News - July 18, 2012

Local youth works on Higgs boson

by Dave Boyce

Recent news of the possible discovery of a Higgs boson, a subatomic particle that theoretical physicists have been seeking for decades, means work in Switzerland this summer for Jack Matteucci, a physics major at Duke University in North Carolina and a former student at Woodside High and Portola Valley public schools.

Over three weeks starting July 17, Mr. Matteucci will be at CERN, the research facility in Geneva that announced the discovery, to help find meaningful information from pre-sorted numerical data. He obtained clearance to go because Duke has an affiliation with CERN and because he is working with experimental physics professor Al Goshaw, who works at CERN and lectures on high-energy-particle physics at Duke.

The lecture series is a recruitment vehicle for CERN, Mr. Matteucci said. "Every year they recruit a few more students into their ranks. I was just lucky enough to hear about it; when I did, I jumped on the opportunity. Helping research particle physics has quelled a lot of my skepticism regarding the validity of the science, but has also opened my eyes to how much we truly don't know about this field of study."

Portola Valley resident Joan Finnigan, Mr. Matteucci's mother, described her son's achievement as "quite an honor for an undergrad student." Jack attended Ormondale and Corte Madera schools and graduated from Woodside High in 2010, his mother said.

When asked about classes or teachers who influenced him, Mr. Matteucci recalled two Woodside High teachers: Jill Baumgartel, an advanced-standing chemistry teacher, and Stephanie Finander, who teaches advanced-placement physics.

Ms. Baumgartel's class, he remembered, once held a debate on the societal use of nuclear energy. Speaking against it, Jack said he argued that present-day nuclear fission reactors are too dirty compared to nuclear fusion reactors which, while beyond the scope of current technologies, produce much cleaner energy.

"I'm proud to say that (our side) did narrowly win the debate," he said.

In his physics class, he said he would complete his weekly homework the day it was assigned. "When I look back, it's that drive, that charge I got out of doing those problems, that tells me I've really chosen the right field," he said.

Asked about mentors, Mr. Matteucci singled out his dad, a biochemist working on cancer therapy drugs. "Ever since I've been a small child, my dad's always been the instigator of scientific discussions, which ranged anywhere from how electricity works to how to better improve his drug's productivity in the body," Mr. Matteucci said.

In his junior and senior years in high school, he said he worked in his father's lab. "Even though he tried to maintain a healthy distance at the office, I always seemed to get my best answers from him when it came to the lab," he said. "Just recently, I've started to realize how lucky I was to have such a brilliant dad to share ideas with; I can definitely say that I would not be going where I am today without him."

Mr. Matteucci's non-academic interests include backpacking, mountain biking, running, most sports and writing, he said.

Higgs boson

In a list of frequently asked questions about the Higgs boson, the website of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago uses a metaphor of "a giant vat of molasses spread throughout the universe."

First came the big bang, the cataclysmic explosion that theoretically brought the universe — and the vat of molasses — into existence. As subatomic particles blasted through the molasses, globs of it stuck to the particles and gave them mass, "slowing them down and making them heavier," the FAQ says. "You can think of the Higgs boson as the molasses globs."

Particles of light, known as photons, traveled faster and "hydroplaned" over the molasses and so did not collect mass, the FAQ says. "When the universe began to cool, (the) slow particles with mass began to bunch up like mini-traffic jams and form composite particles and then atoms."


Unlike the two-mile-long linear particle accelerator at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN is a circle, an underground doughnut-shaped tunnel about 17 miles around. The LHC opened for experimental work in September 2008.

Peter Higgs was one of six physicists who in 1964 suggested the existence of the boson, but they have had to wait until the right tool came along to look for it, Mr. Matteucci said. When matter collides in the LHC, the extremely high levels of energy released can produce data to reveal this particle.

Creating such collisions is the method scientists use to attempt to simulate what might have happened during and after the big bang. It is, by necessity, a humble enterprise. To get particles up to actual big-bang energy levels, Mr. Matteucci said, would probably require a circular accelerator with a circumference of at least 25 million miles.


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