“Where were you when they announced the observation of the Higgs boson?” FSU undergraduate physics major Ashley Huff was in the room at CERN

[Editor’s note:  This post was also published on the blog of the Future Physicists of Florida, which is holding its first induction ceremonies for mathematically talented middle and high school students on November 16 in Tallahassee and Pensacola.  Ashley Huff is a graduate of Tarpon Springs Senior High School.]

The discovery of the Higgs Boson, the particle that provides the things you use every day (including you) with mass, was one of the most exciting scientific discoveries of the 21st century so far.  In the picture at the top of this New York Times article, you can see the jubilation in the room where the discovery was announced on July 4 of this year.

And a Florida State University undergraduate physics major named Ashley Huff was in the room when the announcement was made and that picture was taken.  Ashley was selected to participate in a Duke University summer research program at CERN, the European laboratory where the gigantic accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is located and the Higgs discovery took place.  Ashley also works with FSU’s High Energy Physics group, which played a key role in the Higgs discovery.

Here is Ashley’s story [and picture]:

Ashley Huff in the LHC tunnel.

CERN is the home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which is the biggest machine in the world.  The LHC is a 27 kilometer long ring that sits about 175 meters below the surface of the Earth.  The LHC is a synchrotron style accelerator that was designed to collide both protons and heavy lead ions.  The protons move around the ring at 99.9999991% of the speed of light, or about 3 meters per second slower than the speed of light.

They say that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be present at the discovery of a new particle.  The atmosphere at CERN was very tense before the announcement.  Everyone was on pins and needles about what was going to be said.  Did they find it?  Could they possibly have disproved the existence of the Higgs boson?  When the experimental results were first shown on the screen, it was as if all of CERN could start breathing again.  This was then followed immediately by cheering, clapping and a few tears of joy.  Years and years of work, vindicated by two little words, “Higgs boson”.  It was utterly moving.  I didn’t have anything directly to do with the Higgs search myself.  I was just a curious undergraduate researcher that wanted to understand more about the universe.  Witnessing the announcement made me want to achieve something this great myself.

Sometimes there are things that happen in the world where people ask you years later if you remember where you were when it happened.  “Do you remember where you were when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon?”  Or, “Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?”  Someday, people might ask, “Where were you when they announced the observation of the Higgs boson?”  I’m so lucky to be able to say that I was there at CERN.  With the men and women who worked so hard to better humanity’s understanding of the universe.

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