Hopkins, Maryland help in worldwide hunt for elusive Higgs boson

Researchers from Hopkins and Maryland are among thousands of scientists engaged in the hunt for the Higgs boson, known popularly as the "God particle." Proof of its existence would answer fundamental questions about the nature of our existence.

Physicists and graduate students in Baltimore and College Park watched live updates Tuesday from one of the greatest scientific sleuthing expeditions of our time.

The news, from Geneva: Data that researchers from Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland have helped to analyze might have provided a glimpse of the first signs of the elusive Higgs boson — but stay tuned for more definitive results next year.

Proof of the Higgs boson, the hypothesized subatomic building block that has been called the "God particle," would answer fundamental questions about the nature of existence. Reseachers from Hopkins and Maryland are among the thousands of scientists worldwide who have taken up the hunt.

"If you find the Higgs boson, it proves the Higgs field, which gives mass to elementary particles," such as quarks and electrons, said Andrei Gritsan, an assistant professor of physics at Hopkins who leads that school's team.

The Hopkins and Maryland teams watched a live presentation of the results of two concurrent experiments led by CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

The two experiments, dubbed CMS and Atlas, each have teams of a few thousand people analyzing huge volumes of data from trillions of proton collisions at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva. Scientists use the collider, the world's largest high-energy particle accelerator, to deepen understanding of the fundamental laws of physics.

The two teams have narrowed down the energy range in which the Higgs boson might be found, with results that Gritsan said were "very compatible."

Proof of the Higgs boson's existence would rank among the most important milestones in science in decades, scientists say, because it would help confirm how the most elemental building blocks of nature acquire their mass.

Researchers started collecting data two years ago. University of Maryland physicist Nick Hadley, chair of the CMS team in the United States — the acronym stands for the Compact Muon Solenoid detector at the Hadron collider — said the pace of the research and analysis continues to quicken with worldwide collaboration.

The CMS experiment alone gets contributions from 180 institutions from 39 counties, Hadley said. The U.S. team includes 700 authors and 250 graduate students.

"I would say it's progressing very quickly," Hadley said. "People started imagining building these experiments in the 1990s, and we took our first significant data last year. This year, we got 100 times as much data [as last year]. The hope is next year we'll get four times as much data."

Hadley and Gritsan were hopeful that, with more data and analysis in the coming year, scientists may be able to present more definitive conclusions next year.

The existence of the Higgs boson was first proposed in the 1960s by several scientists including Peter Higgs of England. The particle is considered to be important for helping unify the standard model of particle physics — without the proposed Higgs field, particles would have no mass.

Hadley described the hunt as detective work. He compared it to looking for rabbits in one's backyard, in poor light, but only seeing squirrels.

"Then of course, you'd be really excited if you found an elephant," he said, and chuckled. "Something completely unexpected."



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