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Particle physicists at NIU say Higgs boson undoubtedly will lead to new scientific quests

July 5, 2012

It’s been said that every ending marks a new beginning. So it is with the search for the Higgs boson, an elusive elementary particle that has captured the attention and imagination of scientists and the general public alike.

The Large Hadron Collider tunnel. Photo courtesy of CERN.

In what appears to be a landmark discovery, scientists at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe yesterday announced they have found indications for the presence of a new particle, which could indeed be the Higgs. Its detection would confirm the existence of the Higgs field, which is thought to permeate and shape the universe. When elementary particles interact with this field, they gain mass.

Adding to the excitement, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory scientists earlier this week announced they have found their strongest indication to date for the long-sought Higgs particle, the last missing ingredient of the Standard Model of particle physics.

But discovery of this enigmatic particle won’t mark the end of the quest to understand the nature of our universe, according to NIU particle physicists involved in the experiments at Fermilab and CERN.

Instead, verification of the Higgs boson will certainly lead to new scientific quests and hopefully stoke interest in science abroad and in the United States, which accounts for about one-quarter of all scientists on the CERN experiments.

Here’s what NIU physicists had to say in the wake of this week’s events.

Presidential Research Professor Dhiman Chakraborty, leader of a group of NIU physicists who are members of the ATLAS collaboration at CERN

Although it is too early to say for sure, this newly discovered particle is most likely to be a Higgs boson of one kind or another. If it is indeed the Higgs boson as predicted and described in the Standard Model, then this discovery completes the experimental verification of the model’s full gamut of particles. Furthermore, the Higgs boson is the only scalar, or spinless, fundamental particle in the Standard Model, and it is a manifestation of an all-pervading field with properties that set it well apart from all others. A discovery of this magnitude doesn’t happen every decade.

It’s hard to predict what the future holds, but most of us believe that this is only the first of many fundamental particles to be discovered at the LHC. After this, the Standard Model will have to be extended in order to accommodate observation of any new fundamental particle, which will lead to prediction of existence of even more fundamental particles and, possibly, new phenomena that could help us explain some of the yet unresolved mysteries of the universe.

David Hedin, Board of Trustees Professor of Physics, longtime member of Fermilab’s DZero collaboration

The international physics community is excited about the results from CERN indicating the presence of a new particle, which appears to be the long-sought Higgs boson. This discovery has been confirmed by results presented at Fermilab earlier in the week which, while of less precision, are in a different channel. The LHC now becomes a “Higgs factory,” and over the next decade will attempt to measure the properties of the Higgs boson to better and better precision. This will allow physicists to look for physics beyond the Standard Model—for example, signs of supersymmetry.

Presidential Teaching Professor and Distinguished Research Professor of Physics Stephen Martin, member of the NIU ATLAS group and eminent supersymmetry theorist

After this exciting discovery of the Higgs boson, an important new task is to carefully study how often it decays into various other particle types. This could give us indirect hints about the existence of even heavier particles that are presently unknown.

Ph.D. student Rob Calkins, member of the NIU ATLAS group who spent 2½ years stationed at CERN

The next big quest will be to measure as many properties of the new particle as possible to see if it’s the Higgs we expect from the Standard Model or if there is something different about it. The mass of this particle places it at a very good place to measure its decay to several different final states . . .  Ultimately, there will have to be a linear collider (electron-positron collider) built to really study the properties with high precision.