The Fourth of July was a momentous day in the world of physics, and the University of Washington played a significant part in it.
Scientists around the world celebrated the detection of what appears to be the Higgs boson, an elusive subatomic particle whose existence is a major step in understanding the origins of the universe.
"For the UW group, it is particularly exciting because it comes after more than 20 years of dedicated effort," Henry Lubatti, a UW physics professor, said via email from an international physics conference in Melbourne, Australia, that began with the Web-based announcement of the discovery.
The much-anticipated finding came from the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, from its headquarters in Switzerland. CERN’s Large Hadron Collider began operating in 2008 with the expectation that it would detect the Higgs boson if such a particle existed.
In the very early hours of Wednesday morning, several UW physicists joined a crowd of about 175 people to watch the announcement at a restaurant near Seattle Center. Before the Web presentation began, the UW faculty members explained the purpose and significance of the research to the audience, as well as the UW role in conducting the research and building a key part of one of the CERN detectors.
Anna Goussiou, a UW physics professor who was at the Seattle event, said it was an emotional moment when she saw the first evidence for the Higgs boson flash on the screen during the webcast.
"I jumped up and screamed, ’There it is!’ all teary-eyed. I’ve been looking for the Higgs non-stop since the year 2000 and this is for me the discovery of a lifetime," she said.
Goussiou, along with her students and postdoctoral researchers, made significant contributions to the discovery as they searched collider data for signals of particle decays that could indicate the presence of the Higgs boson. Lubatti and UW physics Professor Gordon Watts searched the data for other signs that the Higgs might be present.
In the end, the data showed a particle with the expected properties of a Higgs boson had been detected, though it could take several more years of work to confirm whether the newly found particle is, in fact, a Higgs boson.
Watts said he felt a bit of anxiety and then a sense of relief at the Seattle restaurant early Wednesday as he watched the results from CERN display on the screen.
"I knew what Atlas’ results were, but if (the other detector) didn’t see it also then it just didn’t matter," he said. "I’d heard rumors, of course. But when that plot went up I froze. We had it! The crowd there collectively said ’ooooh’ and then started clapping and that brought me back. I have to say that I felt much calmer after that – almost relief. It was out there, for everyone to see. No more secrets, no more worrying if we were right or not, just done."