Tag Archives: Rob McPherson

Peter Higgs and François Englert to receive 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics and TRIUMF name changes?

After all the foofaraw about finding/confirming the existence of the Higgs Boson or ‘god’ particle (featured in my July 4, 2012 posting amongst many others), the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the 2013 Nobel prize for Physics to two of the individuals responsible for much of the current thinking about subatomic particles and mass (from the Oct. 8, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily),

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2013 to François Englert of Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium, and Peter W. Higgs of the University of Edinburgh, UK, “for the theoretical discovery of a mechanism that contributes to our understanding of the origin of mass of subatomic particles, and which recently was confirmed through the discovery of the predicted fundamental particle, by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”

François Englert and Peter W. Higgs are jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 2013 for the theory of how particles acquire mass. In 1964, they proposed the theory independently of each other (Englert together with his now deceased colleague Robert Brout). In 2012, their ideas were confirmed by the discovery of a so called Higgs particle at the CERN laboratory outside Geneva in Switzerland.

TRIUMF, sometimes known as Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, has issued an Oct. 8, 2013 news release,

HIGGS, ENGLERT SHARE 2013 NOBEL PRIZE IN PHYSICS

Canadians Key Part of Historical Nobel Prize to “Godfathers” of the “God Particle”

(Vancouver, BC) — The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences today awarded the Nobel Prize in physics to Professor Peter W. Higgs (Univ. of Edinburgh) and Professor François Englert (Univ. Libre de Bruxelles) to recognize their work developing the theory of what is now known as the Higgs field, which gives elementary particles mass.  Canadians have played critical roles in all stages of the breakthrough discovery Higgs boson particle that validates the original theoretical framework.  Throngs across Canada are celebrating.

More than 150 Canadian scientists and students at 10 different institutions are presently involved in the global ATLAS experiment at CERN.  Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, TRIUMF, has been a focal point for much of the Canadian involvement that has ranged from assisting with the construction of the LHC accelerator to building key elements of the ATLAS detector and hosting one of the ten global Tier-1 Data Centres that stores and processes the physics for the team of thousands.

“The observation of a Higgs Boson at about 125 GeV, or 130 times the mass of the proton, by both the ATLAS and CMS groups is a tremendous achievement,” said Rob McPherson, spokesperson of the ATLAS Canada collaboration, a professor of physics at the University of Victoria and Institute of Particle Physics scientist. “Its existence was predicted in 1964 when theorists reconciled how massive particles came into being.  It took almost half a century to confirm the detailed predictions of the theories in a succession of experiments, and finally to discover the Higgs Boson itself using our 2012 data.”

The Brout-Englert-Higgs (BEH) mechanism was first proposed in 1964 in two papers published independently, the first by Belgian physicists Robert Brout and François Englert, and the second by British physicist Peter Higgs. It explains how the force responsible for beta decay is much weaker than electromagnetism, but is better known as the mechanism that endows fundamental particles with mass. A third paper, published by Americans Gerald Guralnik and Carl Hagen with their British colleague Tom Kibble further contributed to the development of the new idea, which now forms an essential part of the Standard Model of particle physics. As was pointed out by Higgs, a key prediction of the idea is the existence of a massive boson of a new type, which was discovered by the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN in 2012.

The next step will be to determine the precise nature of the Higgs particle and its significance for our understanding of the universe. Are its properties as expected for the Higgs boson predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics? Or is it something more exotic? The Standard Model describes the fundamental particles from which we, and every visible thing
in the universe, are made, and the forces acting between them. All the matter that we can see, however, appears to be no more than about 4% of the total. A more exotic version of the Higgs particle could be a bridge to understanding the 96% of the universe that remains obscure.

TRIUMF salutes Peter Higgs and François Englert for their groundbreaking work recognized by today’s Nobel Prize and congratulates the international team of tens of thousands of scientists, engineers, students, and many more from around the world who helped make the discovery.

