Argonne research helps pave way for physics Nobel

By Jared SagoffOctober 8, 2013

ARGONNE, Ill. (Oct. 8, 2013) – The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded today to theoretical physicists François Englert and Peter Higgs for their theory of an elementary particle now known as the Higgs boson, which scientists believe is responsible for giving mass to other elementary particles.

Particle physics researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory were intimately involved in an international collaboration that successfully completed several decades of effort to find the Higgs. In July 2012, an announcement was made that scientists had located a particle consistent with the long-sought Higgs. Subsequent measurements of the particle’s properties during the past year have indicated that the particle is indeed a Higgs boson. 

Nearly 2,000 physicists from U.S. institutions—including 89 U.S. universities and seven DOE laboratories—participate in the ATLAS and CMS experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland. The U.S. participation composed roughly 23 percent of the ATLAS collaboration and 33 percent of CMS at the time of the Higgs discovery. U.S. scientists provided a significant portion of the intellectual leadership on Higgs analysis teams for both experiments.

Argonne’s major contributions to the search to the search for the Higgs involved the construction and operation of parts of the ATLAS detector. Argonne scientists also analyzed the signals recorded by the detector to uncover the mysterious dynamics of particle physics.

The Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences said the prize was for “a great achievement” that represents a “central part…of particle physics that describes how the world is constructed.”

“Finding the Higgs represents one of the biggest, if not the biggest, achievements in high-energy physics in the past several decades,” said Argonne physicist Tom LeCompte, who served for several years as the physics coordinator for the ATLAS detector at the LHC.

Put simply, scientists see the Higgs boson as the particle manifestation of an invisible field that permeates the universe. Particles — including those that make up most of the visible matter in the universe, from stars to people — gain mass by interacting with the Higgs field.

The search for the Higgs has been a major effort at a number of different particle accelerators and detectors ever since the particle was proposed in the 1960s. The LHC, which occupies a 17-mile-long circular tunnel, is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. The majority of U.S. scientists participating in LHC experiments work from their home institutions, remotely accessing and analyzing data through high-capacity networks and grid computing, a technique developed through a major collaborative effort that included Argonne computational scientist Ian Foster.

The United States plays an important role in this distributed computing system, providing 23 percent of the computing power for ATLAS and 40 percent for CMS. The United States also played a leading role in several main components of the two detectors and the LHC accelerator, amounting to a value of $164 million for the ATLAS detector, $167 million for the CMS detector, and $200 million for the LHC. Support for the U.S. effort comes from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science and the National Science Foundation.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.