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Key physicist in 2012 Higgs boson particle discovery Sau Lan Wu, a Vassar alumna, to discuss scientific breakthrough on October 22, 2012

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY — According to the standard model of particle physics 17 types of subatomic particles explain everything we know about matter, but only 16 had been scientifically observed until this past July. That’s when Vassar alumna Sau Lan Wu and a team of fellow physicists announced their proof of the existence of the Higgs boson, sometimes referred to as the “God particle”, which explains how matter has mass.  The new findings on the Higgs boson have now passed scientific peer review, and on Monday, October 22 at 5:00pm in Rockefeller Hall room 300, Dr. Wu will discuss the decades of international effort that led to this research breakthrough (the notion of the particle was suggested by namesake physicist Peter Higgs in 1964).

In a 2002 Vassar interview Wu remarked that with proof of the Higgs boson, "We will finally have a complete picture of the behavior of matter and energy at the most fundamental levels currently experimentally accessible to us."

Sau Lan Wu is the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison but is based at the renowned CERN research center for fundamental physics in Geneva, Switzerland, where she leads a large Wisconsin team of physicists, graduate students, and technical personnel.  According to physicist and author Michael Riordan, “Sau Lan and her group helped to pioneer the actual line of research into decays of the Higgs boson that proved to be the most fruitful in making the discovery.”

The telltale debris produced by the split-second decay of a particle, otherwise known as an "event”, is what Wu and other high-energy physicists have been examining for proof of the Higgs boson’s existence That’s because the particles themselves are so short-lived they can't be observed directly. Which is why particle accelerators like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN -- the largest machine in the world -- have been the key tools for researching the Higgs boson. The LHC is a nearly 17-mile long tunnel built two hundred feet underground, and it allows researchers to collide particle beams traveling at nearly the speed of light to produce massive particles that decay into a range of particles, including Higgs bosons.

Sau Lan Wu is no stranger to breakthrough discoveries in particle physics. She played a key role in identifying two of the other sixteen fundamental particles in the standard model -- the charm quark, via the discovery of the J particle (a composite particle consisting of a charm quark and its antiquark), and the gluon.

After earning her PhD. from Harvard, Wu worked as a research associate at M.I.T., where she assisted in the 1974 discovery of the charm quark. Soon after, Wu joined the Wisconsin faculty, where she immediately began work to unearth the gluon, so named for its ability to hold holds quarks together to form composite particles such as protons and neutrons. For this discovery she and her collaborators received the 1995 High Energy and Particle Physics Prize of the European Physical Society. In 1996 Wu was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Born in Hong Kong, Sau Lan Wu said in a Vassar interview she “dreamed of becoming a painter, but reading the biography of Marie Curie inspired me so much that I decided to devote my life to physics.” In 1963, four years after arriving in the United States to attend Vassar, she graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in physics.

The Physics and Astronomy department, the programs in Science, Technology, and Society and Women’s Studies, and the offices of the President and the Dean of the Faculty have provided Vassar support for this lecture. 

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Posted by Office of Communications Friday, October 5, 2012