Thousands of physicists from around the world, including some Fresno State faculty and students, worked for years at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to discover the Higgs boson, or the “God particle.”
On Tuesday, it was determined that discovery was worthy of a Nobel Prize.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences jointly awarded Francois Englert of Belgium and Peter Higgs of Britain the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics for their theory, hypothesized in the 1960s, explaining how certain subatomic particles obtain mass by interacting with the Higgs field.
The field is an invisible sea of energy that permeates the entire universe. The Higgs boson, an elementary particle, is the visible mediator and manifestation of that field.
Fresno State is the only California State University campus to have a program that gives students the opportunity to participate in the research that helped the physicists win the Nobel Prize.
On July 4, 2012—nearly five decades after the physicists envisioned the theory—CERN announced that they had discovered a particle consistent with the Higgs boson using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a $10 billion particle accelerator located beneath the French-Swiss border near Geneva, Switzerland.
Simon Gonzalez, an astrophysics and astronomy graduate student from Fresno State, was at CERN that summer conducting research for the first time when the announcement was made that the particle had been found.
“I was sleeping outside of an auditorium at 1 a.m. in the morning in order to get a seat to hear the announcement,” he said.
After hours of excitement and little sleep, Gonzalez said he was let inside the auditorium around 7 a.m. and sat in the back where he listened to Rolf-Dieter Heuer, CERN’s director general, introduce the discovery with 99 percent certainty. Higgs and Englert, he said, attended the announcement.
Although the particle was officially confirmed on March 14 at Les Rencontres de Moriond, a conference held in Italy for the worldwide particle physics community, scientists at CERN will continue researching the Higgs boson.
Last summer, three Fresno State physics students, including Gonzalez again, traveled to Geneva to conduct research at CERN for 10 weeks and continue the search for “new physics.”
The trip was part of the Fresno State ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS) program, which is named after one of seven particle detectors located at the LHC. They were led by Dr. Yongsheng Gao, an associate professor of physics at Fresno State.
The students discussed their research projects conducted at CERN regarding the ATLAS experiment during a colloquium Friday in McLane Hall.
Gonzalez said it was an honor to work at CERN for a second time.
“I felt very privileged that they chose me to go,” he said.
Gonzalez said the experience gave him the chance to continue his research from 2012, which involved updating some of the ATLAS hardware alongside physicists from around the world.
“That’s the best part about it,” he said. “You get immersed in so many different cultures. While I was there, I befriended so many people from different parts of Europe and other parts of the world. I had a friend from Greece, from Italy, France, a girl from Malta. I had never heard of the place until she told me, ‘There it is on the map!’”
Jimmy Gonzalez—an undergraduate student at Fresno State triple majoring in physics, mathematics and philosophy—also conducted research at CERN over the summer and said working with distinguished physicists was “absolutely amazing.”
“You’re actually speaking with people who understand you when you’re talking about physics,” he said with a laugh.
Gao said the program gives students the opportunity to work at one of the most respected centers for scientific research in the world. He said the center is the birthplace of Nobel Prize laureates and the World Wide Web.
The ATLAS collaboration, Gao said, consists of about 3,000 physicists from 38 countries. Of those 3,000, only about 500 researchers are from U.S. universities and national laboratories.
Included among the universities that participate in the ATLAS experiment are Harvard, Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of California, Berkley.
The Fresno State program consists of Gao, postdoctoral researcher Dr. Harinder Singh Bawa and about 12 graduate and undergraduate students.
Because the group is small, Bawa said obtaining National Science Foundation grants to fund the program hasn’t always been an easy task.
“We have our challenges, because we are a very small group, and we have to compete with leading U.S. universities for the grants,” he said. “This is the biggest challenge. We joined in 2007, and we are surviving up to now.”
Since 2009, Gao said, Fresno State has received three National Science Foundation research grants totaling about $1.6 million.
Regardless of its size, Gao said everyone who is a part of the Fresno State ATLAS program is able to enjoy the same privileges as researchers from any other university.
“The university is off the name tag, so you are recognized by your contribution to the experiment,” Gao said. “They don’t care whether you are from Harvard, as long as you are doing good work.”
In order to provide more CSU students the opportunity to work on the ATLAS experiment, Gao and Dr. Doug Singleton, a professor of physics at Fresno State, built the CSU Nuclear and Particle Physics Consortium (NUPAC).
Gao said NUPAC now consists of 14 CSU campuses with Fresno State’s ATLAS program as its centerpiece.
Since 2008, he said, 24 students from five NUPAC campuses have worked on ATLAS research projects at CERN for at least one summer through the Fresno State program.