News & Features

Sau Lan Wu ’63 Discusses God Particle Discovery

This summer, the physics world was abuzz following the long-anticipated announcement of the discovery of a new subatomic particle called the Higgs boson. Also known as the “God particle,” it was the last missing elementary particle of 17 predicted by the Standard Model, the ruling physics theory for the last half-century. The Higgs is thought to uniquely impart mass to matter.

The Higgs discovery took place at the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, a massive particle accelerator operated by CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) near Geneva, Switzerland. Two teams of about 3,000 physicists each—known as Atlas and CMS—made the discovery.

Professor Wu with Vassar physics students and faculty members.
Professor Wu with Vassar physics students and faculty members.

Sau Lan Wu ’63, the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a respected member of the Atlas team, discussed the discovery on October 22. The Rockefeller lecture hall where the talk was given was filled to capacity with students, faculty members, and Vassar neighbors excited to hear Wu speak about one of the longest, most expensive searches in the history of science, and the most significant observation in physics in more than 30 years.

During her presentation, Wu showed a photo of her with Peter Higgs taken at the press conference to announce the discovery.

“I told him, ‘I have been looking for you for over 20 years.’”

His reply? “Now you have found me!”

The physicist explains the Higgs findings during a luncheon with students.
The physicist explains the Higgs findings during a luncheon with students.

Wu previously played an important role in discovering two other subatomic particles: the Charm quark and the gluon. Reading the biography of Marie Curie inspired her to pursue a life of science. During her time at Vassar, she spent a summer at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where the study of particle physics captivated her. She later earned a Ph.D. from Harvard and worked initially as a research associate at MIT. Her work has earned her the High Energy and Particle Physics Prize from the European Physical Society, and she is a fellow  of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

At the time of the announcement at CERN, scientists were conservatively calling the particle “Higgs-like,” but the findings passed a critical test in September, when they were published in the peer-reviewed journal Physics Letters B.

Additional tests are being conducted to determine whether the particle is truly the illusive Higgs boson or a new particle, perhaps—one that opens the door to more complex and deeper understandings of physics and the universe, helping to answer questions such as: What is dark matter? Why is the universe matter instead of anti-matter?

Time may reveal such insights as Wu and her colleagues continue their work.

—Peter Bronski

Photos © Vassar College/John Abbott Photography 

Posted Tuesday, November 6, 2012