Seeking the Meaning of Life

Monday, November 9, 2015

By Marlene Orton
Photos by Luther Caverly

Nobel laureate and French philosopher Albert Camus once wrote that “you will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”

Any particle physicist would beg to differ and that is certainly true for one Carleton University scientist: Manuella Vincter. Vincter’s credentials take up plenty of space. For example, she was deeply immersed in the breath-taking 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson, the physical mechanism that explains why all particles have mass.

As such, Vincter has spent much of her research life at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN’s giant particle accelerator in Switzerland, where she commutes from Carleton’s laboratories. Her work at there now is part of her Killam Fellowship, awarded in 2014 in recognition of Vincter’s international leadership in particle physics.

Vincter’s passion for particle physics unfolded under the mentorship of a string of inspirational educators through high school, into the Quebec CEGEP system and then in university where she was instilled with a love of science.

I am a firm believer that if new physics comes along, it’s not going to come out like a big bang or a flash out of nowhere

A Carleton physics professor named in 2004 as the Canada Research Chair in Experimental Particle Physics, which has now wound down, Vincter is revered by many students, whose online tags gush with enthusiasm that mirrors her teaching style. “It is very important at an early stage to communicate your passion for science,” she says.

Vincter’s research focus is the Standard Model of particle physics, the set of basic particles and interactions that defines the fundamental structure of matter. More than that, the Standard Model explains why we have planets, how the universe formed and why we have life, according to American physicist John F. Gunion, author of The Higgs Hunter’s Guide.

Looking for New Physics

And so, Vincter has sought the meaning of life in her own way. “Nibbling on the edge of it, for sure,” she adds. “My heart is in the Standard Model both to understand and to look for new physics altogether. I am a firm believer that if new physics comes along, it’s not going to come out like a big bang or a flash out of nowhere but by subtle effects, by precision measurement showing something different from what the Standard Model is predicting.”

Vincter’s pedigree summarizes the direction of her research career, first as a PhD student at CERN working on the giant Large Electron Positron collider (LEP) with its 27-kilometre circumference. (This was closed in 2000 for construction of the massive Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in the same tunnel.) At CERN, her investigation included work on the W and Z bosons. W bosons are responsible for radioactivity, while Z bosons can be produced at extreme energies such a supernova explosion.

Einstein was not alive to witness the revolution in particle physics that began in the late 1950s, but he would have appreciated our discoveries of a zoo of particles

From there, Vincter went to DESY, the German collider in Hamburg to investigate protons. “Those few years were critical to my understanding of how to do LHC physics,” says Vincter. The stage was set for a return to CERN and the new super collider for the world’s most advanced scientific project: confirming the existence of the Higgs boson. She was part of Canada’s 150-member contingent to the international ATLAS physics team. Her work at CERN underscores the importance for both Canada and Carleton University of an international reach for research in a much larger, broader world arena.

Resolving Paradoxes in Physics

Vincter’s investigations and academic tutelage as a Canada Research Chair stand alongside stunning discoveries and achievements in particle physics, including the 2015 Nobel Prize awarded to Canadian Arthur McDonald for his co-discovery showing that neutrino particles have mass – a project in which Carleton’s physics department played a significant role.

The Higgs boson was confirmed by ATLAS and a twin research team at CERN making precision measurements of the properties of Higgs, such as its production, decay rates, and its spin, for example, to compare with predictions of the Standard Model. The measurements were produced after a proton-proton energy collision in the LHC that effectively shook loose the Higgs field.

Contemporary research physics has moved far beyond the world of Albert Einstein, a name instantly recognized although his theories were published more than a century ago.

“Einstein was not alive to witness the revolution in particle physics that began in the late 1950s,” Vincter says. “This would have been out of his reach but he would have appreciated our discoveries of a zoo of particles and theorized where they come from and why we need them all.”

These are questions about the meaning of life in some sense because it seems as if there is no answer to them but really you have to think a little about your interpretation of the questions to resolve these paradoxes in physics

Yet every bit of Einstein’s work on relativity is absolutely critical to research today especially at CERN, Vincter adds, because all the effects he postulated such as time dilation (the special theory of relativity) must be applied.

“These are questions about the meaning of life in some sense because it seems as if there is no answer to them but really you have to think a little about your interpretation of the questions to resolve these paradoxes in physics,” Vincter says.