W&M Physicist Takes Director Position at National Science Foundation, Talks Higgs

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Marc SherAfter 23 years at the College of William & Mary, Dr. Marc Sher is taking a break from teaching. Instead, he’s taking over an interim position as the program director for theoretical high energy physics/cosmology at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Sher will collaborate with a panel of physicists to decide which projects to fund in the field. The position boasts a $13 million budget and the chance to make some important decisions. For example, he will decide funding levels for institutes ranging from Ivy League universities to small schools.

He plans to commute three days per week to D.C. and be at W&M on Mondays and Fridays. After a year, he’ll return full time to the college, where he has a rare job. In fact, his job was one of less than a dozen like-positions in the U.S. last year: He teaches physics courses and studies electroweak interactions, cosmological phase transitions, astrophysics, supersymmetry – things that often describe the interactions of particles of a lesser size than an atom. And it all takes place in a building called Small Hall.

One of those tiny particles Sher studies is the Higgs boson particle. He’s been at it since 1978.

The Higgs boson, often called the “god particle” – a name that grew out of a joke between researchers Dick Teresi and Leon Lederman – explains why things have mass. To proffer an oversimplified explanation, many physicists believe that within the first second of the big bang, the Higgs is the reason other particles didn’t just keep moving away from each other into infinity.

It aggregated them. Without the Higgs, every fundamental particle would have no mass and would move at the speed of light. There would be no atoms, molecules, tissues, organs, trees, grasses, rocks, water, whales, ostriches, ants or any of the the creeping, crawling, walking, talking, roaring, soaring, moving, breathing, living things on earth; or anything else.

Let’s back up, though, to about a year ago. It’s 4 a.m. Sher is sitting on his couch, watching TV.

Over the airwaves comes an announcement he and many others in his field have anticipated for decades. The Higgs boson is discovered.

At the time, there was a one in 3.5 million chance the data collected at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland, would act the same way even if the particle did not exist. But let’s not split hairs.

“It looks like a duck, walks like a duck, talks like a duck and it’s exactly where you expect a duck to be,” Sher said. “You just have to prove that it’s a duck … But you always worry that it won’t be there, in which case everything you’ve done is worthless.”

But there’s a catch. That duck – the Higgs boson particle – behaves exactly the way that physicists have been predicting for decades. There are no anomalies, no quirks (just quarks) and nothing odd to be found.

In a radio interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Sher said it might mean there’s nothing more to learn from it. He likened it to “the cat that catches the mouse and doesn’t know what to do with it.”

Things have changed since that March 14 interview with NPR, Sher said.

“I think that was premature,” he says about the cat-and-mouse simile. “Because there may be several species of mice.”

That’s exactly what Sher studies now: “mice,” “ducks” — the Higgs plural. He hypothesizes about universes with not just one, but several Higgs particles. That’s why, he says, the continued research at the LHC is so important.

According to Sher, another six years of research using the collider could yield 100 times as many Higgs as are now known. But if nothing is discovered, it will mean he and many others in his field were chasing the wrong dream.

“We call that the nightmare scenario,” Sher said. “The nightmare is not ‘finding no Higgs.’ The nightmare is finding the Higgs and nothing else. And so far, that’s where we are.”

Sher said that could foil plans for future data and cause a massive egress from the field of Higgs research. It could also mean the plan to build an international linear collider in Japan — a bigger and meaner version of the LHC — would be tough to justify.

“How can you get Congress to pay $10 billion when you expect nothing to be seen?” he said.

For research to continue in the field, much pivots on what the LHC is able to find in coming years. For now, it’s a waiting game.

“It’s frustrating,” Sher said. “But it does mean it’s going to be exciting in a year and a half when it (the LHC) turns on again. Which is why going to the NSF for year is good timing: there won’t be any more data coming out of it.”

Training has already begun for Sher, but his official first day at the foundation is Sept. 23.