At a moment in science history that many are hailing as one of the most important in a century, UW-Madison researchers were front and center, playing lead roles in a discovery that takes modern physics to the very edge of human understanding.
Scientists from UW-Madison were deeply involved in figuring out the physics and building and operating the $10 billion machine used to discover a particle believed to be the so-called “God particle,” responsible for giving matter mass and shaping the very early universe.
How important is the particle, known as a Higgs boson?
Physicists on Wednesday said that without it, we likely would not exist because it was responsible in the moments after the Big Bang for forming the very atoms that shape us.
The much-anticipated announcement of the discovery came early Wednesday, 2 a.m. local time, from researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, near Geneva. That’s the location of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a 17-mile ring of steel and magnets that was used to smash together beams of particles over the last two years and ferret out the new particle from the debris.
While researchers, including those from UW-Madison, stopped just short of saying they had discovered the Higgs boson, they said data strongly supports the existence of a new particle that appears to be the Higgs.
Among those present at CERN for the historic event was UW-Madison’s Sau Lan Wu, the Enrico Fermi Professor of Physics who has been searching for the Higgs boson for more than 20 years. She leads a team of researchers working on the ATLAS detector, one of two massive machines used to look for new particles at the LHC. She said it is significant that powerful signals from both ATLAS and a second detector, CMS, indicated the presence of a new particle.
Wu did not hesitate when asked if the new particle appears to be the enigmatic Higgs.
“I am very confident this is a Higgs particle,” Wu said. She described the atmosphere at CERN as electric Wednesday morning as the time for the announcement came. By Wednesday evening local time, she said scientists at CERN, aided by ample supplies of champagne, were preparing to party.
Wesley Smith, a UW-Madison physicist who is on the leadership team for the CMS detector, watched the announcement from his home in Madison. In an early-morning email to the State Journal, he agreed the new particle certainly appears to be a Higgs boson:
“After an enormous effort by LHC experimenters, the CERN laboratory and the worldwide grid computing community, we are very excited to observe an excess in our data from a new particle consistent with the production of a Higgs boson.
“We will need the additional data planned from the running of the LHC until next year to establish if this is indeed the Higgs boson and that we stand at the threshold of a new era of understanding the origins of mass.”
Dozens of other UW-Madison researchers have played key roles in the Higgs search. Important parts of the CMS detector were designed and built by a team from the Madison campus.
Also involved was computer sciences professor Miron Livny, who leads the UW-Madison Condor Grid Computing Project that came up with the principles of grid computing that have proven crucial in crunching the enormous volumes of data churned out by the Large Hadron Collider.
And some UW-Madison scientists were astounded bystanders.
Gary Shiu, a theoretical physicist who specializes in string theory, just happened to be at CERN to give a speech and was present for the history-making session Wednesday morning.
Though he is a theorist, as opposed to the experimental physicists who toil with machinery such as colliders, he said the discovery of the new particle will touch every discipline within physics and many other scientific fields.
Shiu pointed out that the discovery of the particle is basically years of theory confirmed, pure thought transformed into something that can be seen and understood and used to unlock other secrets of the physical world.
“To a scientist, nothing is more satisfying than to see theoretical ideas being tested and confirmed by experiment,” Shiu said. “The discovery of this new particle at CERN opens the doorway for a deeper understanding of nature. What we have seen is likely the very beginning of an exciting new chapter.
“The atmosphere at CERN is ebullient and exciting. I was glad to be there when history was made. It’s like being there at Woodstock!”