About 150 Canadians are part of an international network whose research helped to discover the new subatomic particle the community believes could very well be the crucial Higgs boson particle, announced this week in Geneva.
"It's a huge Canadian success story," said particle physicist Isabel Trigger, one of the team leaders with the TRIUMF particle and nuclear physics lab based in Vancouver.
"All of these people have spent 20 years of their lives building something which now has found the particle we were looking for... If it's not the Higgs boson, it sure looks like the Higgs boson," Trigger said Thursday.
The particle is one of the smallest units of matter, which experts say is the key to understanding why matter has mass.
Canadians based at TRIUMF built several large pieces of a particle detector named ATLAS — the giant machine observing the atom smashing experiment that ultimately revealed what could be the elusive building block. The work evolved from construction, through assembly, installation and calibration.
ATLAS, which operates inside the renowned Large Hadron Collider, run by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, generated millions of gigabytes of data each year, which was then distributed amongst about 137 countries for analysis.
TRIUMF processed one-tenth of that data in its super-computing centre, with the help of teams at nine Canadian universities before the finding was reached.
More than 40 university faculty members, 30 post-doctoral fellows and 70 graduate students were involved.
Several elated researchers who worked on the project and dozens more excited students congregated at TRIUMF to discuss the findings over colourful schematics and videos depicting the reactions occurring inside the particle detector's belly.
A large whiteboard displayed the master equation describing the Standard Model of Physics, with the previously only theorized Higgs boson portion scrawled in striking blue ink.
Michelle Boudreau, a graduate student at Simon Fraser University, said she was blown away by the big news.
"Being a physicist, you hear about everything being discovered so long ago," she said. "For something completely new to be discovered is awesome — exciting times."
All said, the Canadian research cost about $100 million over two decades, which Trigger said puts the country at the leading edge of scientific progress. Funding comes from both provinces and the federal government.
"This is the project that people want to work on. This is the only project at the energy frontier that will tell us how the universe is made," she said.
"And if we want to see ourselves as part of society, part of civilization, pushing forwards — Canada as one of the 137 nations looking for the truth — then we have to be a part of that."
But ATLAS was just one half of the groundbreaking discovery, news of which has cycled around the globe to thrill particle theorists across the planet. A second detector, called the Compact Muon Solenoid, has also arrived at the same conclusion and that one-two punch was revealed to cheers and standing ovations
ATLAS Canada spokesman Rob McPherson, a physics professor at the University of Victoria, said the team has known its own results since December.
"What we did not know is that our colleagues at CMS ... had the same level of significance in the same channels," he said, with a gleam in his eye.
"It's fantastic that we've seen this — the last step in a chapter in our understanding of particle physics."
But the experts concur the finding is only a launching pad for further investigation.
Canadians will continue to run the existing ATLAS detector, while carrying forward with crunching its reams of data. They will also upgrade the machine, shutting it down around early 2013 in order to nearly double its energy and possibly enabling it to find even more massive particles.
Oliver Stelzer-Chilton, a TRIUMF research scientist, said it could take decades before the finding becomes useful in daily life. He noted that no one envisioned global cellphone communication with the initial discovery of electromagnetic waves.
"We don't know the impact at this point, but 100 years later people think, 'How come people didn't think about it?" he said. "We will only see in the future what the possible applications could be."
Trigger compared the monumental discovery — and road that lies ahead — to the sci-fi cult classic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which a race of hyper-intelligent beings builds a super computer to calculate "the answer."
"We want to understand life, the universe and everything," she said, quoting the Douglas Adams' book.
"We've worked very hard on coming up with a model that fits, so the Higgs boson is our answer — our '42.' But now we need to go further and find out what some of the questions are, about where to go next."
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