Nobel-winning Higgs discovery has ties to scientists from UChicago, Fermilab and Argonne

The award of the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics specifically honors the work of theorists Peter Higgs and François Englert, who helped predict the existence of the Higgs boson. But the discovery of the particle in 2012 also depended on contributions by thousands of scientists around the world, including many with deep roots in the University of Chicago research community.

Physicists at UChicago and elsewhere chased the elusive Higgs boson for more than two decades. The University produced many of the leaders in theory and experimentation whose ideas and instruments shaped the long quest for the crucial particle. Key contributions also came from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory, both of which are affiliated with UChicago.

Nearly 2,000 physicists from U.S. institutions—including 89 U.S. universities and seven U.S. Department of Energy laboratories—participate in the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN laboratory’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which detected the Higgs in 2012. In fact, the U.S. contributes more scientists to the LHC efforts than any other single nation. Fermilab serves as the U.S. hub for the CMS experiment, and Argonne contributed to the construction and operation of the ATLAS detector. UChicago scientists contributed to both collaborations at the LHC.

“It is an honor that the Nobel Committee recognizes these theorists for their role in predicting what is one of the biggest discoveries in particle physics in the last few decades,” said Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer in a statement. “I congratulate the whole particle physics community for this achievement.”

Englert and Higgs were awarded the Nobel on Oct. 8 “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.”

Six UChicago faculty members belong to the ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) collaboration, including physics professors Young-Kee Kim, Frank Merritt, David Miller, Mark Oreglia, James Pilcher and Melvyn Shochet.

Oreglia commented on how this achievement vindicates the modern process of particle physics. “Symmetries of nature lead to bold predictions by theorists, but it is only through experimental verification that we know the truth about nature,” said Oreglia, who was among the hundreds of experimental physicists who believed in the importance of the Higgs field enough to devote much their careers to the search. “This groundbreaking discovery is testimony to the dedication of scientists, lawmakers who fund science, and ultimately a supportive public.”

Another LHC leader with UChicago roots is alumnus Joseph Incandela, BS’81, MS’85, PhD’96, a professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and scientific spokesman for the European facility’s other massive Higgs collaboration, called CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid).

In addition to Argonne’s role in building and operating the ATLAS detector, Argonne scientists also analyzed signals recorded by the detector to uncover the underlying physics of particle collisions. The University of Chicago manages Argonne for the U.S. Department of Energy, and is co-contractor with the Universities Research Association in managing Fermilab.

“Finding the Higgs represents one of the biggest, if not the biggest, achievements in high-energy physics in the past several decades,” said Argonne physicist Tom LeCompte, who served for several years as the physics coordinator for the ATLAS detector at the LHC.

One computational key to the Higgs discovery was developed by Ian Foster, director of the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between UChicago and Argonne. Foster helped invent grid computing, which allows people to share computer power, databases, and other online tools autonomously and securely across organizational and geographic boundaries.

“Building directly on concepts, methods, and software developed at Argonne and UChicago—and, certainly, elsewhere—the LHC Computing Grid distributes petabytes of data worldwide to hundreds of sites for reconstruction and analysis,” said Foster, the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor in Computer Science. “Without the LHC Computing Grid, the discovery could not have occurred.”

The Higgs boson is a linchpin of theories about why elementary particles have mass—and by extension, why all ordinary objects have their heft. Without the Higgs, theorists believe, the universe would contain no atoms, no elements, no stars, and no people. UChicago ATLAS collaborator Frank Merritt said the Higgs breakthrough may be just the beginning of a new era in physics research.

“We’re getting to a point now where we’re certainly going to go beyond the Standard Model,” Merritt said. “We don’t know what we’re going to see. It might be supersymmetry, it might be something else, but it’s going to be a very exciting exploration.”