For spokespeople at the major Canadian universities involved in the Higgs discovery, please see the list below:

CANADIAN CONTACTS

U of Alberta: Doug Gingrich, [email protected], 780-492-9501
UBC:  Colin Gay, [email protected], 604-822-2753
Carleton U: Gerald Oakham (& TRIUMF), [email protected], 613-520-7539
McGill U: Brigitte Vachon (also able to interview in French), [email protected], 514-398-6478
U of Montreal: Claude Leroy (also able to interview in French),[email protected], 514-343-6722
Simon Fraser U: Mike Vetterli (& TRIUMF, also able to interview in French), [email protected], 778-782-5488
TRIUMF: Isabel Trigger (also able to interview in French), [email protected], 604-222-7651
U of Toronto: Robert Orr, [email protected], 416-978-6029
U of Victoria: Rob McPherson, [email protected], 604-222-7654
York U: Wendy Taylor, [email protected], 416-736-2100 ext 77758

While I know Canadians have been part of the multi-year, multi-country effort to determine the existence or non-existence of the Higgs Boson and much more in the field of particle physics, I would prefer we were not described as “… Key Part of Historical Nobel Prize … .” The question that springs to mind is: how were Canadian efforts key to this work? The answer is not revealed in the news release, which suggests that the claim may be a little overstated. On the other hand, I do like the bit about ‘saluting Higgs and Englert for their groundbreaking work’.

As for TRIUMF and what appears to be a series of name changes, I’m left somewhat puzzled, This Oct. 8, 2013 news release bears the name (or perhaps it’s a motto or tagline of some sort?): TRIUMF — Accelerating Science for Canada, meanwhile the website still sports this: TRIUMF Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics while a July 17, 2013 TRIUMF news release gloried in this name: TRIUMF Accelerators, Inc., (noted in my July 18, 2013 posting). Perhaps TRIUMF is trying to follow in CERN’s footsteps. CERN was once known as the ‘European particle physics laboratory’ but is now known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research and seems to also have the tagline: ‘Accelerating science’.

Tears of joy as physicists announce they’re pretty sure they found the Higgs Boson

Physicists are jubilant over the announcement from CERN (European Particle Physics Laboratory) that (from the CERN website),

The ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN today presented their latest results in the search for the long-sought Higgs boson. Both experiments see strong indications for the presence of a new particle, which could be the Higgs boson, in the mass region around 126 gigaelectronvolts (GeV). [emphases mine]

The depth of feeling is extraordinary given the announcement  is cautious. When you consider that this pursuit of the Higgs boson is international in scope (approximately 150 scientists from Canada and I assume much larger contingents from elsewhere) and the effort has spanned several years, it’s fascinating and instructive to observe the jubilance.

Here’s a sampling from the July 4, 2012 live blog Lizzy Davies of the UK’s Guardian newspaper (with tweets from Guardian science correspondent Ian Sample and others) wrote during the announcement,

7:17 am … The elusive “God particle” has become the most sought-after particle in modern science. Its discovery would be proof of an invisible energy field that fills the vacuum of space, and excitement in the scientific community is at fever pitch.

8.02am: And we’re off. First up is Joe Incandela, the leader of the team using the CMS detector to search for new particles. He’ll be followed by Fabiola Gianotti from the other team using the Atlas detector.

He says the results are “very strong, very solid”.

8.13am: As Incandela speaks, the brilliant Ian Sample is live-tweeting from Cern.

Ian Sample @iansample

I’ve been told that anyone who thinks they haven’t found a new particle after this has lost touch with reality. #cern #lhc #higgs #ichep2012

Ian Sample @iansample

Incandela “Many people went many days without sleep.” #ichep2012 #lhc #cern #higgs

And we’re keeping our observations extremely serious in keeping with the potentially historic nature of the day.

Ian Sample @iansample

Does Joe Incandela (cms spokesman) not look a little like George Clooney? #ichep2012 #lhc #higgs #lhc

8.39am: Big applause.

Anil Ananthaswamy @edgeofphysics

Combined significance of all results 5 standard deviations. Room breaks into applause, whistles #Higgs #LHC

9.44am: Rolf Heuer, Director General of CERN, offers this verdict:

As a layman I would say: I think we have it. You agree?

The audience claps. I think that’s a yes.

9.46am: Heuer flashes up on screen a slide that says Cern have discovered “a particle consistent with the Higgs boson- but which one?”

