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'An incredibly exciting time for physics!'

Dr. Derek Strom, Augustana Class of 2002, researcher at CERN, talks about the Higgs boson announcement

July  10, 2012

Dr. Derek Strom, Augustana College Class of 2002, at the Compact Muon Solenoid Detector at CERN.

Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

World's largest and highest-energy particle accelerator. Allows physicists to test theories of particle physics and high-energy physics. Contains six detectors for specific kinds of exploration.


Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS)

One of two large general-purpose particle physics detectors at the LHC at CERN. Sits in an underground cavern at Cessy in France, just across the border from Geneva. (See diagram)

What is the Higgs boson?

It is a proposed elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics. The existence of the Higgs boson would explain why some other elementary particles have mass. One of the primary goals of the LHC was to test the existence of the Higgs boson.

The CMS and ATLAS teams at the LHC each announced the formal discovery of a previously unknown boson "consistent with" a Higgs boson but cautioned that further data and analysis are needed before positively identifying the Higgs boson.

When scientists announced last week they had discovered the Higgs boson particle, most people understood that it was a historic event, even if they didn't understand exactly why.

Dr. Derek Strom, Augustana College Class of 2002, did understand.

He was on hand for the announcement because he has been working on the project at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva, Switzerland. He is part of the team on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) there.

"It was an emotional event for all those involved in the experiment," he said. "It was a massive undertaking by many to design and construct the LHC and the CMS detector. The data collection and searches performed for this new particle were equally intensive. A great sense of achievement and unity was felt throughout the laboratory the day the announcement was made. We are now one step closer to understanding the nature of particle physics."

Dr. Strom attended high school in Burlington, Ill., then graduated from Augustana with a degree in physics and math. He won a research fellowship in high energy physics at Northwestern University that fall, worked at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., and finished his Ph.D. in 2008. He joined the CMS Experiment as a postdoctoral research assistant and moved with his wife Kimberly Baker (Augie '03) to Switzerland.

Pride in Rock Island

His Augie professors have been keeping track of his career, so last week's news brought a special excitement to Rock Island.

"We are impressed and proud of his part in this great physics breakthrough!" said Dr. Cecilia Vogel, professor of physics. "When he got the job at CERN, he was so very excited to be part of the most cutting-edge physics, and to be able to travel to a new and beautiful place. It was his dream job!"

She remembers Dr. Strom as an outstanding student.  

Derek Strom, second from left, at an Augustana Physics Club outreach day at Franklin School, Moline, Ill.

"He was very bright, but unassuming. He was a very well-rounded, liberal-arts student, with a passion for physics," she said. "He did a lot of outreach to local grade-schoolers as part of the Physics Club, did research at Fermilab over the summer, and took the physics club on a tour of Fermilab during his senior year."

How does it work?

Dr. Strom said his interest in physics comes from a simple question: How does this work?

"Generally speaking, physics allows us to answer such questions about the universe in which we live, and to me that is where all the fun and excitement lies," he said. "Particle physics is the exploration of matter and energy at the smallest and fastest scales, and modern accelerators and detectors aid in our discovery of nature's elementary constituents and understanding of their properties.

"With the LHC accelerator and the CMS detector, the largest devices of their kind ever constructed, we are now seeing things in nature that no one has ever seen before. Our collaboration just announced the discovery of a new particle, something really fundamentally new, with properties consistent with the Higgs boson. It took nearly half a century from its prediction in 1964 to discovery. It doesn't get more exciting than this in our field, and I feel very honored to be a part of scientific history. We've come a long way in forming an accurate description of our natural world, yet I feel we're just beginning to scratch the surface.

"There are many 'How does this work?' questions to be asked," he added. "This is an incredibly exciting time for physics!"

A tech frontier

Derek Strom

The CMS Experiment, with more than 2,000 physicists from 38 nations, together with the ATLAS Experiment (also at CERN) are the two largest scientific research projects in history. Dr. Strom has two main roles within the CMS collaboration: detector operations and physics research. He oversees the data collection and the performance of the silicon strip tracking detector, a piece of the CMS apparatus designed to measure the momentum of charged particles produced in the proton collisions by the LHC. This detector, with 200 square meters of silicon detection area (roughly the area of a tennis court) is the largest of its kind ever constructed.

He compares the detector to the silicon sensor inside a digital camera, except the detector takes a snapshot of proton collisions. The detector collects information for charged particles and can take a snapshot continuously every 25 nanoseconds. The data collected is processed with specialized algorithms used to identify particles created in the collisions. Only the most interesting "candidate events" are recorded to disk and used in searches for new particles, such as the Higgs boson. His other main role is basic physics research with a team searching for a hypothetical particle called the Z Prime boson.

"Being a researcher at the LHC is incredibly exciting since we're at a new energy regime, and we don't really know what's going to turn up in our data," he said. "I feel very honored to be a member of such a global collaboration at the energy and technological frontiers."