Bodies were colliding like excited atoms in a nuclear accelerator as an estimated 500 UC Berkeley students, alumni and community members overflowed into the aisles of the Chan Shun Auditorium Friday afternoon for a panel discussion on the Higgs boson discovery.
UC Berkeley physicists, whose work helped lead to the discovery, led the panel discussion “The Higgs Boson Explained: What is the Higgs and Why is Everyone So Excited About it?” to explain the Higgs boson, a newfound elementary particle that had been theorized over for more than 50 years.
It was announced July 4 that the new particle was discovered by both the ATLAS and CMS experiments at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research that is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.
“If (the Higgs boson) wasn’t there, we wouldn’t have humans or galaxies,” said campus associate professor of physics Beate Heinemann during the panel discussion. “It is a critical particle and we wouldn’t have mass without it. It is fundamentally different from other particles.”
The particle accelerator that hosted the experiments is the Large Hadron Collider — an accelerator with a 27-kilometer circumference on the Swiss-French border near Geneva and the testing site for ATLAS and CMS — according to Heinemann.
Panel moderator and College of Letters and Science Executive Dean Mark Richards described the accelerator as the most complicated machine ever built by mankind, which draws 5,000 scientists from around the world “all in the search for truth and beauty.”
The discussion had a delayed start due to the overly large crowd who had to be cleared from the aisles by the the campus fire marshal.
But panelist Louise Skinnari, a UC Berkeley doctoral student and ATLAS experiment member, said it was exciting to see such public attention and mainstream reporting of the discovery.
“I’m amazed by the public interest and media attention,” Skinnari said. “I really hope it continues and spreads interest about these issues.”
Chancellor Robert Birgeneau was also in attendance and opened up the panel by stating that the discovery “deals with the fundamental nature of the universe.”
The particle has widely been referred to as “the God particle,” since it is thought to be the origin of all mass. When asked about whether this term was an appropriate designator for the particle, all of the panelists rejected the notion as either meaningless or misleading.
Andrew Critch, a mathematics doctoral student who arrived early enough for a seat, said he was in attendance to gain a more specific understanding of Higgs boson and out of sheer interest in the nature of the universe.
“I wanted to come because I read lots of pop culture news about it,” Critch said. “I wanted to get an independent view of it that I wouldn’t find Googling.”