So, while this is undoubtedly a milestone with “global implications”, he says, it is also the beginning of a lot more research and investigation. But, he adds, “I think we can be very, very optimistic”.

9.49am: Peter Higgs, who first proposed the idea of this boson in 1964 and is now 83, may have shed a tear or two there- a sight which seems to have got everyone else going too.

Manlio De Domenico @manlius84

Peter #Higgs is crying… it’s a great day for physics. I am proud of being a physician :°)

I definitely wanted to get that “George Clooney” comment in here so you can have a sense of just how giddy people can get (if you didn’t already know) in the midst of an important announcement.

Jeff Forshaw, particle physics professor at the University of Manchester, provides some perspective about the importance of this announcement in his July 4, 2012 posting for the Guardian,

Fundamental science like this is thrilling, not least because of the way that years of hard work, experimentation and mathematical analysis have led us to a worldview of astonishing simplicity and beauty.

We have learned that the universe is made up of particles and that those particles dance around in a crazy quantum way. But the rules of the game are simple – they can be codified (almost) on the back of an envelope and they express the fact that, at its most elemental level, the universe is governed by symmetry. Symmetry and simplicity go hand in hand – half a snowflake is enough information to anticipate what the other half looks like – and so it is with those dancing particles. The discovery that nature is beautifully symmetric means we have very little choice in how the elementary particles do their dance – the rules simply “come for free”. Why the universe should be built in such an elegant fashion is not understood yet, but it leaves us with a sense of awe and wonder that we should be privileged to live in such a place.

Now, physicists will begin again as they try to better our understanding of the universe. But for today they will celebrate and I have some quotes from the Canadian contingent about this latest announcement (from the July 4, 2012 TRIUMF news release),

Likening the quest for the Higgs to Christopher Columbus’s voyage of
discovery to the New World, Nigel S. Lockyer, director of TRIUMF [based at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada], said,”With ATLAS and the LHC, we set sail in the direction toward what we thought was the land of the Higgs. Last December, we saw a smudge on the horizon and knew we could be getting close to land. With these latest results, we’ve
seen the shoreline! We know we’ll make it to dry land, but the ship is not
in to shore just yet.”

The results presented today are labeled preliminary. They are based on data
collected in 2011 and 2012, with the 2012 data still under analysis.
Publication of the analyses shown today is expected around the end of July.
A more complete picture of today’s observations will emerge later this year
after the LHC provides the experiments with more data.

“The observation of a new particle at about 125 GeV, or 130 times the mass
of the proton, by both the ATLAS and CMS groups is already a tremendous
achievement,” said Rob McPherson, spokesperson of the ATLAS Canada
collaboration, a professor of physics at the University of Victoria and
Institute of Particle Physics scientist. “While our preliminary measurements
show this new particle is consistent with the Higgs boson, we need more data
to be sure that it is definitely the Higgs.”

The next step will be to determine the precise nature of the particle and
its significance for our understanding of the universe. Are its properties
as expected for the long-sought Higgs boson, the final\ missing ingredient
in the Standard Model of particle physics? Or is it something more exotic?
The Standard Model describes the fundamental particles from which we, and
every visible thing in the universe, are made, and the forces acting between
them. All the matter that we can see, however, appears to be no more than
about 4% of the total. A more exotic version of the Higgs particle could be
a bridge to understanding the 96% of the universe that remains obscure.

Don’t forget there’s an open house from 9 am to 11 am today at TRIUMF where you can find out more about the Higgs boson and the latest announcement.

ETA July 4, 2012 1:30 pm PST: You can still attend a live Q&A being held by the journal Nature tomorrow (July 5, 2012) at 2 pm BST or 6 am PST: Live Q&A: Higgs found, so what’s next?

The smallness of the Higgs mass (finding the Higgs boson)

As I noted last week (in my Dec. 6, 2011 posting), there was a big Dec. 13, 2011 announcement from CERN (European Laboratory for Particle Physics) about the Higgs boson. No, they haven’t found it but researchers believe they’ve discovered a hint of where it might be—this ‘hint’ has made international news.

