Published 11 July 2012 by
Heather Gray: chaotic starts and Higgs excitement
Heather Gray, a researcher working on the ATLAS experiment at CERN, was at this year’s Lindau meeting. I spoke to her over email before it started to find out about her expectations, and afterwards she told me about her impressions of the meeting and what it was like to watch the announcement from CERN with other young researchers. She also made a video diary of the Higgs exciement at Lindau that you can watch below.
What were your first impressions of the meeting when you arrived?
My arrival at the meeting was somewhat chaotic as my bag had been sent on the wrong flight by the airline and then when dashing out for some new clothes I dropped my wallet! However the staff at the Lindau meeting where wonderful so they quickly helped me to sort things out. This did mean that I was a little distracted during the initial stages and the opening ceremony. I enjoyed the formality and tradition clearly inherent in the opening ceremony and obtained a better understanding of the history of the Nobel meeting. Of course, it was exciting to see so many Nobel Laureates in one place at the same time, although this was something I got more accustomed to over the week. Finally, I found the number of young researchers quite surprising – there really were many, many young people all doing fascinating research in many different corners of the globe.
You mentioned in our last Q&A that you’re working on the Higgs boson. How busy were you in the weeks leading up to the meeting, and how did you feel on Wednesday when the results were announced?
Oh, whenever we have data, we are always extremely busy working to understand it. I was very busy the week before I left because I was taking a shift as run manager: essentially looking after our experiment’s data-taking for a week, in the last few days that we collected data that was used for this result, so it was definitely a time in which we wanted things to go smoothly. I do work on the Higgs, but I don’t work on the two channels that ATLAS showed this time, so for me the busiest time is yet to come as we collect more data. However, in the last few days before the result went public the entire collaboration was involved in the process of understanding the results, approving it and converging on the message we wanted to present to the outside world.
At Lindau, the seminar in which the spokespeople of the two experiments presented the new results unfortunately clashed with some of the scheduled talks, so there wasn’t an opportunity to watch it together with the other participants. However, quite a group of us got together and watched in the tent on a few laptops, which I enjoyed a lot. I found the seminar very exciting, even if I already knew what ATLAS was going to show, and I even found myself surprisingly emotional when the Director General said "I think we’ve got it!" We couldn’t stop ourselves from clapping as everyone had broad grins on their faces.
What’s next for the Higgs in general, and for your own research?
In this case, the two are really quite well aligned. What we want and need to do next re more careful measurements to determine whether this particle is the Higgs boson or something else. The decay channel that I work on directly is the decay to a pair of bottom quarks and we need data before the channel becomes sensitive. Of course, this doesn’t mean we’re waiting, but rather actively working on the analysis and optimising things so that we can obtain the best results possible.
In order to understand if it is the Higgs, we need to repeat the current measurements with more data and check nothing changes. Then we need to see if we observe this particle in all predicted decay channels and whether we see it decaying in different ways at the rate at which we expect. Here’s where the channel I work on fits in, as the bb channel is the only decay to quarks that we could expect to see, and if it’s the Higgs, it should really couple to all particles. We’ll be taking data until the end of this year or early next year and we hope that this should give us enough data to obtain at least the first answer to this question.
You took part in a master class with David Gross – what was that like?
The master class was one of my favourite parts of the meeting. I couldn’t have asked for better timing to be giving a talk about the Higgs than the day after that seminar! I found the contributions from all participants were of a very high quality such that I found them fascinating. The discussion was excellent with many people attending the class participating. I also enjoyed the discussion I had with David Gross about how sure we experimentalists need to be about a result before making it public.
What will you take away from the meeting?
I will take away some great experiences, great friends, new ideas and most of all the impressions I got of the Nobel Laureates, not just as great scientists, but also human beings.