Physicists who worked to prove the existence of the subatomic particle known as the Higgs boson basked in reflected glory Tuesday as the Nobel Prize in physics went to two men who had theorized its existence — Francois Englert and Peter Higgs.
“I’m very pleased. This is really nice,” said University of Arizona professor of physics John Rutherfoord, who has worked for the past 20 years on one of the two detectors that found the signature of the particle in tests last year at the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, in Europe.
“Of course, this pleasure is shared by 5,000 or 6,000 people in the two experiments.”
Rutherfoord and a team at the UA that includes physicists Elliott Cheu, Kenneth Johns, Michael Shupe, and Erich Varnes built parts of the ATLAS detector for the LHC, a 17-mile circular tunnel on the border of France and Switzerland that accelerates and smashes energized particles to search for elemental pieces of matter.
Rutherfoord said he and other members of the team had hoped the prize would go to the experimentalists who found the particle, but conceded that identifying recipients from that large group would have been a headache for the prize committee.
More than 10,000 scientists, technicians and others have worked on the massive physics experiment.
Rutherfoord’s involvement in building detectors started when the United States was developing its own version of a large physics experiment — the Super-Conducting Super Collider.
Arizona had actually competed as a site, but it went to Texas and was ultimately abandoned in 1993 when Congress decided it would be too expensive.
Rutherfoord said he was in Europe, testing the “forward calorimeter” his group had developed, when the project was killed by Congress.
“We were invited by the nascent ATLAS collaboration to test it at the CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) lab. Congress killed it right in the middle of our test-beam run.”
Fortunately, the instrument produced good results and the UA team was eventually invited to join the ATLAS collaboration.
Rutherfoord said he was surprised that the Higgs particle was detected so early in the LHC’s operation and said more discoveries await.
Varnes, another member of the UA team, said he was at the international conference in Melbourne, Australia, when the discovery of the Higgs particle was confirmed on July 4, 2012.
Varnes said he had mixed emotions because he had worked for 10 years with a competing team of physicists at the Tevatron at Fermilab in Illinois, seeking the same result.
He, too, would like to see a Nobel Prize for the experimentalists but was pleased by Tuesday’s announcement.
“You can’t have it all and I think it’s very positive to get a Nobel Prize for the field.”
The theorists led the way, he said. “It’s a tradition that you don’t get a Nobel Prize until the theory is confirmed.”