For anyone who may have some questions about what exactly a Higgs boson is, here’s a video of “Fermilab scientist Don Lincoln [describing] the nature of the Higgs boson. Several large experimental groups are hot on the trail of this elusive subatomic particle which is thought to explain the origins of particle mass” (from the YouTube description),

Here’s a little more about why there’s so much excitement, from the Dec. 13, 2011 news item on Science Daily,

The Standard Model is the theory that physicists use to describe the behaviour of fundamental particles [the smallest discrete entities that make up matter and are not made up of smaller constituent bits of matter themselves] and the forces that act between them. It describes the ordinary matter from which we, and everything visible in the Universe, are made extremely well. Nevertheless, the Standard Model does not describe the 96% of the Universe that is invisible. One of the main goals of the LHC [Large Hadron Collider] research programme is to go beyond the Standard Model, and the Higgs boson could be the key.

A Standard Model Higgs boson would confirm a theory first put forward in the 1960s, but there are other possible forms the Higgs boson could take, linked to theories that go beyond the Standard Model. A Standard Model Higgs could still point the way to new physics, through subtleties in its behaviour that would only emerge after studying a large number of Higgs particle decays. A non-Standard Model Higgs, currently beyond the reach of the LHC experiments with data so far recorded, would immediately open the door to new physics, whereas the absence of a Standard Model Higgs would point strongly to new physics at the LHC’s full design energy, set to be achieved after 2014. Whether ATLAS [research group at CERN] and CMS [research group at CERN] show over the coming months that the Standard Model Higgs boson exists or not, the LHC programme is opening the way to new physics.

The search for the Higgs boson has been ongoing for some 40 or 50 years and this announcement points to a definitive answer as to its existence by late 2012.

Two groups at CERN have reported on the results of their search for the Higgs boson. From the Dec. 13, 2011 news item on physorg.com,

Two experiments at the Large Hadron Collider have nearly eliminated the space in which the Higgs boson could dwell, scientists announced in a seminar held at CERN today. However, the ATLAS and CMS experiments see modest excesses in their data that could soon uncover the famous missing piece of the physics puzzle.

The experiments revealed the latest results as part of their regular report to the CERN Council, which provides oversight for the laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland.

Theorists have predicted that some subatomic particles gain mass by interacting with other particles called Higgs bosons. The Higgs boson is the only undiscovered part of the Standard Model of physics, which describes the basic building blocks of matter and their interactions.

The experiments’ main conclusion is that the Standard Model Higgs boson, if it exists, is most likely to have a mass constrained to the range 116-130 GeV by the ATLAS experiment, and 115-127 GeV by CMS. Tantalising hints have been seen by both experiments in this mass region, but these are not yet strong enough to claim a discovery.

Scientists (Philip Schuster, Natalia Toro, and Andy Haas) at the Dec. 13, 2011 (9:30 am PST) Perimeter Institute webcast (What the Higgs is going on?), which took place a few hours after the CERN announcement, exhibited a lot of excitement liberally spiced with caution in regard to the announcement.  The webcast is available for viewing and if you’re wondering whether it’s suitable for you, here’s a description from the event webpage,

What is everything in the universe made of? What was the universe like billions of years ago?

These are eternal questions that humans have pondered throughout the ages. Today, we are on the verge of potentially making revolutionary breakthroughs in answering them.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN is a 27-kilometre long underground experiment located on the Swiss-French border near Geneva. It smashes subatomic particles together at vast speeds in an effort to learn more about the fundamental building blocks that make up everything around you. It is the biggest, most ambitious scientific experiment in human history.

On December 13, the LHC will announce its latest findings in its search for the last undiscovered particle in our current model of subatomic particles. This particle is the near-mythical ‘Higgs Boson’ — the particle thought to be involved in giving other particles their mass.

This educational event, geared towards high school students, teachers and the general public, will follow CERN’s announcement and discuss its findings and their background and implications in clear, accessible language.

You can view the webcast from here. The description of how scientists choose which events to measure and the process they use to define whether or not an event is significant adds to one’s appreciation of the work being done in these projects.

