Happy birthday, Z boson

Alice Lighton, content developer for our Collider exhibition, writes about the history of quantum physics. Collider: step inside the world’s greatest experiment opens in November 2013 with a behind-the-scenes look at the famous CERN particle physics laboratory. 

The air brimmed with excitement on this momentous day. The discovery of the particle confirmed a theory that had taken years to devise, and justified the toil of hundreds of scientists.

You might think I’m referring to the Higgs boson – the particle that explains mass, discovered at the LHC last year. But thirty years ago this month, another event shaped modern physics – the discovery of the Z boson.

In the 1960s, physicists predicted the Z and W bosons, as a way to link the electromagnetic and weak forces. There was plenty of evidence the theory was correct, but the lynchpin would be the discovery of the Z boson.

A section of the 4.3 mile-round Super Proton Synchrotron, at CERN near Geneva. Image: CERN

To make a Z boson, two particles are smashed together. The energy of the crash creates new, heavy particles. If a Z boson is produced, it sticks around for only a fraction of a second before it decays into other particles. To claim the prize of discovering the Z boson, physicists would need to be able to forensically reconstruct what happens in a collision, never seeing the Z directly.

Europe and America built machines to discover the Z, including the Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) at CERN. “The idea of creating this massive object (the Z) and letting it decay…was a riveting idea (well at least for me in the late 1970s),” said Crispin Williams, a physicist who now works on the ALICE experiment at the LHC.

Two CERN physicists, effusive Italian Carlo Rubbia and Dutchman Simon Van der Meer, realised that to beat the firepower of the newly-opened Tevatron in Chicago, the SPS had to take risks. The pair devised an audacious plan; rather than fire beams onto a fixed object, they would collide two opposing beams, each only a hair’s width across and both travelling at almost the speed of light.

What’s more, one of the beams would be made of antimatter, which destroys ordinary matter. Creating and manipulating a beam of antimatter was a revolutionary concept.

Williams remembers when Rubbia and Van der Meer announced their plan to collide two beams. “This was to a packed auditorium at CERN and I suspect that most people thought he was out of his mind,” said Williams.

Rubbia and Van der Meer celebrate receiving a Nobel prize for their efforts. Image: CERN

Despite the technical challenge, the new collider worked. One visitor to CERN in 1982 described the intense excitement the new development created. “I went to the CERN cafeteria for a coffee and there I saw something that I had not noticed before. There was a monitor on the wall and people were watching the screen with great interest. The monitor was showing the rate of proton–antiproton collisions in CERN’s latest challenge – a bold venture designed to produce the intermediate bosons, W and Z.”

In January 1983, the risk-takers received their reward, when the W boson was discovered.  On 1st June 1983, scientists at CERN announced they had seen five Z bosons in their detectors.

The tracks left by the decay of the Z boson in a detector. Image: UA1/CERN

The route to the discovery had revolutionised particle physics, with more intricate detectors and the ability to manipulate antimatter. For Williams, the discovery of the Higgs boson was much less elegant. “In comparison the Higgs at the LHC is just brute force,” he said.  “Maybe I am just getting old and cynical: and I look back at the Z discovery through rose tinted glasses.”

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