Exclusive: interview with CERN’s Steve Myers about Higgs boson find

6 Jul 2012

Steve Myers, director of accelerators and technology at CERN, with the LHC in the background. Image by CERN

Steve Myers, the director of accelerators and technology at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, spoke to Siliconrepublic.com today about the implications of finding the Higgs boson particle, what it will mean for the future of physics, and our understanding of the creation of the universe, as well as what the next steps are for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.

Since CERN unleashed the news on Wednesday about the new particle discovery that could be the Higgs boson, the news has rippled across the globe as its find could mean our understanding of the universe and how it was formed could change.

The story is all-too familiar by now. On Wednesday morning, the world waited for what the scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva would reveal about their hunt for the elusive Higgs boson particle as a result of two years of experiments in the LHC via trillions of proton-proton collisions and the resulting analysis of the data.

As anticipated, CERN declared on Wednesday morning that the ATLAS and CMS experiments found hints of a new subatomic particle that its physicists believe could be consistent with the Higgs boson.

At CERN, Myers is director of accelerators and technology. He has been responsible for the efficient exploitation of the existing accelerator facilities, including the LHC, at CERN since 2009. The Belfast native has been working at the particle physics laboratory since 1972 after he graduated from Queen’s University Belfast with a PhD.

Speaking today from Geneva, Myers said it has been a very emotional week at CERN. “It’s been a terrific few days. It’s been very exciting and there’s been lots of emotion,” he said.


View of part of the LHC at CERN

Future of physics

I asked Myers about if and when CERN’s data concludes that the Higgs boson does exist what will this spell for the future of physics?

“Well, as you know, the Higgs boson is the mediator of mass. The press announcement said we have a Higgs-type boson discovery, but we don’t know if it’s what has been predicted, which is the Standard Model Higgs, which is the one that would fit in perfectly with the Standard Model, or if it has slightly different properties. We should be able to get some indications along those lines by early next year,” explained Myers.

So can we conclusively say the Higgs boson has been found?

“For physics if you declare that you have a discovery you normally have to have what’s called a signal at the noise ratio which they express as 5 sigma. This means there’s a one part in a million chance that they have made a mistake.”

He said that two of the experiments from the LHC have the signal, which would make it even more sure.

“As far as I am concerned, there’s a discovery because there is a 5 sigma, which is the gold mark for discovery.”

Myers said the next step is to get some more data between now and the end of the year and to have a look at the properties of this new boson.

“With that we will be in a much better position. We want to be sure that if there is something different there that we do the preparation for coming back after the long shutdown (of the LHC) which we are going into next year.”

And with CERN set to release a more in-depth report on its data about the boson find at the end of July, Myers said there will be continual reports coming out.

“There will be some sort of statement made at the end of July, as far as I understand.”

He said the shutdown of the LHC itself will last for about 20 months. CERN was supposed to stop running it at the end of this year, but the running of the LHC is now going to be extended by another three months.

“We’re going to keep running the LHC at the same energy and we’ll stop after Christmas but we will then run with lead ions colliding with protons and then we will go into a shutdown next year and the year after.

“We will do all the necessary technical work to increase the energy of the machine by about a factor of two. This will open up a whole new area of possible discovery in physics,” he said.

As for what type of technical upgrades that will happen in the LHC during the shutdown, Myers said the team at CERN has been working on the design of new interconnector magnets.

“We are going to upgrade their design. That’s the major thing that we have to do. With that new design we can push the LHC up in energy by about a factor of two.”

The LHC accelerator and detectors run 24 hours a day. “We actually had a short technical stop there during Wednesday’s seminar at CERN. We just came back Monday this week after a two-week technical stop. Now we will run right through until the end of August. When we are running, of course we run 24 hours a day.”

As for the people behind Wednesday’s announcement, Myers said there are two sides to it.

“First of all, there’s people like me who build the accelerator, run the accelerator and make the collisions. Then there are the experimenters who have detectors around the four points where the beams collide. Two of those detectors are ATLAS and CMS. They are the ones who have been looking for the Higgs.”

He said that in each of those collaborations there are about 3,000 people. “These people collect all of the data and they don’t even look at it until two weeks before the conference. They just collect it because you don’t want to be prejudiced by looking at it. You know, you can always see something and think it’s there.”

What’s out there?

So what is the Higgs boson find going to mean for our future understanding of the universe?

“We have a very good model, which is called the Standard Model of Physics. One of the very crucial missing elements was why is there mass, what is the mediator of mass?” explained Myers.

“The Standard Model didn’t have a mechanism by which you could explain mass and then Peter Higgs and some of his collaborators came up with this Higgs mechanism in 1964. Since then we have been looking for the Higgs boson.

“Now that we have it, we know where it is; we know what energy it’s at. That’s basically what we know is the energy. We also know some of the properties, but not enough. This means that we have put another very large piece in the jigsaw puzzle about the creation of the universe, how it went from 14bn years ago to now. We have a much better understanding and we can make some predictions as to what will happen, but there’s still quite a long way to go in terms of a full understanding.

Significance for physics

And is it true that we just have a 4pc understanding of the universe right now?

“Yes, because there’s a lot of what’s referred to as dark matter out there, which no one understands why it’s there. We know it’s there but we don’t know what it is and why it’s there. As we push up the energy at the LHC we may start to get some insight into that, as well.”

Myers referred to the significance about Wednesday’s announcement by pointing to the words of the British physicist Prof Sir Peter Knight, who asserted that the discovery of the Higgs is as significant to physics as the discovery of DNA was to biology.

“This is the physics version of the discovery of DNA. It sets the course for a brand new adventure in our efforts to understand the fabric of our universe,” said Knight, who is president of the Institute of Physics.

Said Myers: “It gives you an understanding of how important this is in physics, even if you don’t understand why it’s so important. You and I don’t understand DNA probably, but we know how important it is.

“So it’s along those lines. It’s probably the biggest discovery in physics, I would think, for the last 30 or 40 years,” he added.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic