You probably wonder what the title has to do with a diary about science. It is part of a sentence in an interesting story in the March 5 NY Times about a discovery 50 years in the making. It was the story of the Higgs Boson. This was a story about some of the major players and events. I found it especially interesting because of my own involvement in a small way many years ago.
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) was 10 miles from the high school where I taught. In 1983, Fermilab offered for the first time three summer science teacher institutes in chemistry, biology, and physics. I was teaching physics. I was fortunate to be one of the 20 teachers selected for the physics group.
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Each day of the two week institute started with a lecture by one of the physicists at Fermilab. It was a tremendous opportunity for us to meet and ask questions of some of the prominent people in the field of high energy physics research. We often were treated to tours of the accelerator complex and experimental areas. These were amazing behind the scenes tours. Each afternoon, we met at a local high school to write lessons and curriculum incorporating our new knowledge into our classrooms. It proved to be a strong influence on my teaching.
Three years later, I became the coordinator of the physics portion of the institute and held that job until 1992. It was my role to seek out the physicists to present to our group, help arrange the tours, and plan the two weeks. The director of Fermilab was Leon Lederman. He won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1988. My work with Dr. Lederman and the Science Education department was some of the most inspiring of my career. Here I am seated in front of him posing for a publicity shot. Those were fun times.
We moved from there to Iowa in 1992. I continued to watch the progress of Fermilab in research into particle physics. It was disappointing to see the SSC – Superconducting Super Collider get cancelled. Many physicists left to work with CERN in Europe where they felt they had a future. In 1995, Fermilab did get to enjoy some headlines. They announced the discovery of the Top Quark, one of the last pieces of the Standard Model.
The Standard Model of Physics
If you are new to this topic, here is the brief and simple version. Most people are familiar with atoms and elements. Atoms are made of protons and neutrons in the nucleus with electrons configured around the outside of the nucleus. Three basic building blocks make up everything we normally encounter. Physicists figured out ways to collide these elementary particles at high speed to see if there was something else inside. Nothing else is in an electron. Protons and neutrons have 3 particles inside. These particles are called quarks. Protons have 2 up quarks and 1 down quark. Neutrons have 1 up and 2 down. These are stable arrangements.
Physicists are curious types. They wondered about collisions at higher speed and energy. The larger amounts of energy upon collision created more massive particles. New and more massive quarks called charm and strange joined the ranks of up and down. More intense collisions created bottom quarks. Physicists assumed there would be another called the top quark. That was successfully shown to be true by 1995 at Fermilab. These higher energy quarks and their combinations are not stable. They decay into other particles very quickly and leave behind stable quarks of up and down.
In addition to the 6 quarks, there are 3 light massed particles called the electron, the muon, and the tau particles. Here is a neat graphic to summarize some of what was said. Of course, there is a lot more to the model.
Fifty years ago, Peter Higgs postulated the presence of another particle in the Standard Model, the Higgs Boson. He argued that the Higgs was responsible for the property of mass that particles possess. That claim needed experimental verification. Scientists at Fermilab tried unsuccessfully to show it’s existence. Their collider of particles wasn’t energetic enough. It was close, but just short of what was needed. CERN built the collider and detectors with enough energy to make the Higgs show up ever so briefly. But, the data showed it to extremely high confidence. That announcement took place July 4, 2012.
I urge you to read the Times story linked at the start of this diary. It isn’t heavy with technical jargon. It is more of a human interest story of discovery. It includes a video segment and some excellent graphics which explain the role of the Higgs particle. I think you will be glad you read it. There is more Higgs info in this timeline.
Thank you for joining me.