The field of particle physics is poised on the verge of massive change, and a collaboration between MIT and a university in Belgium is aiming to be at the forefront of this evolution.

“You learn that your collaborator’s view of the world is different from your own, and you realize certain concepts are more relevant and have more promise than you thought.”

On July 4, 2012, a momentous discovery was announced at CERN, Switzerland, home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). After a 40-year search, particle physicists had detected a particle that could be the theorized but previously undiscovered Higgs boson – the first elementary scalar particle discovered in nature. By March 2013, the new-found particle was confirmed to have the behaviors and attributes of a Higgs boson.

“This means the winds of change are blowing in the world of particle physics,” says Jesse Thaler, Assistant Professor of Physics at MIT. “We have new LHC data to work with, and we have the chance to question everything.”

Thaler is collaborating with Fabio Maltoni, a professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, to explore the properties of not only the Higgs boson but also another perplexing particle: the top quark. “This collaboration would never have happened without the MISTI grant,” says Thaler. “Fabio brought it to my attention as a great opportunity to work together and get students involved.

“We’ve held two mini-symposiums so far: Two students and one post doc from Belgium traveled to MIT to discuss and present their work, and one student and two post docs have traveled from MIT to Belgium to do the same thing. It’s a catalyst, this exchange of ideas. You learn that your collaborator’s view of the world is different from your own, and you realize certain concepts are more relevant and have more promise than you thought.”

Thaler and Maltoni want to explore whether the top quark – the most massive particle known in nature – could unlock the mysteries of the Higgs, and their collaboration involves testing both particles to learn more about their properties and the relationship between the two. “The next big thing in particle physics will be an upgrade of the LHC,” Thaler explains, “which will make it possible to collect 100 times more data than we’ve collected to date. My hope is that as the field absorbs the information about this new particle, our collaboration will be looking at the ways we can use this data to learn more about the Higgs and the top quark. We will have access to much more detailed information about both particles, and we can combine our expertise to gain a more complete understanding.”

Why does this matter when you’re looking at the big picture? “We need new ways of testing and going beyond the Standard Model,” says Thaler.

“In terms of how particles interact, the Standard Model has been verified through lots of experimentation, yet there are glaring theoretical problems with it. In the end, it may not be the correct paradigm. There are particles out there that must exist – dark matter, for example, which is shown by gravity to exist – but they aren’t in the Standard Model, so we know something is missing. These questions motivated our collaboration with Fabio, and the hope is that we’ll end up with a new model that captures new forces and new structures in its framework.”

  • Belgium
  • Seed Fund
  • Physics