3 UB professors share connection with Nobel prize-winning research - The Buffalo News
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3 UB professors share connection with Nobel prize-winning research

Since Swedish millionaire Alfred Nobel’s will stipulated that each Nobel Prize can go to no more than three people, the physics prize announced Tuesday goes to Peter Higgs of Great Britain and Francois Englert of Belgium for a scientific prediction they first made back in 1964.

But if there were no such numerical limit, the prize could be awarded to several thousand researchers across the world who really share this prestigious honor – including three University at Buffalo physics professors.

UB associate professors Avto Kharchilava and Ia Iashvili and assistant professor Salvatore Rappoccio all played roles in the decades-long search for the highly elusive Higgs “boson particle” that explains how elementary matter attains the mass to form stars, planets and other objects.

The incredible thing about Tuesday’s award to Higgs and Englert is that they were honored for predicting the existence of the boson particle almost 50 years ago.

Following almost a half-century of research by physicists across the world, the breakthrough came in July 2012, when scientists finally confirmed they had observed a particle matching the properties of the theoretical Higgs boson.

Understanding the intricacies of the boson particle, and its role in the Standard Model of particle physics, is like listening to a physics soliloquy delivered by Dr. Sheldon Cooper, the main character in TV’s “The Big Bang Theory.”

In other words, we laugh at what we can’t understand.

But it’s mind-boggling to realize that thousands of researchers teamed up over a 48-year period to confirm the existence of a particle that proved a historically important scientific theory.

In short, the detailed research needed was way too broad for one person or one small team to tackle.

“Philosophically speaking, as a species, we’ve come to the point that the questions we’re asking are so big and so complex and so elusive that without everyone banding together, you can’t answer them,” said Rappoccio, who came to UB in August 2012.

“The question to me is not why did we need so many people. It’s how did we do it with so few?”

Rappoccio’s colleagues, Iashvili and Kharchilava, both helped plan and build the CMS detector at the world’s strongest particle accelerator.

That collider smashes protons together at 99.999999 percent of the speed of light, and that’s how these physicists observed the Higgs boson particle.

These three UB physics professors explained, in simple enough terms for a layman, the evolution of the Standard Model of particle physics over the last half century.

“In the ’60s, we had a successful theory that explained most of the physical forces around us,” Iashvili said. “It explained the building blocks of matter, or particles, and the interaction between these particles.

“What this model did not explain was why these building blocks had mass. That was a very serious shortcoming.”

So the hunt was on for the missing particle that would prove the theory.

That model made a prediction about a particle that could be found in nature, “and we’ve been searching for it ever since,” Rappoccio said.

But just like detectives, scientists don’t consider any such hypothesis valid until there’s sufficient evidence.

So the model was tested and tested and tested some more, until someone could prove – or disprove – its validity.

“It survived many tests,” Kharchilava said, explaining why the theory never was discarded.

All three of the UB professors involved have spent the length of their careers, until the summer of 2012, wondering whether the theory could be proved.

“Every time I asked myself if the Higgs theory was correct, I came to the conclusion that it was impossible to know until we discovered it experimentally,” Iashvili said.

“I simply didn’t know.”

While they’ll never see their names on this Nobel Prize, the three UB professors clearly are thrilled that they played some part in the discovery.

“I’m excited,” Rappoccio said. “It’s vindicating to know that something you participated in has left a stamp on the human civilization. This will be part of the ensemble of knowledge forever.”

Iashvili takes great pride in the community of scientists who worked across political boundaries and differences to make this stunning find.

“We come from all over the world,” she added. “We overcame political animosities and all worked together.”

That meant Indians cooperating with Pakistanis, Russians collaborating with Georgians, all for the larger good.

Kharchilava, who like Iashvili is of Georgian descent, was struck by the way these physicists pushed science and technology to their edge, ensuring that a decades-long investment finally paid off.

And Rappoccio said he was humbled that the simplest possible explanation turned out to be the right one.

In many cases, these talented researchers across the world put aside their own egos to reach a common goal, collaborating sometimes with people they didn’t even know.

The three UB professors were asked to contrast that teamwork with the political differences elsewhere that can lead nations into civil war, unrest and government gridlock.

“For me, I feel there are no boundaries, no limits, if we come together,” Iashvili said.

“This is not only scientists at their best, but humankind at its best,” she added.

email: gwarner@buffnews.com

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