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Prize honors two European physicists who proposed concepts verified by last year’s Higgs boson discovery

Nobel medal

When the announcement of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was made for theories that led to last year’s discovery of the Higgs boson, Rutgers assistant professor John Paul Chou was at the location where that discovery took place – the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland.

“There was lots of applause, lots of cheering,” he said, describing a CERN staff gathering he attended to view a live broadcast of the Nobel announcement from Sweden.

Receiving the prize were two physicists who in 1964 proposed fundamental concepts that were verified by the Higgs discovery at CERN nearly a half century later: Peter Higgs of Scotland and Francois Englert of Belgium.

“The Nobel Prize is a fantastic way of recognizing, of course, Higgs’ and Englert’s contributions, but also the broader high energy physics community’s important contributions as well,” said Chou from Geneva, during one of his monthly trips there.

It took thousands of physicists worldwide, including a dozen or so Rutgers researchers, using the world’s most powerful atom smashers to find the elusive particle. Sometimes dubbed the “God particle” for its role in explaining the physical universe, it is a key part of the so-called Higgs field that confers mass upon elementary subatomic particles, and by extension, all the matter in the universe.

Rutgers has been part of the Higgs search for more than a decade, first working at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory west of Chicago then joining one of the two major experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, or LHC.

Physicists doggedly pursued the Higgs boson because it was the one missing piece of physics’ so-called “standard model,” which elegantly describes elementary particles and how they interact.

The Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector under construction in 2007. Rutgers physicists are members of the CMS experiment.

“It wasn’t a clear-cut thing that the Higgs would be there, but now that we’ve found it, the people who predicted it so many years ago definitely deserve a prize,” said Yuri Gershtein, associate professor of physics and astronomy in the School of Arts and Sciences. “I’m still amazed that it actually exists – that nature actually has such things. That’s what the Nobel Prizes were made for.”

While conclusive evidence for the Higgs was found in Europe, Gershtein noted that U.S. scientists and institutions had a major role in the research. The Rutgers team is among 2,000 physicists from 89 U.S. universities and seven national laboratories that worked on the experiments.

Rutgers contributed instrumentation to an LHC detector known as CMS, or Compact Muon Solenoid, one of two major experiments that measures particle fragments that spew from collisions between protons traveling at close to the speed of light in the LHC’s 17-mile ring. One Rutgers contribution is electronic chips for a 60 megapixel digital camera that captures images of scattering particles; another is a device called a calorimeter that measures the energy of photons produced in those collisions. And for the Higgs search, Rutgers developed analysis routines that looked for evidence of the Higgs particle decaying to two photons.

Chou views last year’s Higgs discovery and this week’s Nobel recognition as more than a milestone.

“This is a beginning,” he said, describing his role to explore concepts beyond the standard model that have colorful names such as supersymmetry and extra spatial dimensions. “There are all kinds of new phenomena that can be hiding out there, waiting to be discovered. This has the possibility to be the start of a new golden age in particle physics.”

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