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University researchers continue Higgs-Boson search

Particle physicists have theorized about the existence of the Higgs Boson, the smallest elementary particle, for decades. Proving the existence of the particle could provide the solution to many unanswered questions posed by the current Standard Model of particles and forces — including why some particles have mass and others seem not to.

Although many non-physicists may not understand — or care — why these questions need answering, the importance of the Higgs Boson within the scientific community is evidenced by the mere existence of the Large Hadron Collider. Located near Geneva, Switzerland, the collider was built explicitly to prove or disprove the existence of the Higgs Boson. It is the largest and most expensive particle collider ever built, stretching 27 kilometers — a little more than 16.5 miles — and costing 5 billion Swiss Francs, or about $5.2 billion.

An unknown particle was detected on July 4 of last year by the collider, and the particle was tentatively confirmed by CERN to be a Higgs Boson on March 14.

Although this was an enormous success for the particle physics community, many questions remain — and Asst. Physics Prof. Chris Neu and his team of students are out to find some of those answers.

Neu, who has been working on what he calls “high energy physics endeavours” for 15 years, and his team hope to find more evidence of the existence of the Higgs Boson by analyzing data from the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment, one of the two particle detectors at the collider.

“Among other things, we use intricate computer algorithms to identify collision events that are consistent with Higgs Boson production among all the collision events we record at CMS,” Neu said in an email.

Their work is complicated by the fact that the Higgs production rate is so low and many other particle production processes look very similar to the Higgs model, Neu said. The Higgs Boson is produced in the same way as many other particles — the acceleration of particles at near-lightspeed and then allowing them to smash together, momentarily creating explosions that produce smaller particles.

Higgs Boson creation is most likely to occur when the fused particles are gluons or other bosons. The observation of these processes, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Researchers must still go through many algorithms to confirm that the Higgs Boson was in fact created.

Neu said the team is almost halfway through the project. Having worked for almost a full year already and produced preliminary results, they will continue working through the summer and Neu hopes to have completed the next big improvements within the next year.

The project is funded by both the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.Va. Vice President for Research Fund for Excellence in Science and Technology. Neu said he enjoys the intimacy of the project as well as the camaraderie with only four students working closely with him.

“The people in my group collaborate with many other physicists from around the world,” Neu said. “The healthy exchange of ideas and collaborative spirit is something that I really enjoy. Our ideas and our work know no borders.”

Neu said he is hopeful his project will take physics one step closer to understanding the building blocks of life. “Establishing the existence of the Higgs Boson will give us the answer to the mechanism of how the fundamental particles acquire mass,” he said. “This is a significant open question in modern science.”