Scientists present evidence of 'God particle'
GENEVA — To cheers and standing ovations from scientists, the world’s biggest atom smasher claimed the discovery of a new subatomic particle Wednesday, calling it “consistent” with the long-sought Higgs boson — popularly known as the “God particle” — that helps explain what gives all matter in the universe size and shape.
“We have now found the missing cornerstone of particle physics,” Rolf Heuer, director of the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), told scientists.
He said the newly discovered subatomic particle is a boson, but he stopped just shy of claiming outright that it is the Higgs boson itself — an extremely fine distinction.
“As a layman, I think we did it,” he told the elated crowd. “We have a discovery. We have observed a new particle that is consistent with a Higgs boson.”
The Higgs boson, which until now has been a theoretical particle, is seen as the key to understanding why matter has mass, which combines with gravity to give an object weight. The idea is much like gravity and Isaac Newton’s discovery of it: Gravity was there all the time before Newton explained it. But now scientists have seen something very much like the Higgs boson and can put that knowledge to further use.
CERN’s atom smasher, the $10-billion Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border, has been creating high-energy collisions of protons to investigate dark matter, antimatter and the creation of the universe, which many theorize occurred in a massive explosion known as the Big Bang.
Two independent teams at CERN said Wednesday they have both “observed” a new subatomic particle — a boson. Heuer called it “most probably a Higgs boson, but we have to find out what kind of Higgs boson it is. ”
Asked whether the find is a discovery, Heuer answered, “As a layman, I think we have it. But as a scientist, I have to say, “’What do we have?’ “
“It is consistent with a Higgs boson as is needed for the standard model,” Heuer said. “We can only call it a Higgs boson — not the Higgs boson.”
The leaders of the two CERN teams — Joe Incandela, head of CMS with 2,100 scientists, and Fabiola Gianotti, head of ATLAS with 3,000 scientists — each presented in complicated scientific terms what was essentially extremely strong evidence of a new particle.
Incandela said it was too soon to say definitively whether it is the “standard model” Higgs that Scottish physicist Peter Higgs and others predicted in the 1960s — part of a standard model theory of physics involving an energy field where particles interact with a key particle, the Higgs boson.
Asked his opinion, Higgs, who was invited to be in the audience, said he also could not yet say.
But he told the audience that the discovery of something that appears to be so close to what he predicted. “It is an incredible thing that it has happened in my lifetime,” he said, calling it a huge achievement for the proton-smashing collider built in a 27-kilometre underground tunnel.
The stunning work elicited standing ovations and frequent applause at a packed auditorium in CERN as Gianotti and Incandela each took their turn.
Incandela called it “a Higgs-like particle” and said “we know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found.”
“Thanks, nature!” Gianotti said to laughs, giving thanks for the discovery.
Later, she told reporters that “the standard model is not complete” but that “the dream is to find an ultimate theory that explains everything — we are far from that.”
The phrase “God particle” was coined by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman but is used by laymen, not physicists, as an easier way of explaining how the subatomic universe works and got started.
Incandela said the last undiscovered piece of the standard model could be a variant of the Higgs that was predicted or something else that entirely changes the way scientists think about how matter is formed.
“This boson is a very profound thing we have found. We’re reaching into the fabric of the universe in a way we never have done before. We’ve kind of completed one particle’s story,” he said. “Now, we’re way out on the edge of exploration.”
Basic facts about a crucial subatomic particle:
Scientists working at the world’s biggest atom smasher near Geneva have announced the discovery of a new subatomic particle that looks remarkably like the long-sought Higgs boson. Sometimes called the “God particle” because its existence is fundamental to the creation of the universe, the hunt for the Higgs involved thousands of scientists from all over the world.
What is the God particle, anyway?
School physics teaches that everything is made up of atoms, and inside atoms are electrons, protons and neutrons. They, in turn, are made of quarks and other subatomic particles. Scientists have long puzzled over how these minute building blocks of the universe acquire mass. Without mass, particles wouldn’t hold together and there would be no matter.
One theory proposed by British physicist Peter Higgs and teams in Belgium and the United States in the 1960s is that a new particle must be creating a “sticky” field that acts as a drag on other particles. The atom-smashing experiments at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, have now captured a glimpse of what appears to be just such a Higgs-like particle.
Why is this important?
The Higgs is part of many theoretical equations underpinning scientists’ understanding of how the world came into being. If it doesn’t exist, then those theories would need to be fundamentally overhauled. The fact that it apparently does exist means scientists have been on the right track with their theories. But there’s a twist: the measurements seem to diverge slightly from what would be expected under the so-called Standard Model of particle physics. This is exciting for scientists because it opens the possibility to potential new discoveries including a theory known as “super-symmetry” where particles don’t just come in pairs — think matter and anti-matter — but quadruplets, all with slightly different characteristics.
How much did it cost?
CERN’s atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider, alone cost some $10 billion to build and run. This includes the salaries of thousands of scientists and support staff around the world who collaborated on the two experiments that independently pursued the Higgs.
Were there any practical results from the search?
Not directly. But the massive scientific effort that led up to the discovery has paid off in other ways, one of which was the creation of the World Wide Web. CERN scientists developed it to make it easier to exchange information among each other. The vast computing power needed to crunch all of the data produced by the atom smasher has also boosted the development of distributed — or cloud — computing, which is now making its way into mainstream services. Advances in solar energy capture, medical imaging and proton therapy — used in the fight against cancer — have also resulted from the work of particle physicists at CERN and elsewhere.
“This is just the beginning,” says James Gillies, a spokesman for CERN. Scientists will keep probing the new particle until they fully understand how it works. In doing so they hope to understand the 96 per cent of the universe that remains hidden from view.