they exist, are short-lived and can decay in many different ways. Just as a vending machine might return the same amount of change using different combinations of coins, the Higgs can decay into different combinations of particles. Discovery relies on observing statistically significant excesses of the particles into which they decay rather than observing the Higgs itself.

“If indeed we are able to confirm sighting of the Higgs in the months ahead, this clearly focuses our future studies,” said Stroynowski, a professor in the SMU Department of Physics. “Now by the middle of next year we’ll know for sure if this particle exists and we can begin to study its properties. This is a very big step in the understanding of particle physics.”

Besides Stroynowski, the SMU team of researchers includes three other Physics Department faculty: Jingbo YeRobert Kehoe and Stephen Sekula, six postdoctoral fellows and five graduate students. Main contributions to the new analysis of the data were made by postdoctoral researcher Julia Hoffman and graduate student Ryan Rios.

Others in the department who have contributed include former postdoctoral fellow David Joffe, now an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University, graduate students Renat Ishmukhametov and Rozmin Daya and theoretical faculty Fredrick Olness and Pavel Nadolsky.

Stroynowski, Hoffman, and Rios are among the more than 70 scientists whose work directly contributed to the conference papers reporting the findings, said Olness, a professor and chairman of the SMU Department of Physics. While thousands of scientists worldwide participated directly and indirectly in the experiments, SMU is one of only a few U.S. universities whose scientists are named among the 70 researchers directly cited on one of the three conference papers.

“SMU’s role in the LHC experiments provides our students a chance to participate in pioneering discoveries,” Olness said. “SMU students helped build the ATLAS detector, they were in the control room when the experiment started up, and they contributed to the analysis. The results presented today are historic, and they will help shape our view of the matter and forces that comprise our universe; SMU students have played a role in this achievement.”

SMU's Ryszard Stroynowski and Ryan Rios

In Fondren Science Building, physicist and SMU Physics Professor Ryszard Stroynowski and physics graduate student Ryan Rios discuss the Higgs boson after viewing a CERN web cast Tuesday announcing evidence of the Higgs. (Photo by Hillsman S. Jackson.)

Discovering the type of Higgs boson predicted in the Standard Model would confirm a theory first put forward in the 1960s.

“This year, the LHC has come roaring into the front of the hunt for the Higgs boson and may be poised to either identify it, or refute its existence, in the coming months,” said Kehoe, associate professor in the SMU Department of Physics. “As I like to tell my students learning modern physics, ‘You still live in a world in which we do not know for sure the mechanism breaking the symmetry between electromagnetic and weak interactions. That world may be soon to change forever. We may soon see a truly new thing.’”

– Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

About Kathleen Tibbetts

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