University Scholar Nikos Varelas: thrill of the unknown

2013 University Scholars, Nikos Varelas, Professor of Physics

“Discoveries do not come every day, but when they come, they are really sweet!” says Nikos Varelas. Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services

The University Scholars Program, now in its 29th year, honors faculty members for superior research and teaching, along with great promise for future achievements. The award provides $10,000 a year for three years.

A few months after physics professor Nikos Varelas was born, physicists first posited the existence of the Higgs boson, the elusive subatomic particle essential to the existence of mass and the physical workings of our universe.

So it seems appropriate that after spending most of the last two decades engaged in the search, he was one of the international team of scientists who found the Higgs.

“Discoveries do not come every day, but when they come, they are really sweet!” said Varelas, whose field is high energy particle physics.

“The discovery of the Higgs is opening a new chapter — bringing us closer to understanding the genetic code of our universe. Without the Higgs boson, all fundamental particles would be moving with the speed of light, and life, as we know it today, would not have existed.”

Varelas was named a University Scholar not only for his research accomplishments, but his “direct role in building a first-rate high energy group in the department,” said Astrida Tantillo, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

When Varelas joined the faculty 16 years ago, UIC’s high energy group was down to one active member, said physics department head David Hofman.

The department seemed unlikely to play a role in the high energy experiments getting under way at Fermi National Laboratory.

But “from the very start it was clear that Dr. Varelas would not just strengthen, but would lead,” Hofman said.

The experiments eventually moved to CERN and the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Varelas continued his collaboration with the 4,000 scientists planning the experiments, then analyzing the enormous amount of data produced.

Varelas says working with the particle colliders is like having a time machine to look at conditions that existed at a trillionth of a second from the Big Bang that began the universe.

Varelas and his team focus on the strong interaction that binds quarks into protons and neutrons.

“We’re trying to understand the fundamental building blocks of matter and the forces that bind them together,” he said.

Varelas, who received a Teaching Recognition Program Award for his service as a mentor to undergraduate and graduate students, says his students were important contributors to the Higgs search.

The next run of the Large Hadron in 2015 could find the Higgs boson has siblings, as predicted by models beyond the present theoretical framework of particle physics.

Varelas and his team will be there.

“Searching for the unknown is thrilling,” he says.

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