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Physics profs (from left to right) Brig William, Evelyn Thomson and Elliot Lipeles helped with the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Credit: Jing Ran

The excitement of this year’s Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the Higgs boson was shared in a meeting room in the David Rittenhouse Laboratory by Penn’s High Energy Physics Experimental Group.

Having contributed greatly to the construction and design of ATLAS, one of the two main particle detectors that made the discovery of the particle possible, the Penn team of faculty, researchers and staff were involved on many different levels of this groundbreaking experiment, from building equipment to analyzing collected data.

Elliot Lipeles, one of four physics professors working on the project, said it was a great collaboration among different colleges and institutions.

“The complexity of the whole project is way beyond anything that any university could ever build,” he said. “Everyone is working either with each other or with people from other universities, all looking at the different aspects of the data. For example, we have one group on Higgs [particles] decaying to photons and another on [the] next generation of hardware.”

The Higgs boson, or Higgs particle, Lipeles discussed is an elementary particle that was proposed by a team of six scientists in 1964, which included Peter Higgs and François Englert — two scientists to whom this year’s Nobel Physics Prize was awarded. Last year’s discovery of this particle was considered monumental in understanding the nature of all matter and how the world is constructed.

“Without the Higgs field” — an energy field where particles acquire their mass — “no matter would exist,” said Brig Williams, another physics professor on the team.

The team talked about their excitement when they heard the announcement last year, but also said they felt “it was about time.”

“We’ve been adding data each week, but it became more and more significant” over time, said James Saxon, a fourth year graduate student who started studying the Higgs boson in high school. “You have a very clear picture that this bump on the data graph is getting bigger and bigger,” he added, as he pointed to a graph that indicated the existence of the particle.

“This is an incredible triumph of science,” Williams, one of the physics professors, said. “Fifty years ago, some theorists came up with hypothesis that throughout all space, there are some new fields that people haven’t theorized before. [This discovery] is absolutely fundamental.”

Joe Kroll, another physics professor on the team, was encouraged that scientists were able to find proof for this highly abstract model proposed five decades ago.

“The Higgs [bosons] are also supposedly a portal to see other particles like dark matter,” he added. “It’s an avenue to know much more radical things.”

However, the team is still hard at work on researching the discoveries of tomorrow.

“At the beginning of this team meeting, we were talking about new updates in the theoretical model of super symmetry,” said Evelyn Thomson, another faculty member on the team.

“When this experiment started in 1993, I was a sophomore in College and hadn’t started doing particle physics; now I’m participating in this experiment,” Lipeles said. “The future we are talking about now is in a similar time span. Twenty or 30 years in the future, there might be another big discovery. We have to start planning what to do next.”

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