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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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A quick ski through history

This past week about 175 lucky particle physicists gathered in La Thuile, a mountain town in the Italian Alps, for one of the annual Rencontres de Moriond conferences. This is one of the highlights of the particle-physics calendar, perhaps the most important gathering of particle physicists between the summer-time Lepton-Photon and ICHEP conferences for the presentation of new results. The major experimental collaborations of the world have been wrapping up a flurry of activity in preparation for the high-profile meetings taking place over the next few weeks. The atmosphere on the LHC experiments has been a bit less intense this year than last year, as the flashiest results from the 2010-12 data sample have already been released, but there was still a push to complete as many measurements as possible for presentation at this conference in particular.

I’ve only been to a Moriond conference once, but it was quite an experience. The conference is held at a ski resort to encourage cameraderie and scientific exchanges outside the conference room, and that leads to an action-packed week. Each morning of the week opens with about three hours of scientific presentations. The mid-morning finish allows for an almost-full day of skiing for those who chose to go (and as you might imagine, many do). This is a great opportunity to spend leisure time with colleagues, meet new people and discuss what had been learned that morning. After the lifts have closed, everyone returns to the hotel for another three hours of presentations. This is followed by a group dinner to continue the conversation. Everyone who has the chance to go realizes that they are very lucky to be there, but at the same time it is a rather exhausting experience! Or, as Henry Frisch, my undergraduate mentor and a regular Moriond attendee, once told me, “There are three things going on at Moriond — the physics, the skiing, and the food — and you can only do two out of the three.” (I skipped lunch on most days.)

As friends were getting ready to head south from CERN through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Italy (and as I was getting ready for my first visit to the United States in more than seven months, for the annual external review of the US LHC operations programs), I realized that it has in fact been ten years since the Moriond conference I went to. Thankfully, the conference organizers have maintained the conference website from 2004, allowing me to relive my presentation from that time. It is a relief to observe that our understanding of particle physics has advanced quite a bit since then! At that Moriond, the Tevatron was just starting to kick into gear for its “Run 2,” and during the previous year we had re-established the signal for the top quark that had first been observed in the mid-1990s. We were just starting to explore the properties of the top quark, but we were hampered by the size of the data sample at that point. It is amusing to look back and see that we were trying to measure the mass of the top quark with a mere six dilepton decay events! Over the coming years, the Tevatron would produce hundreds more such events, and the CDF and D0 experiments would complete the first thorough explorations of the top quark, demonstrating that its properties are totally in line with the predictions of the standard model. And since then, the LHC has done the Tevatron one better, thanks to both an increase in the top-quark production rate at the higher LHC energy and the larger LHC collision rate. The CMS top-quark sample now boasts about 70,000 dilepton candidate events, and the CMS measurement of the top-quark mass is now the best in the world.

Top-quark physics is one of the topics I’m most familiar with, so it is easy for me to mark progress there, but of course it has been a remarkable decade of advances for particle physics, with the discovery of the Higgs boson, a more thorough understanding of neutrino masses and mixing, and constraints on the properties of dark matter. Next year, the LHC will resume operations in its own “Run 2″, with an even higher collision energy and higher collision rates than we had in 2012. It is a change almost as great as that we experienced in moving from the Tevatron to the first run of the LHC. I cannot wait to see how the LHC will be advancing our knowledge of particle physics, possibly through the discovery of new particles that will help explain the puzzles presented by the Higgs boson. You can be sure that there will be a lot of excited chatter on the chair lifts around the dinner table at the 2016 Moriond conferences!

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