Toronto scientists in hot pursuit of the ‘God particle’

Some of Toronto’s best minds in particle physics are hoping 2012 will be the year they achieve a big bang of their own, including a potential Nobel Prize in physics.

The physicists, from the University of Toronto and York University, have a shot at discovering one of science’s Holy Grails, the Higgs boson – also known as the “God particle”. They are part of the massive international collaboration ATLAS – one of two research teams of about 3,000 scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland.

The ATLAS group is racing against a second team called CMS. Both teams use the world’s largest particle accelerator at CERN to smash protons together in the hope of identifying the Higgs boson amongst the debris. In December, CERN announced preliminary results showing that both teams may be hot on the trail of finding the elusive Higgs boson.

With the ATLAS and CMS teams being neck and neck and both having seen a hint of the Higgs boson, the atmosphere at CERN has become more competitive.

“If you go to CERN now, the place is abuzz with rumours. If you go to the cafeteria or you have a cup of coffee and stop and ask somebody: ‘What are you talking about?’ you likely get an answer like ‘Not anything I can tell you!’ There is intense competition,” explained Professor Robert Orr from the University of Toronto and senior contributor to the ATLAS experiment.

That competition, however, is partly by design.

“One of the reasons of having multiple experiments is that of verifiability. Another is to produce healthy competition,” said professor Peter Krieger from the U of T, who is also contributing to ATLAS.

The Higgs boson would explain how objects obtain their masses and would complete our understanding of visible matter as described by the Standard Model theory. Proving the existence or non-existence of the Higgs boson hinges on these two huge groups. With so many people involved in the potential discovery of modern times, talk has inevitably shifted on who should get the Nobel Prize.

Frank Close, a British particle physicist at the University of Oxford, has a clear opinion on the matter:

“I can’t see how you would award a Nobel Prize for the actual experimental discovery of the Higgs boson because almost every experimental physicist in the world at some time or the other has been involved at some level,” said Close, who has written a book on the issue called The Infinity Puzzle.

Instead, Close favours the idea of awarding the Nobel Prize to Peter Higgs, one of six theorists who predicted the existence of the Higgs boson.

While the odds of the Toronto team sharing a Nobel Prize are slim, it would be considerable reputation boost for the U of T and York.

“The fact that we have participated in this shows that the [U of T] is right up there with other universities like Yale, Harvard and MIT,” said Orr.