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Fermilab played big part in Nobel Prize-winning research

In this Tuesday Sept. 20 2011 phogeese gather outside mabuilding Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory BataviIll.  On Friday Sept. 30

In this Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011 photo, geese gather outside the main building at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. On Friday, Sept. 30, physicists will shut down the Tevatron, a once-unrivaled atom smasher that has been eclipsed by the Large Hadron Collider buried beneath the border of France and Switzerland. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

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Updated: November 10, 2013 6:22AM

BATAVIA — It took 50 years, thousands of workers, at least three research facilities and physicists from around the world to discover the Higgs boson last year, the so-called “God particle.”

The long theorized subatomic particle explains why matter has mass.

So excuse the physicists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory here if they took a breath and had a toast when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Tuesday awarded the Nobel Prize in physics to theorists Peter Higgs and Francois Englert — developers of the theory of what is now known as the Higgs field.

“We did have a toast,” said Dr. Joel Butler, a manager of the CMS experiment at Fermilab. “We got permission to do that. We’re going to have a party, but this is a government-funded facility, so it will probably involve something like ice cream.”

But it will soon be back to work for the scientists as they prepare for the next phase of the CMS experiment — known as the small one because at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland, it’s “only” the size of a four-story building — which will involve turning the machine back on at a higher intensity, and using upgraded detectors to see and record a whole new world of collisions.

“It will probably run for another 20 years,” Butler said. “Fermilab will be involved, so we’ll have plenty to do around here.”

The Higgs field is what gives elementary particles mass, and the Higgs boson was the particle that proved the Higgs field exists.

In the 1960s, Higgs and Englert, along with other theorists, including Robert Brout, Tom Kibble and Americans Carl Hagen and Gerald Guralnik, published papers introducing key concepts in the theory of the Higgs field. In 2012, scientists on the international ATLAS and CMS experiments, performed at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN laboratory in Europe, confirmed this theory when they announced the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Nearly 2,000 physicists from U.S. institutions, including 89 U.S. universities and seven U.S. Department of Energy laboratories, participate in the ATLAS and CMS experiments, making up about 23 percent of the ATLAS collaboration and 33 percent of CMS at the time of the Higgs discovery, according to a Fermilab press release.

Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York serves as the U.S. hub for the ATLAS experiment, and Fermilab serves as the U.S. hub for the CMS experiment.

Butler, who has essentially worked experiments at Fermilab since he did his graduate work there in 1972, has been involved in CMS for about nine years, helping build the detector, and managing the U.S. contingent.

But he called his part “a humble contribution,” saying some 3,000 people have worked on CMS for an average of about 12 years. And if you include the extended family of workers, including contractors and suppliers and such, “more than 10,000 people must have worked” on the project, he said.

And while they did not necessarily predict a Nobel Prize, they did know they were working on something special, Butler said.

“In high-energy physics, it’s all about energy and intensity,” he said. “Everybody knew this machine was going places no one else had been.”

The majority of U.S. scientists participating in the experiments work primarily from their home institutions, remotely accessing and analyzing data through high-capacity networks and grid computing, the Fermilab press release said.

“America plays an important role in this distributed computing system, providing 23 percent of the computing power for ATLAS and 40 percent for CMS,” the release said.

It added that the U.S. supplied or played a leading role in several main components of the two detectors and the LHC accelerator, amounting to a value of $164 million for the ATLAS detector, $167 million for the CMS detector, and $200 million for the LHC.

Support for the U.S. effort comes from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science and the National Science Foundation.

“It is an honor that the Nobel Committee recognizes these theorists for their role in predicting what is one of the biggest discoveries in particle physics in the last few decades,” said Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer.

Butler said he is “absolutely happy” to be doing the work he does, but pointed out that for scientists working on something like the Higgs theory, “it takes a lot of staying power.”

“And tremendous enthusiasm,” he said. “But you have to be enthusiastic over a long time.”

That was certainly the case for Higgs and Englert, who published their papers independently and did not meet in person until the July 4, 2012 announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN.

Higgs, 84, is a professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Englert, 80, is a professor emeritus at Universite libre de Bruxelles in Belgium.

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