Jon Butterworth, a physicist who works at CERN and whose blog is one of the Guardian science blogs, wrote a limerick about it all in his Dec. 13, 2011 posting,

A physicist saw an enigma
And called to his mum “Flying pig, ma!”
She said “Flying pigs?
Next thing you’ll see the Higgs!”
He said “Nah, not until it’s five sigma!”

Five sigma is a measure of certainty. The current results have a 2.3 sigma, which is promising but the gold standard is five.

Here’s the live blog that Alok Jha, science correspondent for the Guardain, kept during the Dec. 13, 2011 announcement (excerpted from the live blog),

1.01pm: Cern’s live webcast has begun, but the seminar has yet to start. The expressions on some of the faces in the audience suggests Christmas is about to come early for the physics community.

1.02pm: Ok the seminar has started, but traffic to the webcast is obviously heavy, breaking up the transmission.

TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, held a public seminar at 2:30 pm PST (Dec. 13, 2011) on their site at the University of British Columbia. They also have some information on their website about Canadian scientists who are involved in the CERN experiments ( from the Research Highlights page,  Physicists Smell but Don’t Yet Taste Higgs),

In a seminar held at CERN this morning and then repeated across Canada at multiple partnering institutions, the ATLAS and CMS experiments presented the status of their searches for the Standard Model Higgs boson. Finding this particle would snap in the last missing puzzle piece of the Standard Model that describes the universe at its most basic level. Tantalizing hints have been seen by both experiments in the same mass region, but these are not yet strong enough to claim a discovery. The main conclusion is that the Standard Model Higgs boson, if it exists, is most likely to have a mass in the range 115-130 GeV, excluding essentially all other hiding places.

“We are at a crossroads in our understanding of how energy gained mass and became matter in the early universe,” said Rob McPherson, spokesperson of the Canadian team working on the ATLAS project and a professor at the University of Victoria and a research scientist with the Institute of Particle Physics. “If these hints lead to a firm discovery over the coming year, we will be at the start of our investigation of the interactions that lie behind our current theories. If they are not confirmed, we will have to reject our present understanding, throw out our current theories, and start over. It is an extremely interesting time in particle physics.”

So there you have it. They think they observed something but they’re not sure, which makes for a very exciting time (they hope). While I’m not a scientist and cannot fully appreciate this moment, I can remember similar moments in my own work when something seems to be coming into focus. It isn’t my final result but it does hint at what is to come and gives me the resolve (giddy excitement for a few hours or days) I need to continue because a lot of what I do is slogging (I recognize the word play).

On a final note, it seems there was a minor crisis during the presentations in CERN. Lily Asquith, at the Argonne National Laboratory [Chicago, US] writes about it on Jon Butterworth’s blog (Guardian science blogs) in her Dec. 14, 2011 posting,

We have a large windowless meeting room at Argonne with an old-fashioned pull-down projector screen. When I walked in there yesterday morning for the CERN videolink I was greeted by 30-odd ashen-faced physicists. Oh lord, I thought, there has been a terrible accident. …

There stands Fabiola Gianotti [particle physicist in charge of the ATLAS experiment in CERN], our queen, looking fabulous and doing a typically faultless job of presenting a complicated and not-yet-conclusive measurement; taking the work of hundreds of nutty, stressed-out physicists and breathing sense into it.

But I hear only one thing as I walk the corridors of my lab and of the internet:

comic sans [the font Gianotti used for the text in her presentation]

- why‽

Do we need to add an additional systematic uncertainty to all our measurements based on this unwise choice of font? Are any of our results still valid? What does this mean for the speed of light?

Please do read the rest of Asquith’s very amusing piece. Who knew physicists are so concerned with fonts?

For the curious, here’s a sample of Comic Sans along with a history excerpt from its Wikipedia essay,

Microsoft designer Vincent Connare says that he began work on Comic Sans in October of 1994. Connare had already created a number of child-oriented fonts for various applications, so when he saw a beta version of Microsoft Bob that used Times New Roman in the word balloons of cartoon characters, he decided to create a new face based on the lettering style of comic books he had in his office, specifically The Dark Knight Returns (lettered by John Costanza) and Watchmen (lettered by Dave Gibbons).

So the font was originally designed for children and comic books, eh?