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Nobel Prize for Higgs boson thrills UB physicists

Avto Kharchilava and Ia Iashvili

UB physicists Avto Kharchilava, left, and Ia Iashvili helped plan and build the Compact Muon Solenoid detector of the Large Hadron Collider, which scientists used to search for the Higgs boson. Credit: Douglas Levere

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published October 10, 2013

Salvatore Rappoccio

Credit: Reidar Hahn

“We’re hoping this is not the last great discovery from the Large Hadron Collider physics program, but only the first.”
Salvatore Rappoccio, assistant professor
Department of Physics

UB physicists who took part in a decades-long search for the Higgs boson, an important subatomic particle, were thrilled by the announcement earlier this week of a Higgs-related Nobel Prize in Physics.

“The discovery of the Higgs boson and the Nobel Prize marks the dawn of the new era in particle physics,” says Ia Iashvili, associate professor of physics.

Her colleague, Salvatore Rappoccio, assistant professor of physics, calls the Higgs boson discovery “the capstone of over 40 years of scientific achievement in collider physics.”

The Higgs particle helps explain why objects have mass, illuminating our understanding of the universe. The Nobel Prize was awarded to two physicists who made predictions pointing to the particle’s existence in 1964: Peter Higgs, for whom the boson is named, and François Englert, who worked on the Higgs problem with the late theorist Robert Brout.

The timing of the prize hints at the importance of research done by other scientists in the wake of Englert, Brout and Higgs’ predictions. The Nobel recognition comes a year after scientists working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) confirmed that they finally had observed a particle matching the theorists’ descriptions.

Finding the Higgs was a monumental achievement because it validated the Standard Model of particle physics, which scientists use to describe how particles and forces interact with one another—to describe, in short, how the world around us works. At the time of its discovery, the Higgs boson was the only particle in the Standard Model that researchers had yet to observe.

UB researchers Iashvili, Rappoccio and Avto Kharchilava, associate professor of physics, were part of the team at CERN that discovered the Higgs, a massive international collaboration that included thousands of investigators across the world.

Iashvili and Kharchilava helped plan and build the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the strongest particle accelerator in the world. The LHC, located at CERN, smashes protons together at 99.999999 percent of the speed of light; Kharchilava, Iashvili and thousands of colleagues around the world used the machine to observe the Higgs boson.

Iashvili is one of two CMS scientists in charge of delivering the first energy-scale calibration for the CMS, a process that was critical to the project’s ability to identify the Higgs boson and other particles.

Kharchilava is a member of the Higgs Publication Committee Board that oversees the final steps the CMS collaboration must undertake before results on Higgs particle searchers are made public. He is also a member of the DZero experiment at Fermilab, near Chicago, where he searched for Higgs boson(s) in recent years and studies various aspects of the Standard Model of particle physics.

 “So, what’s next?” Kharchilav asks. He says it’s a question he often asks himself—and one that is especially relevant these days after the discovery of the Higgs boson, often regarded as the most exciting accomplishment that physicists have achieved in decades.

Well, we are lucky to have in operation a scientific, technological and engineering marvel such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN,” he says. “We, the particle physics community worldwide, have a sound and cutting-edge research program for many years to come. We have clear goals, such as making precision measurement of properties of the newly discovered particle and determining whether they are consistent with the Standard Model expectations, and searching for new phenomena, dark matter, extra dimensions, etc. We are fortunate to be part of this endeavor into frontiers of science, technology and possibly witness even more fundamental discoveries.”

Rappoccio, who joined UB in August 2012 and the CMS experiment in 2007, co-leads a group of dozens of scientists within CMS who are searching for the next big discovery in particle physics beyond the Standard Model.

Discovery of the Higgs boson “is a truly remarkable testament to the wondrous things we can accomplish together with a sustained international commitment to basic scientific research,” he says.

“However, it leaves open many questions about nature. Why, for instance, is the energy scale of the Higgs interaction so much different than the energy scale of gravitational interactions? What is dark matter, and does it have a relation to the Higgs? Are there other particles that we haven’t observed yet? Why is there so much more matter in the universe than antimatter?

“Collider physics,” Rappoccio notes, “now turns to the next stage in its quest to understand the fundamental interactions of nature and explore answers to these questions. We’re hoping this is not the last great discovery from the Large Hadron Collider physics program, but only the first.”

Besides Rappoccio, Iashvili and Kharchilava, many other UB physicists, including faculty members and students, have been involved in many aspects of the LHC experiments, from helping to run the CMS detector to predicting how particles should look when they appear.