7 February 2013

This year the discovery of the Higgs particle marked a breakthrough in our understanding of the universe. But what next for the generation of Lancaster physicists who worked on the world's largest scientific experiement?

When evidence of the so-called ‘God Particle’ was detected at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, earlier this year, a generation of Lancaster physicists had good reason to celebrate.

For decades Lancaster physicists from PhD students to senior researchers have played a significant part in one of the most highly profile games of hide and seek science has ever seen.  Working at the coal face, sifting through the vast amounts of data generated by the particle detector at CERN, the Lancaster team was part of the international effort to find proof of the existence of the Higgs - a particle which holds the key to why objects have mass, but until this year may only have existed in the pages of theoretical physics texts.

When the long-awaited announcement finally came at lunch time in Geneva on July 4 the buzz spilled beyond the boundaries of the science community, capturing the imagination of the general public. Suddenly, the Higgs was being talked about everywhere – from the classroom to the twittersphere.

CERN Director General Rolf Heuer described the discovery as ‘a milestone in our understanding of nature’ and Lancaster physicists Dr Harald Fox who was at CERN for the announcement said: “For my generation of particle physicists this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment, truly exceptional.”

But what now for the Higgs hunters? 

Professor Roger Jones, who leads the Lancaster group on the ATLAS experiment at CERN, said far from there being a sense of anti-climax after the world’s media had packed up and gone home, the real work had begun.

“The particle accelerator was still running until just before Christmas, colliding protons. And after Christmas it returned to action, replacing protons with heavier atomic nuclei. The next step will be a two-year upgrade to the accelerator so we can almost double its energy, allowing us to look for heavier new particles, and search for rarer objects.”

He said work was also continuing on identifying the type of Higgs particle that had been discovered.

“To be the Higgs, it must be observed to decay in all the correct ways, and at all the predicted rates. We are working on this now…Potentially there could also be a family of Higgses. Theories abound - but the data will decide.”

So, what are the next big questions for physics?

Are there other mysteries on the horizon on the scale of the Higgs to challenge and inspire a future generation of young physicists?

“Absolutely,” says Professor Jones. “In addition there is the matter/antimatter asymmetry, and also the mystery of dark matter, which astronomical evidence says is very common in the Universe - but we are not sure what it is. The most promising candidates are things like so-called supersymmetric matter, and, despite some recent reports, there is every prospect we can directly create and observe such particles at CERN.

“And there is still a prospect that we may be able to probe the nature of gravity and even see evidence for 'extra dimensions' in the data - although the evidence so far has enabled us to exclude many of the more outlandish theories.”

Lancaster alumni who have worked on the Higgs hunt include undergraduates now working on PhDs on ATLAS  - Adam Barton, Lee Allison, Will Dearnaley and Michael Beattie. Several of Lancaster’s former PhD students are also continuing to work on ATLAS - James Catmore, Alastair Dewhurst, Darren Price and Sue Cheatham.

Do you have memories of the hunt for the Higgs during your time at Lancaster? We’d love to hear your stories and find out what you’re doing now.