It’s not every day that scientists discover a particle, or that Steven Hawking loses a physics-related bet. But today history was made: scientists at CERN laboratories announced they have uncovered a brand new particle. And it resembles the highly-theorized Higgs boson particle, which, if found, would complete the Standard Model of particle physics and answer questions about the fundamental laws of the universe.
Oh, and Steven Hawking, who bet Michigan University’s Gordon Kane that the Higgs boson particle would not be discovered, is out $100 today.
But what exactly is the Higgs boson particle?Scientist Don Lincoln of Fermilab compares the Higgs boson to a water molecule. Barracudas moving through water experience little resistance because of their thin shape, whereas whales experience a lot of resistance. Likewise, some subatomic particles have a large mass while others have little or none and can move through space quickly. But because those with a large mass experience resistance, the theory states that, like water molecules dragging against a whale, there must be particles embedded in the fabric of space which are dragging against large-mass particles. These mystery particles would be Higgs boson particles, which until now have existed only in theory.
CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, where Higgs boson experiments have been taking place since 2010, is a 17-mile long tube underneath France and Switzerland that sends particles careening toward one another to a collision in the center. If the Higgs boson exists it would appear during the moment immediately following such a collision. Unfortunately for scientists, that moment only lasts .00000000000000000000001 seconds, which isn't nearly enough time to see the Higgs. So instead they have been examining what they can see: the particles which emerge after the collision. The hope was that these after-collision particles would exhibit patterns that indicate the existence of the Higgs boson particle.
Well, a pattern has finally emerged, CERN scientists announced today. They have discovered a brand new boson particle. Whether or not it is the Higgs boson particle depends on who you ask. The CERN director general called it “a particle consistent with the Higgs boson” (my italics). British physicist Jim Al-Khalili said, “if it looks like the Higgs, smells like the Higgs and is exactly what we expected from the Higgs, then it’s the Higgs.” But senior physicist Olivier Buchmueller said, “If I were a betting man, I would bet that it is the Higgs. But we can’t say that definitely yet.”
Peter Higgs, 83, who first theorized the existence of the Higgs boson particle and for whom it was named, was in the room today when CERN announced the boson's existence. "To me, it's really an incredible thing that it's happened in my lifetime," he said, tears in his eyes.
One thing is clear. If the particle is the Higgs, physicists can rejoice: they’ve found the last piece of the Standard Model of particle physics. If the particle is not the Higgs, but a different boson, the Standard Model will have to be re-examined, or even tossed out.