SFU scientists celebrate Higgs boson find

Simon Fraser University scientists involved in the world's largest physics experiment celebrated a major breakthrough last week: clear signs of the Higgs boson or the socalled "god particle."

"Feels like a rock concert," said SFU physics professor Mike Vetterli from CERN in Switzerland, home to the world's biggest particle accelerator.

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Vetterli and fellow faculty members Dugan O'Neil and Bernd Stelzer (as well as about a dozen SFU students and researchers) are working with more than 3,000 scientists from around the world on ATLAS, a particle physics experiment at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland.

Scientists have been smashing subatomic particles at record-breaking levels of energy, and analyzing the massive amounts of data, hoping to shed light on the basic forces that shaped the universe. Their work could help us understand the origin of mass, the unification of fundamental forces, extra dimensions and dark matter.

One thing they were looking for was evidence of the Higgs boson, a particle that would complete the standard model in physics and help explain why sub-atomic particles have mass.

On July 4, scientists at CERN announced strong signs of a new particle that could be the Higgs, and they were confident with the preliminary results.

"This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson, and it's the heaviest boson ever found," said spokesperson Joe Incandela. "The implications are very significant, and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and crosschecks."

The findings are based on data from 2011 and 2012, with the 2012 data still under analysis.

O'Neil said people have been designing, building and commissioning these experiments for more than 20 years.

"From the beginning, the Higgs search was the flagship. We were going to either find it, or finally prove that it just doesn't exist," O'Neil said. "Honestly, before the data came, I would have bet on us proving it doesn't exist. The fact that we observe a new particle, which is consistent with our expectations of the Higgs, in the one place it could still be hiding after 40 years, is absolutely amazing to me. I'd say it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, but now we need to work very hard to find out if it quacks."

Stelzer called the discovery a historic break through.

"We are closing in on one of the most fundamental questions of mankind - the origin of mass," he said.

In an earlier interview with the NOW, Vetterli described the Higgs as both a particle and a field that we all move through.

"Just like when you move through water, it's harder to move through than when you move through air. So, how you interact with this field will determine how much mass you have," he said. "If you don't interact much with it, then you have a light mass, and if you interact a lot with it, it's hard for you to move, so you have larger mass."

In quantum mechanics, fields can manifest themselves as particles, Vetterli explained.

"If you postulate that there's this field around, (then) quantum mechanics tells you it should bubble up as a particle," he said.

The next step for CERN is to determine the precise nature of the particle and its significance in understanding the universe.

"We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature," said CERN's Rolf Heuer. "The discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies, requiring larger statistics, which will pin down the new particle's properties, and is likely to shed light on other mysteries of our universe."



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