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Particle Physics Keeps Producing Beyond the Higgs Boson

Fabiola Gianotti, director-general of CERN, gave Saturday's plenary address at the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting. | Katie Darby/Robb Cohen Photography & Video

The Higgs boson, the once-elusive particle that provides mass to the building blocks of the universe, is the most famous product of the CERN international laboratory, but the lab’s bragging rights extend to a host of innovations, said the lab’s director-general Fabiola Gianotti.

The lab, the largest in the world dedicated to particle physics, has produced breakthroughs in cancer treatment, trained thousands of scientists from 110 countries and provided a model for other international scientific collaborations — all for the cost of “one cappuccino per year per European citizen,” Gianotti said.

In her plenary address at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Gianotti described the massive scale and the cutting-edge technologies that powered CERN’s quest to find the Higgs boson. The theoretical founders of Higgs boson science, François Englert and Peter W. Higgs, won the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics.

At CERN, the 16.7-mile long Large Hadron Collider ring smashed together accelerated beams of protons to produce interacting quarks — particles one billionth of a billionth of a meter in size. In this way, the collider is a “microscope” that works in combination with particle detectors that Gianotti compared to a “a giant digital camera,” taking pictures of the elementary particle debris in which the Higgs boson was discovered.

Conditions inside the collider are similar to those occurring just after the Big Bang, Gianotti said. “The study of the very, very small allows us to understand the very big, namely, the structure and evolution of the universe.”

Without the Higgs boson and the mass it bestows on elementary particles, the atoms that make up all the matter in the universe would not exist, Gianotti said.

“In general, this fundamental research is a driver of innovation,” said Gianotti. She noted CERN team’s discoveries have led to applications such as hadron therapy, which uses beams of charged particles to target tumors more precisely than traditional radiation, as well as solar panel materials and medical imaging such as PET scans.

CERN continues to provide technology and expertise to other massive particle physics investments, such as the Long Baseline Neutrino Facility in the U.S., which would send a string of the elementary particles called neutrinos from Fermilab in Illinois to a mine filled with liquid argon particle detectors in South Dakota. Gianotti said prototypes of the detectors are being built and tested at CERN.

Gianotti and her colleagues are particularly proud of the quality of CERN-trained researchers. Only 10% of the scientists who have passed through the lab have stayed in particle physics, she said, but the former researchers say their ability to work with international colleagues has been essential in their industry and academic jobs.

Gianotti said CERN provides a governance model for other massive international scientific collaborations like SESAME (recipient of the 2019 AAAS Award for Science Diplomacy).

“Some of the scientists come from countries that do not entertain the most romantic relations, and are clearly in conflict,” she said, “and yet at CERN they work together, animated by the same passion for science.”

Before Gianotti’s address, AAAS Board member Laura Greene presented Joanna Verran, a former microbiology professor and head of science communication and public engagement at Manchester Metropolitan University, with the 2019 Mani L. Bhaumik Award for Public Engagement with Science from AAAS. Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta, an assistant professor in soil, water and environmental science at the University of Arizona, received the 2019 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science.