Nobel Prize in Physics has ties to Fairfield University


Image: Fairfield University flagsThe milestone discovery of the Higgs boson - the so-called "God particle" - and the subsequent Nobel Prize in Physics for theorists Peter Higgs and François Englert announced last week have strong ties to Fairfield University: David Winn, Ph.D., professor of physics in the College of Arts & Sciences, invented and prototyped pieces of the device that confirmed the particle's existence right on the Fairfield campus.

"This was the last piece of the puzzle. The discovery is an incredible triumph. It is richly deserved," Dr. Winn said of the prize for Higgs and Englert, who first theorized the Higgs boson in 1964 and have been on the hunt ever since. "We're very happy for the theorists and the theorists are very happy that we made something to find it."

With the aid of other scientists and nearly 40 Fairfield students over the past 25 years, Dr. Winn created and prototyped the compact muon solenoid (CMS), which measures the energy and direction of particles swirling around the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the world's largest particle accelerator, in which the experiments took place. In fact, the container that held the 1,500-pound prototype on its journey to CERN was emblazoned with the words "Fairfield University."

"Fairfield's contribution has been quite substantial," Dr. Winn said.

Robbin Crabtree, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences added, "this is a once-in-a-generation discovery, and that Fairfield faculty and students contributed is extraordinary. We have a vibrant student-faculty research culture in the sciences at Fairfield, and this is one excellent example of the outcomes achieved. Last year, for example, 229 undergraduate students were co-authors on faculty publications or conference presentations, most of these in the natural and behavioral sciences."

Dr. Winn has been working in high-energy physics since he was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin and he contributed to the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas until that project was cancelled in 1993. Soon after he joined the CERN team.

How does it all work? Inside the LHC, particles collide with each other, said Dr. Winn. In one in every 10 trillion collisions, a Higgs is made, converting the energy made in the collision back into mass, he said. The particles decay rapidly and scientists can detect the things they leave behind, offering proof of their existence.

The data collected in the experiments is staggering: If you burned it all on DVDs and stacked them, the stack would climb higher than Mt. Everest - each year.

"By many measures, this is one of the most complex things ever built by humans for a single purpose," Dr. Winn said.

After decades of work, that purpose was realized. Scientists discovered clear evidence of the particle on July 4, 2012.

Dr. Winn was one of thousands working on the Higgs project. Scientists around the globe collaborated in teams, each taking parts of the initiative that some have dubbed the biggest science experiment in the world. Dr. Winn worked with colleagues in Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, and traveled to Switzerland often, sometimes with Fairfield students.

But after about 37 years of researching and working in this area of physics, Dr. Winn is not ready to move onto something else. "The proof of the Higgs is an extraordinary milestone, but there's a huge amount of work left to be done."

The LHC is turned off right now, but the teams are hard at work completing upgrades to make it work even better. Dr. Winn will continue his research into the unknown things that make up the universe, the so-called dark energy and dark matter.

How does Dr. Winn sum up working decade after decade on some of the most elusive secrets of the universe?

"It's not hard at all because there's nothing boring about it," he said. "It's just extremely fun."

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Media Contact: Meredith Guinness, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2950, mguinness@fairfield.edu

Posted on October 16, 2013

Vol. 46, No. 75