The Hunt for the “God Particle”
The discovery that atoms, once thought to be the basic unit of matter, are made of particles continues to inspire questions among scientists. “How deep can we dig into particles?” asks Assistant Professor of Physics Samya Bano Zain. “And will we ever find what we are all made of?”
These inquiries fuel Zain’s work in experimental particle physics—specifically, the hunt for the Higgs Boson particle, sometimes referred to as the “God particle.” Scientists can examine the microseconds following the big bang, but discovering this elusive particle, believed to give mass to all other particles, will bring them even closer to the creation of the universe.
This quest is not Zain’s alone. She belongs to a worldwide community of physicists tackling this subject—the ATLAS Collaboration, a project of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN. On July 4, CERN announced that two separate teams working at its Large Hadron Collider (LHC) are more than 99 percent certain they’ve discovered the so-called God particle or at least a new particle exactly where they expected to find the Higgs. But a week later, scientists from Cornell University published a paper casting doubt on the findings and prompting CERN scientists to perform further analysis on the particle, which is lighter than what they expected of the Higgs Boson.
So it seems that, for now, the search for the God particle will continue—a turn of events that is actually beneficial to Susquehanna students. Members of the ATLAS Collaboration examine data from the LHC, a 17-mile-long circular tunnel that sends particles traveling through it at nearly the speed of light. Zain says the collider, located 100 meters underground on the border of Switzerland and France, is “the largest and most sophisticated particle accelerator that scientists have ever built.” It allows physicists to study the smallest particles known to science.
At Susquehanna, data from the Large Hadron Collider is filtered through a Tier-3 Grid Cluster computer for analysis. A group of seniors put together this cluster as part of their capstone projects before graduation.
“Now students at Susquehanna can do data analysis to find subatomic particles— pretty much the same kind of research I do at CERN and other physicists are doing around the world,” says Zain. “How cool is that?”
Physics students agree that this is a tremendous opportunity. Allison Sample ’14, who majors in physics and mathematics, spent her summer doing research with the cluster. “The big bang interests me because there are still so many unanswered questions, and the discoveries that we can make while studying it could teach us so much about the way the universe works,” she says.
As a member of a global team, Zain collaborates on a grand scale, but her collaboration within the Susquehanna community is also influential, especially to the students immersed in the mysterious pursuit of the universe’s origins.
Contributing writers to The ’Grove section are Karen Jones, assistant director of media relations; Megan McDermott ’14, a creative writing and religion major from Lewisberry, Pa.; Dalton Swett ‘13, a creative writing major from Effingham, N.H.; and Elise Tomaszewski, a creative writing and German major from Selinsgrove, Pa.