December 23, 2013

SMU’s experimental physics group played a pivotal role in discovering the Higgs boson – the particle that proves the theory for which two scientists received the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics.

SMU physicist Ryszard Stroynowski (right) explains an aspect of the ATLAS Experiment to James Quick, associate vice president for research at SMU and dean of graduate studies.

SMU physicist Ryszard Stroynowski (right) explains an aspect of the ATLAS Experiment to James Quick, associate vice president for research at SMU and dean of graduate studies.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize to theorists Peter W. Higgs of Scotland and François Englert of Belgium to recognize their work developing the theory of what is now known as the Higgs field, which gives elementary particles mass.

The Nobel citation recognizes Higgs and Englert “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

In the 1960s, Higgs and Englert, with other theorists, published papers introducing key concepts of the theory of the Higgs field. In 2012, scientists on the international ATLAS and CMS experiments, performed at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Europe, confirmed this theory when they announced the discovery of the Higgs boson.

“A scientist may test out a thousand different ideas over the course of a career. If you’re fortunate, you get to experiment with one that works,” says SMU physicist Ryszard Stroynowski, a principal investigator in the search for the Higgs boson. As the leader of an SMU Department of Physics team working on the experiment, Stroynowski served as U.S. coordinator for the ATLAS Experiment’s Liquid Argon Calorimeter, which measures energy from the particles created by proton collisions.

The University’s experimental physics group has been involved since 1994 and is a major contributor to the research, the heart of which is the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator on the border with Switzerland and France.

SMU joins nearly 2,000 physicists from U.S. institutions – including 89 universities and seven Department of Energy laboratories – that participate in the ATLAS and CMS experiments. The majority of U.S. scientists participating in LHC experiments work primarily from their home institutions, remotely accessing and analyzing data through high-capacity networks and grid computing.

The SMU High Performance Computing system is part of that grid and routinely runs data that contributed to the observation, Stroynowski says. “Much of the success of our small group in the highly competitive environment of a large international collaboration has been due to an easy access and superb productivity of the SMU High Performance Computing system,” he adds. “We used the HPC for fast data analyses and complex calculations needed for the discovery.”

The High Performance Computing Center will be expanded and relocated later this year to the new University Data Center under construction at the southern edge of the main campus.

SMU’s role in the Higgs discovery contributes to the University’s drive to expand research and enhance education, says James Quick, associate vice president for research at SMU and dean of graduate studies.

The discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN was the culmination of decades of work by physicists and engineers around the world. Contributors from SMU have made their mark on the project at various stages, including current Department of Physics faculty members Ryszard Stroynowski, Jingbo Ye, Robert Kehoe and Stephen Sekula. Faculty members Pavel Nadolsky and Fred Olness performed theoretical calculations used in various aspects of data analysis.

University postdoctoral fellows on the ATLAS Experiment have included Julia Hoffmann, David Joffe, Ana Firan, Haleh Hadavand, Peter Renkel, Aidan Randle-Conde and Daniel Goldin.

Significant contributions to ATLAS also have been made by SMU faculty members in the Department of Physics’ Optoelectronics Lab, including Tiankuan Liu, Annie Xiang and Datao Gong.

“The discovery of the Higgs is a great achievement, confirming an idea that will require rewriting of the textbooks,” Stroynowski says. “But there is much more to be learned from the LHC and from ATLAS data in the next few years. We look forward to continuing this work.”