UO physicist was “trigger” for Higgs boson breakthrough

June 18, 2013 - 10:10pm

On the Fourth of July last year, physicists smashing together protons in a facility near Geneva announced that they had discovered a new elementary particle—that is, a particle that cannot be broken into smaller pieces.

This particle, if confirmed, would fill a gap in our understanding of the laws of nature that govern matter. Scientists called the discovery “historic,” perhaps the biggest breakthrough in a half-century.

And the UO’s David Strom was the man at the trigger.

Strom, a physics professor, played a pivotal role in last summer’s monumental discovery of what is believed to be the elusive Higgs boson, a particle that since 1964 has existed only as a theory.

Stationed 500 feet underground at the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, he led a team of UO scientists and others who, armed with computers and calculations, sifted through the nearly 1 billion proton collisions per second to capture the events that appear to reveal the Higgs. Strom’s title: trigger coordinator.

It was no accident that he was elected to the post by the 3,000 physicists from around the globe who are working on the project.

Strom and the UO have developed a sterling reputation for writing the algorithms and making the precise measurements that can show evidence of the particle in question. Strom and UO physicist James Brau, the Philip H. Knight Professor of Natural Science, lead a strong university presence in Geneva that also includes physics professor Eric Torrence and assistant professor Stephanie Majewski, as well as two postdoctoral students and five others.

“Our group is very well-known there,” Strom said.

The UO’s role in this discovery (a discovery some felt was slighted for last year’s Nobel Prize) began with the university’s decision 25 years ago to begin a program in experimental particle physics, Brau said. Interest in supercolliders by professors Nilendra Deshpande and Davison Soper led to the development of a group that began with Brau’s arrival in 1988 and Strom following soon after.

Over the ensuing years, the group built its reputation while working with the European Organization for Nuclear Research and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) National Accelerator Laboratory in California on projects that consistently earn funding from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

“The university’s decision to add experimental particle physics was a long-term investment that was aiming toward the Higgs boson from the beginning,” Brau said.

The particle that has been discovered appears, like baseball’s knuckleball, to have no spin, which would distinguish it from all known elementary particles. If the particle is confirmed to be a Higgs boson—named for physicists Peter Higgs and Satyendra Nath Bose—it would provide the missing link in explaining why elementary particles (and, therefore, the fundamental particles that make up the visible universe) have mass. That could open up new areas of study and shed light on the early stages of the universe while furthering our understanding of “dark matter,” which comprises the vast majority of the cosmos but remains largely a mystery.

That’s where Strom has set his gaze.

In fact, he was beginning to look beyond the Higgs particle even as he was looking for it: When evidence of the new boson ultimately appeared within the mathematical calculations that he and other scientists had long predicted, Strom barely spent time popping the cork on a bottle of champagne before turning to what it might mean.

“I want to go beyond the Higgs boson,” he said. “I want to look not just at how electromagnetic and weak forces are related, but at how all the forces in the universe are related.”

- by Matt Cooper, UO Office of Strategic Communications, from an article that originally appeared in Cascade, the alumni magazine of the UO College of Arts and Sciences