When deciding where to complete his masters of science, Marco Bieri’s number-one criteria was being able to play in a punk band. Particle physics wasn’t on the radar, let alone contributing to the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson.
After completing undergraduate studies in Calgary, Bieri chose to complete his masters in the Lower Mainland, largely due to its music scene.
“I didn’t even know what I was going to do – I just applied to school in Vancouver, because I wanted to move to Vancouver, because I wanted to play in a punk band and that was the way to do it,” says Bieri. “And I ended up getting into SFU.”
During an orientation day, when potential professors were showing what they had to offer, Bieri says he was drawn to a presentation by Dr. Mike Vetterli, who offered an opportunity to work with CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva. After further discussion with Vetterli, Bieri committed to working with him and the schools High Energy Physics Group on studies related to CERN’s pursuit of the elementary Higgs boson or Higgs particle, the elusive final piece to the standard model of particle physics.
Peter Higgs first proposed the existence of what became known as the Higgs particle in 1964, as well as the Higgs field where the particle takes on mass.
“Nobody knew 100 per cent… Why does an electron have mass, why does a proton have mass, and of course, why do we have mass?” explains Bieri. “So this guy proposed this theory that particles would travel through this field and interact via this Higgs boson. But nobody could measure if this thing actually exists.”
Enter CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest high-energy particle accelerator, built 100 metres underground in a 27-kilometre tunnel. While the LHC can and is being used for a variety of experiments, its main purpose was to prove the existence of the HIggs particle.
Between 2004 and 2006, Bieri was traveling back and forth between SFU and CERN while working on his thesis, which focused on calibration of a component, the calorimeter of ATLAS detection apparatus used by the LHC.
“Essentially, what our machines did, these particle reactions take place, so these particles penetrate material and get stuck, and we wanted to see how much energy was deposited,” said Bieri. “So then, when they turn on the machine, they can see what kind of reading they get and they can map that – how much energy was deposited. Based on that, they can see what kind of particle was coming out.”
When Bieri completed his masters, he decided not to carry on in the field of particle physics, pursuing his passion for pounding the skins in a punk rock band instead.
“I didn’t continue on because I thought some other things like music were more interesting to me,” says Bieri. “But I was lucky, I thought it was really cool to work there for a few years. But in the world of research, there’s a lot of computing, and on a personal level I didn’t want to work on a computer all day. That was my personal big strike against it.”
After years of drumming with the Glim Project, followed by extensive touring with Celtic-punk-folk band the Dreadnoughts, Bieri is spending the summer at home in Sicamous with his dad Ruedi and mom Vreny. And, despite his reluctance to sitting in front of computers, that’s exactly where he was on July 4, the day CERN announced their discovery (with 99.99 per cent certainty) of the Higgs particle.
“I’d been on emails all day… My old boss is in Geneva right now and got to see the press conference live,” said Bieri. “He said they got up at four in the morning and they were lining up like kids at a rock concert, all the profs there, because I think it started at 9, and they got there five hours before with, like, blankets and whiskey. They were all so happy because they’ve been working on this forever. It was like the biggest rock concert in the particle physics world.”
Bieri admits he was a small fish, one of thousands behind the potential discovery of the Higgs.
“But it’s still kind of cool to say you were part of one of the biggest discoveries in the last whatever years,” he says.
Asked if he thought the Higgs boson project is worth the $6 billion-plus that’s gone into it, Bieri suggests CERNs recent discovery is but a beginning.
“That’s kind of like their holy grail, this discovery, but there’s so much more science that can go on too,” says Beiri. “They have so much data that they can work on, they can test these other theories like string theory and other stuff. These discoveries are amazing, but they push everything.”
“CERN invented the Internet in the late 80s, they invented www because it’s an immense data transfer. So I mean, yes, that $6 billion, people are like, ‘Oh, what a waste of money,’ and ‘you could feed half the world with that.’” It’s just a lot of our technological backing originated from projects like that because you always have to push boundaries.”