In the modern world, technology is constantly improving, allowing us to analyze our environment in ways that were never before possible. Researchers from all over the globe are devoted to making new discoveries that will give us a deeper knowledge of the physics that governs the universe we live in.

One such researcher studying these concepts is University of Wisconsin PhD student Alex Wang. Wang’s passion for math and physics throughout both middle and high school fueled his pursuit into researching high-energy particle physics.

“When I’m studying physics, I really feel that what I’m doing will make a worthwhile contribution to the world,” Wang said.

Due to Wang’s exceptional performance as a student, the Department of Energy Office of Science Graduate Student Research Program granted him the opportunity to travel to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, or SLAC, in California, where he will aid in the effort to find the theorized di-Higgs boson particle.

According to Sridhara Dasu, who is a particle physicist and professor at the UW Department of Physics, the Higgs boson is an elementary particle and the main component of the Higgs field. The Higgs field is the field of energy that is responsible for giving fundamental particles in other fields, such as electrons, their mass. The Higgs field’s unique quantum fluctuations — instantaneous change in energy at a point — give it properties that other fields do not have.

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“Unlike all other fields, the quantum fluctuations of the Higgs field do not average out to zero, and it, therefore, exists at all spaces in our universe,” Dasu said.

Due to the Higgs field’s omnipresence, every particle with mass interacts and passes through it, and physicists used this theory to explain how particles gained mass.

When the universe emerged into existence, all particles were massless. Without mass, particles such as electrons and protons wouldn’t exist, and physicists proposed a theory explaining how particles got their mass, according to the European Council for Nuclear Research. After the Big Bang, particles traveled through the Higgs field and came in contact with Higgs bosons. The interaction between different particles and the Higgs bosons generated energy, providing particles their respective masses.

While the Higgs boson has been theorized to exist for decades, it wasn’t until 2012 that its existence was proven after it was observed by scientists working at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, Dasu said. CERN used the collider to observe the Higgs boson by carefully measuring the energy released after colliding two particles that were accelerated to very high energies within the particle accelerator. This confirmation ushered in a new wave of research that is still being conducted today. Di-Higgs production is one such concept being currently studied and will be the focus of Wang’s research at the SLAC.

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Di-Higgs production is a theoretical concept involving the production of two Higgs bosons at the same time, Wang said. According to current calculations, the occurrence of di-Higgs production is incredibly rare. Due to this rarity, the level of analyses and computing required to find evidence of di-Higgs production is incredibly high.

Wang’s current work involves analyzing the data collected from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and looking for any occurrences that may relate to Higgs bosons and di-Higgs production.

“The detectors are highly sensitive and collect a lot of data, and my job is to sort through it to see which events look interesting and which events are just ‘junk’ that can be discarded,” Wang said.

The knowledge gathered from this data has the potential to make a sizable impact on the world of particle physics. If the information gathered from these analyses match the theoretical calculations derived from the standard model used in physics, then several aspects of the model that have yet to be concretely proven may finally be confirmed, Wang said.

A more exciting possibility is if the data confirmed through collider analysis does not match up with preliminary calculations.

“If the calculated rates do not match the predicted values, it points to new physics being responsible for these phenomena rather than the standard model, and that would be very exciting because it would have ramifications well beyond just the confirmation of di-Higgs production,” Dasu said.

Though Wang will continue to work with this data, once he arrives at the SLAC, he will also help with planned upgrades to the detectors used to collect information from the Large Hadron Collider. The detector that he is planning to work with in particular is named ATLAS. Upgrades to the ATLAS detector intend to enable it to collect even more information at a higher level of detail, which will make it easier for Wang and other researchers to analyze the data and potentially find evidence of di-Higgs production.

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Wang’s work on the collider won’t just help the effort to find the di-Higgs particle — several other studies are being conducted using the ATLAS detector. According to CERN’s official website, over 3,000 scientists from 174 institutes in 38 countries currently work with the ATLAS detector. Some studies, in addition to those that are on the hunt for the di-Higgs particle, include the search for dimensions beyond those that we have currently observed and the study of particles that could make up dark matter.

While much of the research that goes into unearthing new discoveries within the field of physics can often be incredibly laborious and challenging, Wang believes the hard work required is more than worth the effort. 

“While it can definitely be tough, if you’re really passionate about what you’re doing and continue to stick with it even through the most challenging moments, it’s incredibly rewarding,” Wang said.

Even as technology continues to advance, there are a multitude of questions that we have yet to solve within the realm of physics. But with institutions like CERN and the SLAC, and researchers like Wang studying these subjects, we continue to grow more understanding of the world that we live in.