It was 60 years ago that British physicist Peter Higgs published his theory that a subatomic particle called a boson gave other particles mass, thus fixing an earlier mathematical problem that tried, but failed, to describe quantum physics.
And yet it was a flash of focused energy at nearly the speed of light last year that proved Higgs right, when particles speeding round the Large Hadron Collider, buried 574 feet under the ground along the Swiss-French border, smacked into each other — using Kyle Cranmer's verb — to create a Higgs particle.
Cranmer, an experimental physicist who grew up in Little Rock and attended the Arkansas School of Mathematics, Science and Arts in Hot Springs, knows how the Higgs boson was produced because he was part of the research team at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, that worked on the project.
Cranmer, who was in ASMSA's charter class, graduating in 1995, went on to get his undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics from Rice University and his doctorate at Madison, Wis. He lived at CERN for "six years off and on," while he was working on his doctorate, he said in a phone interview from New York, where he is an assistant professor of physics at New York University.
Cranmer brought together data analyzed by the 10 or so groups who were searching for the boson in various ways to create "one big analysis," he said, of "tantalizing data" coming from the collider. On July 4, 2012, CERN announced it had found a particle like the Higgs boson (they were a bit shy about claiming victory). It was 3 a.m. Eastern time when CERN held its press conference, and time to pop the cork on the champagne at a party at NYU. The finding was confirmed in March this year.
To understand particle physics, one has to be a mathematician of the highest order. But Cranmer took a stab at explaining the Higgs, which got the name "the God particle" from earlier writers on physics. It's especially difficult, because there are no Higgs particles — they were created at the time of the Big Bang, which is what the Hadron Collider simulates.
Before Higgs (and others at the same time, as usually happens in scientific discovery) developed his theory, mathematicians could only come up with equations that left all particles massless, "which flies in the face of everything we know about the universe," Cranmer said. "If it weren't for bosons, there would be no life."
But rather than discrete Higgs particles floating around, the universe "is filled with this thing called the Higgs field. It's not so different from a magnetic field. ... When particles move through it they slow down," because they've taken on mass.
The Higgs field, he said, is like an ocean, and the bosons are like the waves in the ocean. If you throw a pebble into a lake, he said, you can see the ripples. If you slam particles together at unthinkable speed, you get a Higgs particle — which then rapidly decays, making it so difficult to find.
To explain how the collider produced the boson, Cranmer used the analogy of the atomic bomb. You split an atom, you get an enormous release of energy. If you focus that enormous energy at great speed, you can create a particle.
Just because the boson has been found and the Standard Model of quantum physics completed doesn't mean there is not more research for Cranmer to do. The Standard Model doesn't explain dark matter, for example, that moves the galaxies about — and most of the universe is dark matter. The next experiments, when the Collider starts up again in 2015, will try to understand the boson and its role in dark matter. Coincidentally, one of Cranmer's schoolmates at ASMSA, cosmologist James Dent of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, has published a paper theorizing how the boson created dark energy.
In August, Cranmer visited his high school for the 20th anniversary of its founding. He blogged on Quantum Diaries that the school "changed my life":
"I learned calculus and calculus-based physics from Dr. Irina Lyublinskaya, a Russian-educated Ph.D. physicist that had left Russia due to religious persecution. I took an organic chemistry [class] in high school with awesome labs where we extracted DNA from plants and ran gel electrophoresis. ... I learned some basic electronics from my electronics guru friends Colin and Stephen (who made a TV from a scrap oscilloscope), my friend Thomas made a pretty nice Tesla Coil, we used to get in trouble making potato guns and I almost lost an eye with a rail gun trial. ... "
Cranmer talked to Lyublinskaya just last week, he said. She was proud, and proud to be a part of what he had become.