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Discovery of ‘God particle’ has UNC roots

The discovery from the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, of a new particle is being hailed as a victory for particle physicists everywhere.

What is less known is that the paper that launched the 50-year quest to identify the particle was written at UNC.

Chris Clemens, chair of the UNC department of physics and astronomy, said two teams of research scientists simultaneously announced the results of their research in Switzerland, which showed with an extremely high degree of probability the existence and energy of the Higgs boson particle.

This particle, sometimes called the “God particle” to the chagrin of scientists, is widely thought to confirm the presence of a force field predicted by the standard model of particle physics, a theory which attempts to explain how the universe works.

The theory claims there is a universal force field that gives mass to all elementary particles.

“I personally consider it a real triumph on all fronts,” said Bruce Carney, a physics professor and UNC executive vice chancellor and provost.

While CERN’s discovery represents the culmination of the search for the elusive Higgs boson, the origin can be traced back to the state.

In May 1966, an academic paper written by then-postdoctoral research associate Peter Higgs — the particle’s namesake — was published in the Physical Review, an academic journal, based on some complex mathematics he performed at UNC’s Bahnson Institute of Field Physics.

While Higgs brought the nucleus of this idea over from Edinburgh, he worked out the kinks at UNC, said Eugen Merzbacher, longtime friend of Higgs and retired physics professor at the University.

“It gave him the leisure to complete the work and to write it up,” he said. “He didn’t have to teach, so it was very important,”

Carney said the Bahnson Institute was like Mecca to theoretical physicists of the day.

He said some notable physicists were drawn to the state in 1957 due to the General Relativity Conference — a staple event among physicists.

Higgs was at UNC for the 1965-66 academic year on invitation to study gravitation. While at the University, Merzbacher said Higgs traveled to other universities to present his theory.

He returned to researching mathematical physics at the Tait Institute at the University of Edinburgh after leaving UNC, where his fame continued to grow with the evolution of the standard model of particle physics.

Merzbacher said he would characterize Higgs as polite but modest, with a good sense of humor.

“I think he has fond memories of Chapel Hill,” he said.

Celebration continues regarding success at CERN, but Clemens said there is more science to be done. The energy of the particle, while answering some questions, raises others.

“That’ll be the interesting conversation: now that we know this number, why is it that way? Does it have to be that way, or is it just in our universe it happens to be that way, and if it weren’t we wouldn’t be here to discuss it,” Clemens said.

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