UI physicists share in Nobel celebration

URBANA — Three University of Illinois physicists shared in the celebration over Tuesday's announcement of the Nobel Prize in physics.

Professors Tony Liss, Steve Errede and Mark Neubauer all conduct research at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, where scientists last year confirmed the theory of the Higgs boson developed 50 years ago by 2013 Nobel Prize winners Francois Englert of Belgium and Peter Higgs of Britain.

"Everybody's very excited and pleased," Liss said Tuesday from his office in Urbana. "In the world of particle physics, it's the most exciting discovery in decades."

Liss said Tuesday's Nobel announcement was highly anticipated given the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson, known as the "God particle" for its role in explaining how matter acquires mass, a fundamental property of the universe. The discovery confirmed the so-called standard model for particle physics.

"I've never seen a Nobel prize anticipated this way," said Liss, who just returned from Geneva last month.

The committee's decision to honor Higgs and Englert with the prize was the right choice, Liss said, calling the scientists' predictions "remarkable."

"The fact that the theory that they wrote down in 1964 actually turned out to be correct is an amazing thing. It's a solution to a theoretical problem, but there was no real reason to believe that it's the way nature worked," he said.

Further research done since July 2012 has confirmed the discovery and some of the properties of the subatomic particle that were also predicted by Higgs and Englert, he said.

Their theory was modeled after a similar theory in superconductivity developed by physicist Philip Anderson, a 1977 Nobel laureate who grew up in Urbana and attended University High School, Liss said.

The Nobel Prize citation honored the work done at CERN's Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile-long accelerator built under the Swiss-French border where scientists smash protons together to re-create the "Big Bang." The three UI physicists are among a dozen UI researchers involved in the experiments as part of the ATLAS detector project, one of two teams working on the Higgs boson.

"We're no longer searching for a particle. We're now trying to measure its properties with some precision," Liss said.

The next big question: Whether the Higgs boson discovered last year is the only one or part of a family of particles that could solve other mysteries of the universe. The standard model of physics doesn't necessarily explain everything, such as "dark matter," Liss said.

"There is mass in the universe that we don't see, and we don't know what it is," Liss said. "It's not the matter of the periodic table. ... So we know there's something else out there. We hope that the Higgs boson will ultimately lead us in a direction where we figure out what that is."

Some theories include dark matter particles but depend on the existence of a family of Higgs boson particles, he said.

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