Tag Archives: Higgs

Hunting the Higgs

Cropped version of the Higgs Hunting Conference Poster.
Cropped version of the Higgs Hunting Conference Poster. 

This week I’ve been at the Higgs Hunting workshop in Orsay near Paris, France. This also happens to be my home institute, so there was no travel involved. The conference is three days long and brings together theorists and experimentalists from around the world to discuss current Higgs results, and also to explore what we can expect (or even hope) to find in the future.

The Higgs boson was discovered at CERN in 2012 after a very long search (it was proposed in 1964!) and is the particle produced when the Higgs field interacts with itself. The Higgs field is the process that gives mass to fundamental particles. Most of the studies at CMS and ATLAS of this new boson are moving from discovery (simply finding if there is a particle there) to precision measurements (understanding how it interacts with other particles and measuring various properties). So far what we’ve found out about the Higgs is exactly what we expect from our theory: the Standard Model of Particle Physics. This is very boring for particle physicists as we love to find out that our theories are wrong! It is very important to make these studies to have a more complete picture of how our universe works, plus there are questions, such as what is dark matter, that could be explained by studying the Higgs in greater detail.

The first day of the workshop concluded with Sir Tom Kibble giving a talk on the ‘Prehistory of the Higgs’. Sir Tom is one of six theorists who, in three independent papers in the 1960’s, came up with the theory for the mechanism that gives mass to particles.

The final day of the workshop took place at the Institut des Cordeliers in central Paris with a beautiful courtyard leading to the auditorium (see below). The morning session focused on constraints on the Higgs boson, with the afternoon dedicated to discussions on future colliders.

Courtyard from the final day of the Higgs Hunting Conference
Courtyard from the final day of the Higgs Hunting Conference

It was a really interesting conference and, since I’m based at LAL, I’m already looking forward to going next year!

Zombies at CERN

Not everyone who knows me, knows that I like horror films, but I do! In fact, I’m a particular fan of zombie films. I’m such a fan, I even made a feature length one with fellow zombie-loving physicists a few years ago at CERN! Our film is called Decay, and it’s named because decay is a word that is appropriate for both the zombie world and the particle physics one (when heavier particles change into lighter ones we say that they decay). It also conjures up images of nuclear decay and a lot of zombie films used radiation as their undead trigger. We were the first ones (as far as we know) to suggest that the dead could rise because of Higgs bosons created at the LHC at CERN! To learn a little more, I’ve added the trailer below.


We have to be clear that the film has never been endorsed by CERN, since it does have some questionable senior characters. But, they also didn’t shut us down, which was great! Since being released for free online less than two years ago, we’ve had almost four million views on youtube! It just goes to show how much people love (a) zombie films and (b) CERN, especially when it’s the two together!

So where’s the science in all of this you might ask? Well, there isn’t any. At least, we made it all up! We wanted to make fun of all those films with pseudo-science in them so we filled ours to the brim with bio-entanglement physics!

Clara in Decay
Screenshot of me in Decay, filmed at CERN in 2012.

I’ve added some screenshots from my moments of stardom in the film (two), although I was actually on-screen a lot more often than you might think, or at least on the set making something happen. As well as pensive physicist and later rampaging zombie, known affectionately as ‘Bitey‘, I also played a computer and a spray of blood.

When I wasn’t in front of the camera, I was on set doing something else. We were all amateurs on the film, so there was a lot to do and learn. One of my many hats on set was assistant director and one scene I was able to have a lot of control over was the ‘horde scene’ near the end of the film (which incidentally was my favourite one!). It was this scene where I had to ask roughly 50 physicists, all of whom had volunteered as zombie extras for us for the day, if any of them knew if they had a latex allergy!

Screenshots of me in our feature-length independent zombie movie filmed at CERN in 2012.
Screenshot of me in Decay, filmed at CERN in 2012.

The film got a lot of fantastic media coverage from all over the world! My favourite article title was: “Why a Zombie Movie Made by Physicists is the Best Kind of Science PR” in Slate. Occasionally someone will tell me about the film (unaware that I was involved) and it makes me really happy that people enjoyed it and are still talking about it!

I had a fantastic time making the film (in between the 13 hours sitting in a dark damp tunnel covered in red-coloured maple syrup that is!). I also think it’s awesome that I have an IMDb page and that we worked out we each have a defined Erdős–Bacon number of approximately 11!

A screenshot from my IMDb page.
A screenshot from my IMDb page.

If you want to watch the whole film, I’ve embedded it below! You can also leave me a comment to let me know what you think! (with a kind reminder that it’s a low budget horror movie made by amateurs! 😉 )

Oh, to prove that we actually had a lot of fun making the film here are some out-takes:

And the edited version of our Q&A session at the International and UK premiere of Decay in Manchester.

Higgs Boson and Beyond

In my last post, I wrote about the second year anniversary of the Higgs boson discovery, so it was very timely that the weekend directly afterwards I spent at the Royal Society‘s Summer Science Exhibition, talking to the public about the Higgs boson and where it could lead.

The Higgs Boson and Beyond logo.
The Higgs Boson and Beyond logo.

The exhibit was a partnership of many UK universities and they all sent researchers to take shifts on the stall during the event. I went on behalf of the University of Manchester. Here is a lovely video about the Higgs discovery, which was made for the exhibit:

High-energy physics aims to understand how nature works at a fundamental level described by elementary particles. Our current theory, the Standard Model of Particle Physics, is remarkably successful. Find out what the Higgs boson can tell us about new physics beyond the Standard Model.

