Where am I?
The Little Things
by Kieran Connolly '13
After winning a prestigious Gates Scholarship last year and graduating from the University of Chicago, Mike Baumer '08 has settled down at Britain’s University of Cambridge for a year of study in his area of expertise, particle physics.
Baumer spent the summer of 2011 on the Swiss-French border, analyzing data from the world’s premier particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC. At the LHC, atomic particles are sent whizzing around a circular track several miles long, and the resulting collisions are measured for unusual activity.
Over the summer, senior scientists at the LHC announced that they had discovered the main object of their search: the particle known as the Higgs boson. The Higgs fills an important gap in the science of particles, and completes the Standard Model, a theory describing the way that subatomic particles interact. The Higgs boson is key to understanding why all objects have mass.
Baumer said his work two summers ago had not been looking directly for the elusive boson, but had been “groundwork that had to happen” in the search. Baumer said that though his work was, “Trying to measure the processes of things we know about,” it was essential to preventing false positives in the search.
“There’s many different ways to look for (the Higgs),” said Baumer.
The physicists on the project looked for the Higgs by examining events with specific requirements.
“It turns out that the clearest evidence for (the Higgs) was found by people who were looking for events where two photons showed up in the detector,” Baumer said.
“We’d been looking (for the Higgs boson) for a few years and weren’t seeing much, and people were starting to get worried,” said Baumer.
The discovery, Baumer says, renewed the interest of both the public and the funding agencies that pay for the research.
News of the discovery was a closely-guarded secret until its July 2012 release.
“I knew it a few days before everyone else, but I was a part of a small team of people who knew ahead of time,” said Baumer. “Some of my friends (from CERN) were there for the announcement, and as you can imagine, there was champagne all around.”
The discovery of the Higgs opens the way for much more research. There will be some delay as the LHC will be shut down at the end of the year to upgrade the collider’s ability to produce more energy.
“They’re going to almost double the energy of the collisions,” said Baumer. “When you’re at higher energy, for every trillion collisions, you’re going to get more Higgs bosons.”
And physicists will want lots of them. “Everyone’s mindset has changed from a frantic search to a more methodical characterization (of the Higgs),” says Baumer. “There’s this next step of figuring out what kind of animal we’re dealing with.”
Baumer’s own plans have been changed with the discovery. As the Cambridge school year begins, he is still uncertain what sort of particles he will be analyzing and experimenting with.
Beyond characterizing the Higgs boson, the field of particle physics has plenty of work to do. The possibility that Baumer is most excited about is investigating the theory of supersymmetry.
Baumer explains, “Basically, the idea is that every particle you’ve heard of, like a quark or an electron, or a W boson has … a ‘secret twin,’ you could say, and ordinarily we don’t observe them.”
The idea of each particle having a hard-to-see, supersymmetric twin might explain the masses of “dark matter”–regions of seemingly empty space that bend light in the same way an object like the sun would.
“Without supersymmetry your next best option is accepting that a whole bunch of huge coincidences happen,” says Baumer. “Otherwise, the Higgs can’t exist.”
The theory is still several years away from being tested, however.
In the meantime, Baumer is adjusting to the rhythms and traditions of his new academic home.
“Cambridge is a world of its own. … It’s a place where you’re sitting in the pub, and the people are wearing tuxedoes,” he says. “There’s such over-the-top ways of living and doing business that it’s hard to get used to.”
After his year of research at Cambridge, Baumer will receive a degree in phyiscs and return once more to the States, to study at Stanford University for his Ph.D.
- 12/06/2013 10:38:25 | Fields ’14 Takes POL for Second Year in a Row
- 12/06/2013 10:31:07 | Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony Opens Garden
- 12/03/2013 16:08:42 | Iyer '14 to Publish Research
- 12/02/2013 13:33:54 | Robinson Triplets Hit Mark
- 11/25/2013 14:59:21 | Liberating Work
- 11/25/2013 11:14:18 | Godar ’14 Attends NJCL Meeting
- 11/19/2013 11:08:23 | Rising Young Star
- 11/18/2013 12:05:50 | Fathers, Sons Lend Helping Hand
- 11/18/2013 11:11:28 | SoccerBills Advance to Semifinals
- 11/14/2013 14:56:06 | Chinese Idol