By Julie Engebretson
Five years after they contributed to the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the Higgs boson –– also called “the God particle” –– researchers in Baylor’s high-energy physics program are continuing their investigations into the building blocks of the universe. And while they probe these mysteries, they’re also kindling a passion for scientific discovery among their students.
On the morning of July 4, 2012, Dr. Jay Dittmann and Dr. Kenichi “Ken” Hatakeyama, both associate professors of physics at Baylor, woke in the middle of the night to watch a live broadcast as the greatest scientific discovery of their lives was announced. After more than two years of collecting data at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), near Geneva, Switzerland, scientists had observed an elusive subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson.
“The Higgs boson discovery, I think a lot of people would say, is just one of the biggest discoveries of the century in physics,” Dittmann said. “It certainly is for a lot of younger high-energy physicists. They’ve never seen anything on this level before. There may have been 4,000 people working on this single experiment, but [Ken and I] felt very much a part of this discovery. It was exciting.”
Just what is a Higgs boson? For non-scientists, the full and unabridged answer to that question becomes very complicated very quickly. Simply put, every object or substance we know is made up of atoms which were long assumed to be life’s most elementary particles –– atom being Greek for “indivisible” or “unable to cut.” By the 1930s, however, scientists observed even smaller subatomic particles, including the electron and the proton. As high-energy physics research advanced, a theory emerged called the Standard Model of particle physics which predicted a collection of elementary particles that behave and interact in specific ways and make up all of the known universe.
By the late 1990s, every particle predicted by the Standard Model had indeed been observed, except one –– the Higgs boson. It’s referred to as “the God particle” by some because it completes the puzzle in a sense, serving to define or explain the mass of all the other elementary particles.
The Baylor high-energy physics team –– including Dittmann and Hatakeyama, a couple of postdoctoral fellows and a select group of graduate and undergraduate students –– represent the university as one of only about 50 institutions worldwide chosen to work on the very experiment that detected the Higgs boson using the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) more than five years ago.
The LHC is the most powerful proton collider –– and the largest single machine –– in the world. Its purpose is to circulate protons at speeds approaching the speed of light and generate billions of proton collisions.
“Those collisions are what interest us as physicists,” Dittmann said. “Scientists can observe entirely new, massive or energetic particles that are produced and go flying in every direction as a result of these collisions.”
A kind of ‘map’ of the collision is generated by a highly sophisticated particle detector, and these data are then analyzed.
When the Higgs boson discovery was announced in 2012, the world watched and many asked, “What do these discoveries have to do with everyday life?”
“In high-energy physics, the broad pursuit is to understand the fundamental nature of matter and energy. We want to test broad theories like the Standard Model and explore whether new theories are correct and can explain the things we still don’t know,” Dittmann said. “So, very broadly, that’s what we’re doing.”
John Lawrence, a senior physics major who was a member of the Baylor team in 2017 at CERN, is no stranger to the question of practical application.
“I have received this question many times. There are many applications that began with discoveries in high-energy physics, and even more yet to be discovered,” Lawrence said. “For instance, some physicists have used ideas from CERN to create neutron beams that may be used to treat cancer. The same question might be posed to most academic pursuits and, similarly, we are looking for new things that improve ourselves and the whole of humanity.”
From another perspective, the theoretical physicists, engineers and computer scientists engaged in the various experiments at CERN are stoking a kind of primordial fire. The billions of tiny collisions which take place there on an annual cycle –– beginning in late spring and continuing through the beginning of November –– are reenacting, as closely as technologically possible, the very origins of the universe.
“You can look at it that way,” Dittmann said. “By colliding these particles, we can replicate some of the conditions that would have existed in the early universe and there is simply no other easy or inexpensive way to do that.”
Life after Higgs
While the observation of the Higgs boson was and remains one of the most groundbreaking discoveries in the field, Dittman and Hatakeyama are quick to put the “God particle” in perspective against the continuum of high-energy physics and its unsolved mysteries.
“With the discovery of the Higgs, the Standard Model is complete, but only in a sense,” Hatakeyama said. “There are many things that we cannot quite explain. For instance, in our astronomical observation, we know there is dark matter, but we don’t know what that consists of. There is no particle in the Standard Model that explains the identity of dark matter.”
Dark matter is so called because it does not interact with light –– it is invisible and, thus far, unobservable, but its properties are inferred from its gravitational effects and other factors.
“In our work now, we are trying to glimpse some ‘extension’ of the Standard Model in a way that can explain, for instance, the existence of dark matter,” Hatakeyama said. “We are trying to find the additional particles that can answer these questions. The particles we have observed only account for about 5 percent of the entire universe. So, the rest is unknown.”
At CERN, there are seven ongoing experiments focused on different areas or questions in high-energy physics. Following the Higgs discovery, the team from Baylor is working specifically on the mystery of dark matter and searching for evidence of a popular theory that doubles the number of elementary particles in the Standard Model, hypothesizing that each is associated with a “shadow” or partner-particle far more massive.
“At Baylor, we’re particularly interested in this theory, which is called supersymmetry,” Dittman said. “But there are many different facets of high-energy physics worth exploring. Some university groups are taking increasingly precise measurements of the Higgs boson now that’s it’s been observed, while others are trying to understand the top quark in greater detail. Here at Baylor, we’re searching for evidence of supersymmetry that could help us understand dark matter.”
In June 2017, the Baylor team working in Switzerland at CERN enjoyed additional on-site help from three undergraduate students –– senior physics majors John Lawrence, Andrew Baas and Jordan Potarf.
“This summer we had the opportunity to install upgraded electronics and to ensure they would function properly in the experimental environment,” said Lawrence. “It was also a great personal experience just being there and exploring. There were beautiful mountains everywhere I turned. I’m grateful to Dr. Hatakeyama, my honors thesis advisor, who has really helped me pick up new topics in physics. I’m also grateful to Dr. Dittman, who has not only taught several of my physics classes, but he was always willing to lend a hand [while at CERN] even in non-physics areas, like how to shop for food when I don’t speak French.”
A Question of Faith
Striving to learn more about the elements involved in the creation of the universe prompts the question ––can a Christian scientist inform his faith through study of “the God particle?” While some scientists equate evangelical faith with an indifference or even resistance to scientific inquiry, Dittmann has found that the more he understands about science, the deeper his personal faith becomes.
“Science and religion answer different questions, so I think we can be Christians and do science just as well as scientists at other secular universities,” Dittmann said. “We are doing exactly the same quality of science that they are, but it doesn’t conflict with our faith and beliefs. If anything, I think that what we learn about the universe just points to the wonder of Creation. I think this area of science is so big –– we’re studying tiny particles –– but we’re also studying the nature of the universe, and it’s just awe-inspiring. I think that’s one big appeal for me.”
Potarf, a junior physics and mathematics major, expresses a similar sentiment. The opportunity he had through Baylor to work at CERN in the summer of 2017 was more than a chance to learn a bit of French – it gave him a rare glimpse of God’s handiwork.
“I have dreamed of working at CERN since third grade, and it was as great as I had hoped,” Potarf said. “I got to participate in something I have admired from afar and in doing so, I continue to better myself, learning new work-related and collaborative skills. It also gave me an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of Creation from one of the best seats in the house.”
Learn more about Baylor’s high-energy physics program.
This article was published in the Fall 2017 issue of Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine.