UVic plays key role in Higgs boson research

Search for ‘God particle’ helps us understand how everything we know came to be

On the morning of a press conference some said could herald the scientific discovery of the century, Rob McPherson and his wife were debating who would take their son to early hockey practice.

McPherson, an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria and his wife, Isabel Trigger, are both particle physicists involved in research that’s trying to further our understanding of how everything as we know it came to be.

Serving as a spokesperson for Atlas-Canada, McPherson ended up staying home to watch the announcement by the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN.

“It’s fantastically exciting,” McPherson said about the news, which he spent the day explaining to media outlets across the country.

McPherson and Trigger are among 3,000 physicists working with the Atlas team at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva. Switzerland. Atlas and a competing team known as CMS both released results on Tuesday offering a tantalizing glimpse into the behaviour of the elusive Higgs boson particle.

The Higgs boson has so far only existed as a theory, though one necessary for the Standard Model of physics to work.

“Higgs, by itself, can’t be the whole story,” McPherson said. “There has to be something else to keep it stable.”

Which is why McPherson thinks that while calling Higgs boson “the God particle” is a great way to capture the public’s imagination, there are many more questions that need answering.

If scientists succeed in definitively discovering the Higgs bosun particle – expected to happen next year  – the next step will be to find what else is hiding. Theories about mysteries such as dark matter, thought to make up most of the matter in the universe, and even extra dimensions in spacetime could be opened up for closer study.

UVic has played a key role in the development of Atlas, which searched for the Higgs boson by using the massive particle accelerator at CERN. Particles are torn apart at tremendous force and slammed into layers of lead and liquid argon. Scientists measure how the energy produced by the collision relates to theories about what we already know about subatomic particles. What scientists with both Atlas and CMS found was evidence of activity on a scale that fits into where theories suggest the Higgs boson should be.

Finding this elusive particle is a big deal because it would help with our understanding of what happened in the first trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. That’s how long it took, theories suggest, before “stuff” began to stick together in our universe.

Or, as McPherson explained to his nine-year-old hockey playing son, we’re a little closer to understanding how to build planets, stars and even ourselves.

editor@saanichnews.com

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