Post image for IU physicists, IT helped make Higgs boson Nobel Prize possible

IU physicists, IT helped make Higgs boson Nobel Prize possible

October 9, 2013

Nearly 50 years ago, theoretical physicists François Englert of the Universite libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, and Peter W. Higgs of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, challenged experimental physicists around the world with a theory about a unique mechanism that endowed fundamental particles with mass. Englert and Higgs have won the Nobel Prize in physics because scientists and technologists at Indiana University and around the world met that challenge.

Physicists and information technologists at IU, working for years to confirm that Englert’s and Higgs’ theories were right, were among thousands of other researchers in one of the largest scientific collaborations in history who found that the fundamental particle — the Higgs boson — does exist.

The Higgs particle was discovered by the ATLAS and CMS collaborations, each of which involved more than 3,000 people from around the world. It was the ATLAS particle detector experiment that involved IU scientists and technologists. IU Bloomington physicists designed and built a key component of the ATLAS detector, and information technologists developed software for and operated the Open Science Grid — an international computer grid used to analyze the vast data from the Large Hadron Collider.

“Many of us have spent the last few decades designing and building the ATLAS experiment,” says Harold O. Ogren, professor emeritus of physics at IU and a CERN Fellow. CERN — the European Organization for Nuclear Research — operated the Large Hadron Collider where the ATLAS experiment took place. “We always hoped that the results of this effort would be significant insights into the workings of our universe, but the discovery of the Higgs is an extraordinary outcome. It is the most significant discovery of my career.”

Ogren led construction of a key component of the ATLAS detector, the Barrel Transition Radiation Tracker.

“The idea for which Englert and Higgs won the Nobel was truly beautiful and satisfying in the same way that fitting the last piece into a puzzle is,” says IU physicist Harold Evans, the principal investigator for IU’s ATLAS team. “It rounded off our theoretical understanding of the interactions of sub-atomic particles. With their work, Englert, Higgs, and other theorists set us a challenge that took nearly 50 years to meet. This was a perfect example of how the conversation between theorists and experimentalists plays out.”

IU’s University Information Technology Services and the Pervasive Technology Institute worked for more than a decade to create and operate the computing grid that analyzed data from the Large Hadron Collider and enabled the verification of the existence of the Higgs boson. This computer grid — the Open Science Grid — was operated, managed, and maintained by the Research Technologies Division of UITS and PTI, and provided CERN scientists with billions of computer hours since the Large Hadron Collider began collecting data.

“As far as I know this is the largest amount of computing power ever amassed to enable a single scientific discovery,” says Rob Quick, manager of the Open Science Grid Operations Center and production operations coordinator for the Open Science Grid. “It’s incredibly satisfying to have played a role in this Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough. The technology to come from this discovery might be inconceivable to us today, but I’m confident it has the power to change the world in the next 100 or 200 years.”

IU researchers say the hope is that now the Higgs particle might be used as a window onto new theories that are even more encompassing than the current Standard Model, the theory that was so elegantly completed by this year’s Nobel laureates. The Standard Model explains how the basic building blocks of matter interact in the universe, governed by four fundamental forces: the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force and the gravitational force.

Additional members of the IU ATLAS group from the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Physics include assistant professor Sabine W. Lammers; research scientists Pauline Gagnon, Vivek Jain and Daria Zieminska; postdoctoral researchers Sylvie Brunet, Darren Price and Ximo Poveda; graduate students Aparajita Dattagupta, KyungEon Choi, John Penwell, Ben Weinert, Denver Whittington and Yi Yang; engineer Kirill Egorov; and grant administrator Jenny Olmes-Stevens.

The information technology groups include William K. Barnett, Elizabeth Chism, Alain Deximo, Kyle Gross, Soichi Hayashi, Richard Knepper, Thomas Lee, Matthew R. Link, Chris Pipes, Robert Quick, Sarah Schmiechen, Scott Teige, Von Welch and Sarah Williams. IU networking experts supporting this effort include Jon-Paul Herron, Dave Jent and Jim Williams.