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SMU physicist explains the latest Higgs boson announcement in layman's terms

August 29, 2018

DALLAS (SMU) - Scientists conducting physics experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider have announced the discovery of the Higgs boson transforming, as it decays, into subatomic particles called bottom quarks, an observation that confirms that the "Standard Model" of the universe - the 20th century recipe for everything in the known physical world - is still valid.

This new discovery is a big step forward in the quest to understand how the Higgs enables fundamental particles to acquire mass. Many scientists suspect that the Higgs could interact with particles outside the Standard Model, such as dark matter - the unseen matter that does not emit or absorb light, but may make up more than 80 percent of the matter in the universe.

After several years of work experiments at both ATLAS and CMS - CERN detectors that use different types of technology to investigate a broad range of physics - have demonstrated that 60 percent of Higgs particles decay in the same way. By finding and mapping the Higgs boson interactions with known particles, scientists can simultaneously probe for new phenomena.

SMU played important roles in the analysis announced by CERN Aug. 28, including:
  • Development of the underlying analysis software framework (Stephen Sekula, SMU associate professor of physics was co-leader of the small group that included SMU graduate student Peilong Wang and post-doctoral researcher Francesco Lo Sterzo, that does this for the larger analysis for 2017-2018)

  • Studying background processes that mimic this Higgs boson decay, reducing measurement uncertainty in the final result.

"The Standard Model is the recipe for everything that surrounds us in the world today. Sekula explained. "It has been tested to ridiculous precision. People have been trying for 30-40 years to figure out where or if the Standard Model described matter incorrectly. Like any recipe you inherit from a family member, you trust but verify. This might be grandma's favorite recipe, but do you really need two sticks of butter? This finding shows that the Standard Model is still the best recipe for the Universe as we know it."

Scientists would have been intrigued if the Standard Model had not survived this test, Sekula said, because failure would have produced new knowledge.

"When we went to the moon, we didn't know we'd get Mylar and Tang," Sekula said. "What we've achieved getting to this point is we've pushed the boundaries of technology in both computing and electronics just to make this observation. Technology as we know it will continue to be revolutionized by fundamental curiosity about why the universe is the way it is.

"As for what we will get from all this experimentation, the honest answer is I don't know," Sekula said. "But based on the history of science, it's going to be amazing."
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About CERN

At CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, physicists and engineers are probing the fundamental structure of the universe. They use the world's largest and most complex scientific instruments to study the basic constituents of matter - the fundamental particles. The particles are made to collide together at close to the speed of light. The process gives the physicists clues about how the particles interact, and provides insights into the fundamental laws of nature. Founded in 1954, the CERN laboratory sits astride the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva.

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU's alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in seven degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

Southern Methodist University

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