Indiana University

Work by IU physicists, technologists helped make Nobel Prize win for Higgs boson possible

  • Oct. 8, 2013


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- 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. Today Englert and Higgs 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 through successful experimentation that Englert’s and Higgs’ theories were right, were among thousands of other researchers who, working in one of the largest scientific collaborations in history, last year found that the fundamental particle -- the Higgs boson -- did exist.

The Higgs particle was discovered by the ATLAS and CMS collaborations, each of which involved over 3,000 people from around the world, and it was the ATLAS particle detector experiment that involved IU scientists and technologists. IU physicists designed and built a key component of the ATLAS detector, and information technologists here developed software for and operated the Open Science Grid -- an international computer grid used to analyze the vast data from the Large Hadron Collider. The Open Science Grid provided billions of compute hours to sift through the Large Hadron Collider data and find evidence of the Higgs boson.

“Many of us have spent the last few decades designing and building the ATLAS experiment,” said 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 component is a tracking drift chamber that uses 52,544 individual tubular drift tubes to provide a combination of continuous tracking with many measurements in individual drift tubes and of electron identification based on transition radiation from fibers interleaved between the tubes.

“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,” said 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.

One of the computing resources integrated into the Open Science Grid is a computing facility called the Midwest Tier II Center, operated jointly by IU, the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois. IU physicist Frederick Luehring is the IU leader of the Midwest Tier II Center, which focuses particularly on analyzing ATLAS data.

"As far as I know this is the largest amount of computing power ever amassed to enable a single scientific discovery," said 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.”

Quick's group implemented and created software that enabled data from the Large Hadron Collider to be analyzed on a network of computers that span the world.

"UITS and PTI were involved in the development of computing grids to analyze LHC data more than a decade ago thanks to invitations from IU physicists -- particularly research scientist Fred Luehring -- who were leading development of the LHC. This has been a wonderful partnership of IU scientists and IU information technologists, helping to create fundamental new discoveries," said Craig Stewart, executive director of the Pervasive Technology Institute and associate dean for research technologies in the Office of the Vice President for Information Technology.

Rick Van Kooten, another ATLAS collaborator in IU College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Physics, said the road from theorizing about the diversity of particles in the universe to proving it through quantifiable experimentation marked one of man’s greatest scientific achievements.

“The fact that this part of the Standard Model that involves admittedly esoteric math and theory way back in 1964 by the Nobel winners is actually the true description of nature is simply amazing,” he said. “For theorists to predict such an important particle and field and then have it discovered almost 50 years later is the pinnacle of scientific achievements. To me, if Nobel prizes can be ranked in order of achievement, this one would be amongst the top ones.”

IU researchers said 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.

“The Higgs boson may be a portal to new physics, for example, in possible coupling to the mysterious dark matter of the universe, as well as new physics causing measured deviations from its predicted properties,” Van Kooten said. “The discovery of this predicted particle is just the beginning; precise studies of its properties open up a whole new, exciting way to examine our universe.”

Additional members of the IU ATLAS group from the 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 IU Open Science Grid and Midwest Tier2 Center groups include William K. Barnett (principal investigator for the Open Science Grid Grid Operations Center National Science Foundation grant), Elizabeth Prout, 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.

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The ATLAS detector, weighing in at about 7,000 tons

The ATLAS detector, weighing in at about 7,000 tons | Photo by CERN

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Stephen Chaplin