NORMAN — In the early morning hours of July 4, a group of University of Oklahoma scientists gathered in a room on campus to await one of the most important announcements in recent memory in the field of particle physics.
Even before they heard it, the researchers knew what the announcement would be: that an international team of scientists, including several team members from Oklahoma, had discovered a new particle, thought to be the Higgs boson.
“We have been breaking out champagne,” said Patrick Skubic, a professor in OU's Homer L. Dodge Department of Physics and Astronomy and a member of the team. “It's been a very exciting time for us in the field.”
Last week, researchers from European nuclear research facility CERN announced they had identified what appeared to be the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle that gives mass to all matter in the universe.
Researchers at the facility, located near Geneva, Switzerland, stopped short of a definitive announcement, saying instead that more time is needed to prepare the results for publication.
Scientists from OU, Oklahoma State University and Langston University were among 1,700 of their colleagues from 89 American universities who collaborated on the project. OU's contingent was made up of four faculty members, three postdoctoral researchers and a small group of graduate students.
Though their team is relatively small in comparison, OU's scientists played an important role in the project, Skubic said. The OU team collected and analyzed data, he said, and also helped build parts of the detector used at CERN. Some of those components were assembled in Oklahoma City, he said.
Researchers from OSU were also involved in the ATLAS project, one of the two experiments that led to the discovery. OSU's involvement was threefold, said OSU physics professor Alexander Khanov: OSU researchers were involved in calibrating detectors, measuring processes involved in the research and operating detectors.
“Like a car, the ATLAS detector needs drivers to run it,” Khanov said. “We, the ATLAS drivers, sit in the control room and outside, making sure that all systems are operating properly.”
The Higgs boson, known colloquially as the God particle, was predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics, a theory that deals with subatomic particles. Phillip Gutierrez, a physics professor and member of the team, said the particle is one of the least-understood parts of that model.
Once scientists better understand the particle, it could lead to more new findings, including undiscovered states of matter beyond those found in everyday life — solid, liquid and gas.
“To me, this is only the beginning,” Gutierrez said.
The discovery of those states of matter could shed light on the nature of dark matter, a theoretical type of matter scientists think could make up the lion's share of the matter in the universe, said Howard Baer, an OU theorist.
“Finding the Higgs is only the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “It raises a lot of questions, but we are closing the book on one chapter and opening the door to another chapter in the world of particle physics.”
In addition to leading to more findings in its own right, the discovery of the particle also allows scientists to develop more advanced equipment to aid them in those discoveries, said Brad Abbott, an OU particle physicist.
As vital as CERN's Large Hadron Collider has been throughout the project, Abbott said, it won't be enough to allow scientists to fully understand the Higgs particle. Now that scientists know the mass of the particle, they can begin to figure out what kind of collider they'll need for further research.
Like the researchers at CERN, Skubic said he and the other researchers at OU were taking care not to speak in definitive terms about the findings. Although the particle researchers observed is consistent with the Higgs, he said, more measurements are needed to confirm the discovery.
Still, he said, it's difficult not to be excited about the likely discovery of a particle scientists have been seeking for more than 50 years.
“It's something that was predicted back when I was in college,” Skubic said. “It's a signature event in my career, needless to say.”