The Higgs boson is the last predicted piece of the Standard Model, physicists’ best understanding of the elementary particles and forces underlying our existence.
The discovery of the Higgs boson was scientists’ way of detecting 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 would not work. It couldn’t explain the world around us.
But finding the Higgs boson proved 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 largest scientific announcements in recent history. . Finally they had discovered the Higgs.
The news quickly spread across the planet. Meet four people whose academic and career paths were influenced by the momentous 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 took refuge in books. In a series he found about famous historical scientists, Panchal first encountered the term “elementary particles.” He fondly remembers turning over the purple cover of his large Collins Dictionary of Science to find out more about quarks, protons, hadrons, and leptons.
“Science was just something very logical. It was something other than magic, that was like magic to me,” he says. “At the time I dreamed that when I became a scientist and discovered a new particle, I would call it Abhion, for my name – yes, it was very stupid.”
A year later, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN announced the discovery of the Higgs boson. As the news became a topic of conversation among the students around him, Panchal discovered that he could add something to the conversation; he actually knew a thing or two about the world of particle physics. “Even people who didn’t like science wanted to know more about it,” he says. “I think that really helped a lot of people, not just me, to get into science in this area.”
After graduation, Panchal embarked on a bachelor’s degree in physics at the Center for Excellence in Basic Sciences in Mumbai and soon embarked on a summer research project with the only particle physicist he knew in the department. He stayed with particle physics until the last year of his training, when he took a course in quantum electrodynamics and decided to change course.
Today, Panchal is a master’s student of laser plasma physics at the Institut Polytechnique de Paris. In his research he is working on a new technique to accelerate electrons. He hopes to apply his research to the emerging field of electron therapy for cancer treatment.
“It has nothing to do with whatever I started, but I think it’s developed in a good way,” he says.
Caleb Fangmeier, USA
Caleb Fangmeier grew up on a farm near Lincoln, Nebraska. He thought he had a future in engineering until an administrative confusion at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln made it his physics major.
He went with me. And when he started taking classes, he became more interested in the craft.
“One of the lightbulb moments for me was working with a graduate student,” he says. “We had made a few plots and I looked at them like, This is real data collected from the LHC. I thought that was so cool and started from there.’
Fangmeier was a college student in the summer of 2012, when rumors circulated about the imminent discovery of the Higgs boson. Fangmeier decided to stay up until 2 a.m., Nebraska time, to tune in to the big announcement.
“It was historic, right?” he says. “It’s one of those moments in the history of physics that only happens once in a while.”
Fangmeier says he thinks if nothing new had come out of the LHC, his focus might have shifted to another area of physics. Instead, the novelty and excitement helped Fangmeier remain committed to the field, although, ironically, his interests have shifted to the technical side.
Today, Fangmeier runs a lab in his alma mater, where he designs detector components for CMS, one of two experiments scientists used to discover the Higgs.
Jurina Nakajima, Japan
Jurina Nakajima was 16 when she first learned about particle physics. She went out and bought a copy of the Japanese science magazine Newton learn more. That same year, the news about the Higgs broke, the excitement also spread among her peers and teachers.
“I remember being 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 particles that nobody knows about.”
This interest carried her through her studies up to her current PhD programme. She is working on research related to the International Linear Collider, a proposed particle accelerator designed as a ‘Higgs factory’. It would produce massive amounts of the particle that inspired Nakajima, allowing scientists to measure it to new levels of precision.
These precision measurements could tell scientists more than just the Higgs, including whether there are more undiscovered particles hiding beyond our view.
Federico Ronchetti, Italy
Federico Ronchetti heard the news of the discovery of the Higgs boson on top of a mountain near Como, Italy, while traveling with a friend’s family. He was 16 years old.
He didn’t quite understand the significance of the event at the time, but he started looking at 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, Ronchetti had the opportunity to visit CERN, the site of Higgs’ discovery. He and his classmates ventured underground on a tour of the towering ALICE detector, a sight that helped cement his love of physics.
Ronchetti enrolled at the University of Insubria, where he developed an interest in medical physics. As a student, he returned to CERN, this time for a month with his research group to conduct tests on silicon detectors.
Actually working on detector technology in the home of the LHC sent Ronchetti back to particle physics. “As someone interested in detector research and development, the best thing you can do is be at CERN,” he says.
He has completed his master’s degree and is now applying for PhD programs. For inspiration, he hangs a poster on his wall of the moment when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize to theorists François Englert and Peter W. Higgs.