Biggest Bang: SMU Physicists Play Major Role In Particle Discovery

SMU Physics Professor Ryszard Stroynowski (right) explains the workings of ATLAS to Jim Quick, associate vice president for research and dean of graduate studies at SMU.

Besides celebrating U.S. independence, July 4, 2012, now marks another historic milestone: discovery of the Higgs boson fundamental particle in physics. And SMU’s Department of Physics in Dedman College was at the center of the action.

The biggest physics discovery of the past 50 years was announced July 4 by CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics in Switzerland. CERN confirmed that the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest physics experiment, had observed the Higgs boson, informally dubbed the “God particle.” Hypothesized in the 1960s to explain why matter has mass, the Higgs had never been observed until now.

SMU’s physicists were key players in the discovery, which is credited to a team of several thousand physicists worldwide but only a handful from institutions in the United States.

Physics Professor Ryszard Stroynowski led the SMU team, which includes faculty, graduate and undergraduate students and postdoctoral fellows. “The experimental physics group at SMU has been involved since 1994 and is a major contributor,” he says. “This discovery was many years in the making, but it was worth the wait.”

Observation “opens up clear directions for physicists at SMU and throughout the world to study the properties of the Higgs,” Stroynowski adds.

The $10 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which began operation in 2010, is a high-tech, 17-mile tunnel about 100 meters below ground on the border between France and Switzerland. The LHC generated evidence of the Higgs by smashing together protons at high energies so their breakup replicates the Big Bang at the origin of the universe. Billions of protons are hurled through the LHC’s tunnel, some crashing head-on and breaking apart. Physicists around the world and at SMU analyzed the resulting particle shower for hints of the Higgs.

SMU contributed to the LHC’s design, hardware, software, operations and data analysis. Stroynowski was U.S. supervisor for the $50-million design and construction of the Liquid Argon Calorimeter of ATLAS, one of the LHC’s principal experiments.

Physics Professor Jingbo Ye’s research group developed a high-speed integrated circuit to transmit ATLAS data.

Physics faculty Robert Kehoe and Stephen Sekula led researchers in developing software for the ATLAS trigger system to identify potential Higgs evidence. And Assistant Professor Pavel Nadolsky’s research group contributed calculations used for discovery and ongoing analyses of the Higgs.

Faculty and students also spent hours in shifts staffing the LHC control room. And much of the success of SMU’s small group in the highly competitive environment of a large international collaboration was due to the massive and cutting-edge processing capacity of the SMU High Performance Computing System, Stroynowski says.

Observation of the new particle is only the beginning, he adds. “Our work continues to evolve.”

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– Margaret Allen


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