In Italy last week, Northeastern’s Joe Haley (third from left), joined here by an inter­na­tional team of physi­cists including François Englert (third from right) who helped pre­dict the Higgs boson in the early ‘60s, pre­sented new data about a the­o­ret­ical par­ticle essen­tial to the stan­dard model of physics. Cour­tesy photo.

For more than two decades, Fer­milab in Batavia, Ill., housed the world’s largest par­ticle accel­er­ator — the Teva­tron Col­lider — which allowed sci­en­tists to study the most ele­men­tary units of matter. Last Sep­tember, Fer­milab shut down the Teva­tron for­ever. Inter­na­tional hopes of under­standing some of the most fun­da­mental mys­teries of par­ticle physics began to shift to CERN in Geneva, Switzer­land, home of the younger, more ener­getic Large Hadron Col­lider (LHC).

To many, Fer­milab seemed like old news — until last week.

At the annual Moriond Elec­troweak Con­fer­ence in Italy, North­eastern post-​​doctoral researcher Joe Haley and other Fer­milab physi­cists announced that data col­lected at the Teva­tron over the last 10 years show a new hint of the Higgs boson — a par­ticle never observed, but nonethe­less essen­tial to the stan­dard model of physics.

There’s only so much infor­ma­tion in [a single pic­ture],” said North­eastern physics pro­fessor Darien Wood, who has worked at Fer­milab and CERN since the 1980s. “But with a better mag­ni­fying glass you can get more infor­ma­tion out of it.”

Between Sep­tember and Feb­ruary, par­ticle physics experts rolled up their sleeves and took out that better mag­ni­fying glass. They inte­grated data from dozens of research teams — including Northeastern’s — scan­ning them for evi­dence of the Higgs.

You don’t see the Higgs directly,” said Wood. “You see the things it decays into.” Par­ticle accel­er­a­tors work by sending two beams of par­ti­cles into head-​​on col­li­sions at nearly the speed of light, according to physics pro­fessor Emanuela Bar­beris, who is also involved in the research. Var­ious smaller par­ti­cles result from these col­li­sions; a series of detec­tors mea­sure their masses. Accu­mu­la­tions at pre­vi­ously unob­served masses could be a sign of the Higgs.

Before grad­u­ating from North­eastern with his PhD last year, physi­cist Gabriel Facini looked at col­li­sions that pro­duced the par­ti­cles known as neu­trinos and “b-​​quarks.” Although among the hardest to detect, they are one of the most impor­tant chan­nels for con­firming Higgs activity, said Wood.

Since CERN and Fer­milab look at dif­ferent decay par­ti­cles, LHC data cannot directly match Teva­tron data; instead, the two datasets com­ple­ment each other. In December, CERN released the first promising results about the Higgs. The new Fer­milab data, “gives you more con­fi­dence that this thing that we might be seeing is the Higgs and has the prop­er­ties that we expect,” said Wood.

Physi­cists have been hunting for the Higgs boson since before I was born, so I feel incred­ibly lucky to be on the front lines now that we are finally closing in,” said Haley, who will give a physics col­lo­quium talk, “Closing in on the Higgs Boson,” Tuesday at 11:15 a.m. in 114 Dana. “Within the next year, the Higgs boson will either be found or com­pletely ruled out and to be part of this his­toric event is truly amazing.”