Physicist Frank “Mitch” Newcomer was a very curious child, always wondering how things worked in the world around him.
He’d take apart clocks, for example, according to his younger brother, Greg Newcomer.
“We always did projects together," Greg says. "He would really be interested in the science of what we did. He was always interesting in figuring out what questions to ask.”
Today, Mitch, a Voorhees resident, is still that curious kid dissecting the world around him to understand how it works. But he’s working on a much, much bigger scale.
As a member of the University of Pennsylvania’s High Energy Physics Experimental Group, Mitch has been deeply involved—along with hundreds of other researchers around the world—with the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, and the search for the so-called “God particle.”
First, a little background is necessary: The $4.75 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC)—a particle accelerator that smashes protons into each other at near the speed of light in order to create Big Bang-like conditions—took about a decade to construct, with one of its primary missions being to find the “Higgs Boson.” The Higgs Boson is a theoretical subatomic particle that, in connecting to other particles, gives them their mass.
A more rudimentary way of putting it is that the Higgs (named for Peter Higgs, the physicist who hypothesized its existence) holds matter together and is one of the essential building blocks of the universe. In other words, without Higgs, existence—you—would not exist.
Why are researchers so eager to discover it? For one thing, our continued endeavors to peel back the mysteries of the universe have led to grand technological leaps.
“We have been able to gain from (those discoveries) the life we have today versus the life we had 100 years ago,” said Mitch.
But on a more basic level, what’s driving researchers is the same thing that led young Mitch Newcomer to pick apart clocks: sheer curiosity.
“This is amazing. We have such an ability to look deeply into nature,” he said. “Basic curiosity is an amazing thing.”
Mitch and his colleagues at Penn are responsible for designing and developing some of the instruments used in the ATLAS detector—a component of the LHC—which analyzes the results of the head-on collisions of protons within the machine to search for the Higgs Boson, among other things.
In an e-mail, Mitch explained that his interest in physics "started at Camden County College in the early '70s, where I arrived as a young engineering major and was lucky enough to find instructors that broadened my horizons and nurtured my curiosity through their interest and professional experience."
Mitch travels back and forth between Penn and CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research)—which created the LHC—in Geneva a few times a year.
Besides being “a helluva lot of fun,” he said he feels privileged to be part of a community that’s expanding the reach of human knowledge.
“It’s a huge privilege we have as human animals, to reach out and come to the edge of our understanding,” said Mitch, who noted the discoveries made possible by the LHC represent an “evolution” of the human race’s understanding of the universe.