On the Frontline of the Next Revolution in Physics
August 5, 2016
In Switzerland, at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), scientists smash protons together at close to the speed of light in the hopes of revolutionizing our understanding of the universe. If they succeed, physics graduate student Hannah Herde may be one of the first people on the planet to learn they've done it.
Herde is among the last scientists to review the terabytes worth of data generated daily by the collider. At 2 a.m., in her apartment a few miles away from the LHC, she compiles the findings and plots the information into a histogram. If that day's results happen to usher in a new era of physics, she would likely be among the first to know.
In Chicago this Thursday, researchers announced new findings from the LHC. They're significant, but not the earth-shattering results physicists dream of. Still, Herde was among the first to see them too.
"When I first got here, I thought, there can't be one graduate student up at 2 in the morning staring at a graph hoping that there's something there," says Herde. "But I'm now that student. It's crazy."
Herde is part of Brandeis' experimental high energy physics group, close to a dozen scientists and students working at the LHC. In addition to Herde, they include professors Gabriella Sciolla, Jim Bensinger, Craig Blocker and Hermann Wellenstein; research scientist Christoph Amelung; post docs Gaetano Barone, Giacomo Artoni, Sami Dhaliwal and Max Goblirsch; and graduate students Laura Bergsten, Kelsey O’Connor, David Dodsworth and Zach Schillaci.
In recent months, the Brandeis group has focused on the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle that gives much of the universe its mass. The Higgs was first theorized in the 1960s, but only proven to exist in 2012. It was detected by analyzing the debris of protons smashed together at a energy level of 8 teraelectronvolts (TeV).
Since 2015, the protons have been traveling with twice as much energy (13 TeV). Researchers wanted to know if this would result in twice the number of Higgs bosons being detected. It did, providing more confirmation of what's called the Standard Model, the theory that explains the universe at the subatomic level. This is what the researchers in Chicago reported on Thursday.
"The Standard Model is still true," says Herde. "We have got this down pat."
But there were some other results that could in time result in another major scientific breakthrough at the LHC. Some of the fallout from the proton collisions yielded more Higgs bosons particles than predicted. This may prove a statistical blip, but it may also be that these extra bosons aren't bosons at all, but an entirely new type of particle that takes physics beyond the Standard Model and changes our view of the universe forever. Then Herde would be able to say she was there when the revolution started.