The Higgs boson is the last predicted piece of the Standard Model, physicists’ best understanding of elementary particles and the forces that underlie our existence.
The discovery of the Higgs boson was scientists’ way of discovering the Higgs field, which invisibly covers the universe and, crucially, gives mass to many of those elementary particles. Without the Higgs field, the Standard Model will not work. It cannot explain the world around us.
But finding the Higgs particle was a difficult task.
On July 4, 2012—nearly 50 years after theorists first predicted the existence of the Higgs boson—scientists representing the CMS and ATLAS experiments at the Large Hadron Collider made one of the biggest scientific announcements in recent memory. They’ve finally figured out the Higgs.
The news quickly spread all over the planet. Meet four people whose academic and career paths have been profoundly affected by the discovery.
Abhishek Panchal, India
Abhishek Panchal can trace his love of physics back to his days at a boarding school in the Surat district of Gujarat, India. At the age of 13, during his first year away from his family and friends, he turned to books. In a series he found on famous historians, Panchal encounters the term “elementary particles”. He fondly remembers flipping the purple shell of his Collins Big Dictionary of Science to search for more information about quarks, protons, hadrons, and leptons.
Science was just a very logical thing. It was something other than magic, it was like magic to me,” he says. “At the time, I had a dream that when I became a scientist and discovered a new particle, I would call it Abhion, for my name—yes, it was very absurd.”
A year later, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN announced the discovery of the Higgs boson. When the news became a point of discussion among the students around him, Panchal found he had something to contribute to the conversation; He knew a thing or two about the world of particle physicists. “Even people who weren’t interested in science wanted to know about it,” he says. “I think this has really helped a lot of people, not just me, get into the sciences in this field.”
After graduation, Panchal started his BA in Physics at the Center of Excellence in Basic Sciences in Mumbai, and soon jumped into a summer research project with the only particle physicist he knew in the department. He continued to study particle physics until his last year of college, when he took a class in quantum electrodynamics and decided to change course.
Today, Panchal is a master’s student in laser plasma physics at the Polytechnic Institute of Paris. His research includes work on a new technique for accelerating electrons. He hopes to apply his research in the emerging field of electronic therapy to treat cancer.
“It’s not at all related to what I started doing, but I think it has developed in a good way,” he says.
Caleb Vangmire, USA
Caleb Fangmire grew up on a farm near Lincoln, Nebraska. He believed he had a future in engineering, until an administrative shuffle at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln led him to major in physics.
He went with her. And when he began to take lessons, his interest in this field increased.
“One of the highlights for me was working with a graduate student,” he says. “We made two plots of land and I was looking at it like, This is real data collected at the LHC. I thought that was pretty cool and it kind of took off from there.”
Vangmire was a student in the summer of 2012, when rumors swirled about the impending discovery of the Higgs boson. Vangmer decided to stay up until 2 a.m., Nebraska time, to tune in to the big announcement.
“It was historic, wasn’t it?” He says. “It’s one of those moments in the history of physics that only comes once in a while.”
Vangmer says he thinks that if nothing new comes out of the LHC, his attention may have shifted to a different part of physics. Instead, novelty and excitement helped Fangmeier remain dedicated to the field – although ironically his interests have shifted once again towards the engineering side.
Today, Fangmeier runs a lab at his university, where he designs detector parts for CMS, one of two experiments scientists used to discover the Higgs.
Jurina Nakajima, Japan
Jurina Nakajima was 16 years old when she first learned about particle physics. I went out and bought a copy of the Japanese science magazine Newton To learn more. That same year, news of the Higgs broke, and excitement spread around her peers and teachers as well.
“I remember feeling even more fascinated that there was something undiscovered in the world and we found it,” she says. “I thought, if I study elementary particles, I will also be able to find new ones that no one knows about.”
This interest carried her through her studies all the way to her current PhD programme. She is working on research related to the International Linear Collider, a proposed particle accelerator designed as the “Higgs Factory”. It will produce the massive amounts of particles that inspired Nakajima so that scientists can measure them to new levels of precision.
These precise measurements could tell scientists about more than just the Higgs — including whether there are more undiscovered particles hidden from our view.
Federico Ronchetti, Italy
Federico Ronchetti heard the news of the discovery of the Higgs boson on top of a mountain near Como in Italy, while on a trip with a friend’s family. He was 16 years old.
He did not fully understand the significance of the event at the time, but began to consider it as soon as he got home. Ronchetti was amazed at how people from all over the world – from physicists to engineers to mechanics – came together to make the discovery possible.
In high school, Ronquette had the opportunity to visit CERN, the site of the Higgs discovery. He and his colleagues ventured underground for a tour of the towering ALICE detector, a sight that helped cement his love of physics.
Ronchetti attended the University of Insubria, where he developed an interest in medical physics. As a student, he’s back at CERN, this time for a month with his research group to run tests on silicon detectors.
Actually working on detector technology at the home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) propelled Ronchetti back into particle physics. “As someone interested in reagent research and development, being at CERN is the best thing one can do,” he says.
He has completed his master’s degree and is now applying to doctoral programmes. For inspiration, he kept a poster on his wall of the moment the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize to theorists François Englert and Peter W. Higgs.