Catching Particle Fever: the Sydney scientists who helped track down the Higgs boson

17 June 2014

As announced by the Federal Minister for Education today, the University's School of Geosciences will lead the Basin GENESIS Hub that has received $5.4 million over five years from the Australian Research Council (ARC) and industry partners.

As Particle Fever premieres at the Sydney Film Festival this weekend, Australian audiences have an opportunity to watch the story of the groundbreaking search for the Higgs boson.

The documentary, by physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson, tracks the first round of experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN, Geneva, to investigate the basic forces that shaped the universe.

Aldo Saavedra, a particle physicist at the University of Sydney who works on the ATLAS experiment, says the film gives an intimate picture of one of the most important scientific experiments ever conducted.

He says: "Science can be overwhelming and scary if we only hear about it through stories from science fiction. But I hope that our work and films like Particle Fever will inspire people's imagination and help them make informed decisions about science."

Dr Saavedra is part of a team of physicists from more than 177 universities and laboratories collaborating on the ATLAS experiment - a project on which, in the words of the physicists themselves, the sun never sets. As scientists in Geneva are calling it a night, physicists in other parts of the world are just beginning their day.

Dr Saavedra, an experimental physicist, says: "I remember the ATLAS experiment when it was only a collection of ideas on a document around twenty years ago." Back then, the top quark had just been discovered and Dr Saavedra was helping to build the silicon detector that would become a key component of the ATLAS detector. The detector's job is to record the proton-proton collisions that take place at the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest particle accelerator.

"Being young and idealistic then, I was hopeful that people could appreciate the Higgs boson the same way we appreciate the importance of music, sports and other discoveries like the theory of relativity," he says.

The next landmark will be the upgrade of the LHC so that event collisions can take place at a total energy of 14 TeV, up from 8 TeV last year. This upgrade will enable the experiment to further study the properties of the Higgs boson.

Dr Saavedra now works at the Sydney node of the Centre of Excellence for Particle Physics at the Terascale, supported by the Australian Research Council. Working closely with other members of the centre, he analyses data collected by the ATLAS experiment to make precise measurements and search for new physics phenomena.

Dr Antonio Limosani, another member of the University of Sydney team, was responsible for the detector software handling the data from the experiment in Geneva.

"I was a gatekeeper - every day we had to check that the reconstruction process was still running successfully," he says. "I was in the control room in the nights and days leading up to the first collision. We would pack into the room and just wait," Dr Limosani recalls. "In the days leading up we discovered small problems and had to react immediately. It got really intense when the first collisions were produced. There was huge excitement when we broke the record for high energy collisions in March 2010."

Dr Limosani will return to CERN in July to chair the technical performance group, which is responsible for the software for the whole detector.

High school students interested in learning more about the ATLAS experiment can take part in a physics masterclass on Thursday, 10 July. Offered by CoEPP and the International Particle Physics Outreach Group at CERN, the masterclass will take place at the different nodes around Australia.

The Sydney event will be organised by Dr Saavedra and colleague Dr Archil Kobakhidze. "It will offer students in Years 11 and 12 a unique opportunity to learn from physicists around the world and work with real data from the ATLAS experiment," says Dr Saavedra.

"When we are growing up, we don't understand how big the world can be," he says. "I hope this masterclass shows students how the Higgs was discovered and inspires young people to be curious about the universe. "Through science, we can learn new things that show us where we fit within the universe. It is the result of collaboration from scientists around the world, so it is not just an individual story of discovery, but all our stories that have led to this discovery."

Meet the director

Before he made films, Particle Fever director Mark Levinson did his PhD in physics at University of California, Berkeley. We talked to him about combing his two loves, science and cinema.

What do you think non-physicists will get out of watching Particle Fever?

ML: I hope that people see that science is a really human pursuit. We have a lot of stereotypes in popular culture about what a scientist is. They think scientists are unemotional and walk around with a white coat. That's not what most physicists are like and we wanted to demystify this image in the film.

The film shows that scientific research on the frontier level is like art. You need creativity, passion and dedication. Most importantly, you need the belief that what you are pursuing is important to society and human culture, even though it doesn't have clear economic applications.

What did you enjoy most about making the film?

ML: At a deep level, there was something satisfying about combining these two strands of my life - physics and filmmaking. Particle Fever is a love song to the particle physics community. It was exhilarating to record this once-in-a-lifetime discovery of the Higgs boson and our film shows what the scientists do in a unique way. It makes particle physicists look like rock stars, which is how I think they should be treated.

Contact: Verity Leatherdale

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