Since I was working the weekend shifts, the exhibit was very busy both days and I was able to chat with many different people, from very young children to senior citizens, all wanting to know: “what is the Higgs boson?”. There were a lot of activities for them to take part in, such as working out the mass of the Higgs on a tablet computer, to manipulating a beam of electrons in magnetic field and also a competition to find rare Higgs events (and win prizes!). We also had an actual piece of the ATLAS detector (left over from when it was built) and knitted particles to help explain the theory of supersymmetry (or SUSY for short).

It was also fantastic that so many female scientists were available to work on the exhibit – just being visible, especially when there were so many young children visiting the stall, makes a huge difference!

Speaking of children, they (and many adults) were very keen on our Nobel Prizes!

Unfortunately the Royal Society Summer Science event is over for this year, but I highly recommend that you take a look at the booklet (via the website) that was produced for the exhibit. It’s very beautiful and it elegantly explains the whole process of creating a Higgs boson and how we study it, including some very difficult concepts!

Also, if you’d like the Higgs Boson and Beyond stall for a future science festival event, get in contact with them either on Twitter, or through their website: http://the-higgs-boson-and-beyond.org . Alternatively, you can leave a comment below and I will pass the message on.

Happy Higgs Day!

Today is the Higgs boson’s second birthday! It was on this day, the fourth of July, in 2012 that the Higgs was unveiled to the world with the now immortal words of CERN Director General, Rolf Heuer, “I think we have it”.

Before the announcement was made, the atmosphere at CERN was like a rock concert. I, along with many PhD and summer students, spent the previous night waiting outside the auditorium where the talks from two of the LHC experiments, CMS and ATLAS, were to take place. This was to guarantee ourselves a seat to watch history being made.

Waiting in the queue for a seat in the CERN auditorium where the discovery of a Higgs-like boson was about to be announced.
Waiting in the queue for a seat in the CERN auditorium where the discovery of a Higgs-like boson was about to be announced.

It’s a shame that the room wasn’t larger as I know that many people were disappointed not to get a seat, especially if they had worked on the result, but I also think it’s fantastic that so many young people were able to be a part of it, as they will be the ones making the discoveries of the future. It was simultaneously streamed to other auditoriums in CERN, the ICHEP conference in Australia and online for the public to watch.

Joe Incandela from the CMS experiment went first to explain their results. He was followed by ATLAS spokesperson, Fabiola Gianotti. Despite the importance of the results, many people on the internet didn’t like Fabiola’s choice of colours or font for her presentation and “comic sans” even started trending on twitter! It has now become a running joke at CERN, and there was even a video this April that CERN would be switching to the font.

The presentations concluded with a a standing ovation!

Standing ovation for the announcement of a boson consistent with the Higgs! July 2012.
Standing ovation for the announcement by both CMS and ATLAS of a boson consistent with the Higgs! CERN, July 2012.

After the announcement, the audience poured out to join the crowds of people outside. My group headed the short distance to R1, CERN’s premiere restaurant. We sat outside and toasted the discovery with champagne and Pimms provided by Steve Bieniek from Heathrow airport. After a while excitement turned to exhaustion and I lay my head on my arms to nap.  I woke when a reporter from the Times came over: “I could tell you were British” he told us, “as I could see the bottle of Pimms from the other side of the courtyard”. He asked us questions about the announcement and what we thought it meant. It seemed that I was coherent enough, even though I had just woken up, to make it into the article! Although, unfortunately the article is behind a paywall.

The next day the Higgs result was everywhere. It even made it onto the front page of the New York Times! The photograph included about four pixels of my head and I asked my American friends if someone could get a copy for me. It was brilliant how excited the world was about our discovery!

On the day, I had seen Professor Higgs, along with the other major theorists, from a distance. A little over a year later I was able to meet him in person. In 2013, Prof. Higgs was given an honorary degree at the University of Manchester only days after the Nobel prize for physics had been announced. I had just submitted my thesis and so was more than happy to spend the day preparing for his arrival by building a LEGO version of the ATLAS detector.

The team who rebuilt the ATLAS LEGO model at the University of Manchester.
The team who rebuilt the ATLAS LEGO model at the University of Manchester.

Prof. Higgs was modest and fascinating to listen to as he told us the history of the theory. I was very fortunate to be able to get my copy of the New York Times front page article of the boson discovery signed by him!

Professor Higgs just after he had signed my NYT newspaper of the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN. Photo credit: S.Marsden. (Also, note I'm not a giant, just  on the stairs)
Professor Higgs just after he had signed my NYT newspaper of the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN. Photo credit: S. Marsden. (Also, note I’m not a giant, just on the stairs)
Signed copy of the front page of the New York Times from the day after the Higgs boson announcement, July 2012.
Signed copy of the front page of the New York Times from the day after the Higgs boson announcement, July 2012. If you look closely (and know where I was sitting) I can just be seen in the back of the auditorium!


If you’re celebrating Higgs-dependance day (as it was dubbed two years ago), you can re-live the excitement of the announcement by watching the recording on the CERN Document Server (CDS): http://cds.cern.ch/record/1459565

If you want to hear more about the Higgs boson (& beyond!), and are near London this week, the Royal Society has a Summer Science Exhibition including a Higgs boson stall. Since Tuesday, scientists from universities all over the UK have been talking to the public about the Higgs boson, it’s discovery two years ago and what we still want to learn. You can follow the Twitter account for the exhibit @HiggsBosonRS14 to see photos and find out more information. If you visit on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, I’ll be on the stall, so please come over and say hello!

Where were you when the Higgs boson discovery was announced? Did you watch online? Let me know in the comments below.