The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Tuesday awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics to theorists Peter Higgs and Francois Englert to recognize their work in developing the theory of what is now known as the Higgs field, which gives elementary particles mass. University of Virginia scientists played a significant role in advancing the theory and in discovering the particle that proves the existence of the Higgs field – the Higgs boson.
Brad Cox, a professor of physics in U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences, served for three years on a sequence of eight analysis review committees, each comprising four physicists, that oversaw analysis of Higgs discovery data from the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. He also was part of a four-person analysis review team that oversaw the discovery analysis for 2½ years to the point where it could be determined that the evidence was strong enough that the Higgs particle had been confirmed. The discovery was announced at the Large Hadron Collider in July 2012 and further supported in December.
U.Va. scientists also were involved for years in the CMS – Compact Muon Solenoid – experiment, one of the two experiments that announced the discovery of the Higgs at the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider, which was activated in November 2009 after nearly two decades of planning and construction. Cox and other members of the U.Va. High Energy Physics Group built components for the CMS experiment at the facility.
“We were at the center of the action,” Cox said.
“This is a great day for particle physics,” he said of the announcement that Higgs, for whom the Higgs particle is named, and Englert had won the Nobel Prize. He called it “one of the major findings in physics in a century.”
In 1964, Higgs, now 84, of Britain, and Englert, now 80, of Belgium, along with other theorists, published papers introducing key concepts in the theory of what became known as the Higgs field. For decades the intriguing theory remained unproven by experimentation. The powerful Large Hadron Collider was built partly to confirm, or refute, the theory.
The facility is located on the Swiss/French border. The largest scientific instrument ever built, it circulates high-energy proton beams around a 17-mile circular accelerator at speeds approaching that of light, producing powerful collisions that shatter the beams into their component parts.
It was only after several years of such collisions that enough data was accumulated to declare that the Higgs boson finally was isolated among the multitudes of other known particles that resulted from those collisions. The experiments replicated, in effect, the conditions of the early universe, and the data confirmed, with essentially no doubt, that the Higgs was there in the data, and therefore real in the universe. The Higgs boson gives mass to every other particle in the universe and likely is the underlying basis of mass. It is essentially the glue that holds everything together and is essential to the formation of the universe.
The Higgs was the last remaining ingredient to verify in the Standard Model of Physics, a grand theory physicists use to describe the basic building blocks of matter and their interactions, so it was a key missing piece of a massive puzzle. It also provides the “signpost to the future,” Cox said, “inasmuch as it points the way to search for new physics that is expected to be present due to the properties of the Higgs particle.”
The Large Hadron Collider is expected to produce new understanding of the makings of the universe for decades to come.
“This enormous device – which is a time machine for looking back almost to the beginning of creation, to within a tiny sliver of time after the ‘Big Bang’ – will undergo improvements and upgrades over the next few decades to look even further back in time and with better precision,” Cox said. “The U.Va. CMS group will be deeply involved for the next decades in this work.”