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Gibbs: Brookhaven Lab helped coax the Higgs out of hiding

Graphic traces of proton-proton collisions measured by the

Graphic traces of proton-proton collisions measured by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) during the search for the Higgs boson. (May 25, 2011) Photo Credit: Getty Images

There's good reason for Long Islanders to celebrate the Nobel Prize in Physics awarded last week to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert for their prediction of the Higgs particle and the mechanism by which it gives mass to the building blocks of our universe.

This amazing particle makes possible our very existence. And nearly 2,000 American scientists, technicians and engineers -- including more than 100 at Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University -- have played significant roles in designing, building and conducting the experiments that, last year, discovered that the long-predicted Higgs actually exists.

Although these experiments were carried out at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, critical components of both the LHC accelerator and the experiments had their origins closer to home. Brookhaven scientists and engineers built 20 of the superconducting magnets that make up the 17-mile circular LHC accelerator, drawing on experience gained by building our own Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC). Brookhaven Lab led the U.S. effort on the ATLAS Experiment, one of LHC's two large Higgs-tracking detectors. Many essential components of ATLAS were designed and constructed by physicists, engineers and technicians at Brookhaven and Stony Brook.

At the same time, scientists led by Fermilab, outside Chicago, helped build another huge and equally complex detector called CMS. As these detectors measured the subatomic debris of trillions of particle collisions in Europe, vast amounts of data streamed into computing centers at Brookhaven, Fermilab and around the world to be sorted and distributed to physicists searching for the signals that brought the Higgs out of hiding.

The reasons for this global collaboration are simple: These large-scale physics endeavors are scientifically compelling, but also hugely complex and costly. No single scientific institution -- in fact, no single nation -- has the expertise or funding to undertake such a project. The U.S. role is supported by the Department of Energy's Office of Science and the National Science Foundation, while funding agencies in other countries support their efforts.

These are wise national investments of money, time and expertise that pay dividends far greater than their costs. By attracting researchers from around the world to address the biggest mysteries of science, research at the LHC and at RHIC inspires technological advances that drive the development of more-sophisticated accelerators, particle detectors and tools for data analysis. While the finished products enable groundbreaking experiments in far corners of the globe, the expertise and technologies that went into their design and construction often lead to important applications here at home.

The spin-offs from our involvement include accelerators for more effective, less costly cancer treatments; computational techniques for managing vast amounts of data in a range of fields from climate modeling to finance; and superconducting magnets for energy storage.

U.S. participation in grand-scale physics research also helps train our next generation of scientists and tech-savvy professionals. The hundreds of students and postdoctoral researchers who help design, build, run and improve scientific and computational systems at RHIC and LHC often apply these skills and their spirit of innovation in fields beyond physics.

These tangential benefits are the icing on the cake of knowledge we gain by exploring more deeply the structure of matter and nature. As we celebrate this prize, we should take pride in its connections to Long Island and recognize the benefits of this work. It's a privilege to share in an experiment that has changed the face of science and to continue our quest for knowledge.

Doon Gibbs is director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory.