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Fourth of July could produce physics fireworks

July 3, 2012

Northern Illinois University particle physicists and thousands of their colleagues across the world are looking forward to fireworks of a different sort on the Fourth of July.

Dhiman Chakraborty

Dhiman Chakraborty

Just yesterday, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia announced that scientists there – after more than 10 years of gathering and analyzing data produced by the laboratory’s Tevatron collider— have found their strongest indication to date for the long-sought Higgs particle, or what Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman famously dubbed “the God particle.”

Now CERN, the world’s leading laboratory for particle physics, is set to hold a scientific seminar on July 4, to present its much anticipated update on the search for the Higgs boson. The seminar will be webcast here.

For nearly five decades, the Higgs boson has been the holy grail of particle physics. Its detection would confirm the existence of the Higgs field, which is thought to permeate the universe and give particles mass.

Located near Geneva, Switzerland, CERN is home to the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, the $9 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Large-scale accelerators such as the LHC and Tevatron crash together particles moving in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light to recreate conditions that existed a mere trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.

The upcoming CERN seminar will serve as a curtain raiser to a major particle physics conference in Melbourne, Australia, where the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN will deliver the preliminary results of their 2012 data analysis. Scientists from Fermilab’s CDF and DZero collaborations will present their latest preliminary results as well.

“We are all very excited,” says Presidential Research Professor Dhiman Chakraborty, who leads a group of NIU physicists who are members of the ATLAS collaboration at CERN. “By all indications, there will be a significant announcement on July 4th.”

David Hedin

David Hedin

“Data from Fermilab’s Tevatron collider strongly suggests the signature of the Higgs boson, but there is one chance in 550 that it isn’t the Higgs, so we can’t announce a discovery,” adds NIU Board of Trustees Professor David Hedin. Over the past 26 years, Hedin and about 150 NIU physicists and students have worked as part of Fermilab’s DZero collaboration. 

“Fermilab and CERN are investigating different signatures of the Higgs boson, because scientists believe the particle will decay in a variety of ways,” Hedin says. “So results from both laboratories will be helpful in terms of understanding the results in the search for the Higgs.”

If and when a new particle is discovered at CERN, ATLAS and CMS will need time to ascertain whether it is the long-sought Higgs boson, the last missing ingredient of the Standard Model of particle physics, or whether it is a more exotic form of the boson that could open the door to new physics.

Thousands of scientists worldwide have contributed to the collaborations at CERN and Fermilab. While NIU has long had a strong presence at Fermilab, the university’s faculty and students have established themselves firmly at CERN over the past five years by playing several important roles on the ATLAS project. In the United States, the Midwest’s ATLAS analysis support center is located at Argonne National Laboratory.

NIU’s ATLAS group members have contributed to a number of key findings, including those whose announcements are anticipated in the coming days,” Chakraborty says.

In addition to Chakraborty, group members include Ph.D. students Rob Calkins, Chad Suhr, Stephen Cole and Blake Burghgrave. Calkins, Suhr and Cole have each won prestigious fellowships to work and conduct research at CERN, and Burghgrave recently was nominated for a similar fellowship.

Rob Calkins

“There definitely has been a lot of anticipation regarding the upcoming CERN announcement and the Melbourne conference,” says Calkins, who spent 2½ years at CERN before returning to NIU, where he expects to earn his Ph.D. later this year.

“This is an exciting time to be a young physicist,” he says. “We’re exploring an energy region that has never been explored before, so you don’t really know for sure what you’re going to find.”

Other NIU ATLAS contributors include Physics Professors Gerald Blazey and Stephen Martin; and research scientists Jose Guilherme Lima, Vishnu Zutshi, Adam Yurkewicz and Sergey Uzunyan.