By Dr. Chuck Missler
Scientists waited in a line 1000-persons long Tuesday night to witness the long-anticipated announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson, often called the "God particle." The elusive Higgs cannot be observed directly, but physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) believe they have gathered enough evidence of the particle's traces—its subatomic-sized "footprints"—that they can say it does exist.
The Higgs boson is fairly large as far as subatomic particles go, approximately 130 times heavier than a proton and 500,000 times heavier than an electron. The difficulty is that it breaks down too quickly to be directly observed, and only its "shadow" can be seen. Yet, it is believed that the Higgs is the particle that unifies all the forces seen in the physics of the Universe, the substance of the invisible force field that gives all subatomic particles their mass in the first place, that gives them inertia, that makes it possible for atoms to hold together.
Physicists working at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN's laboratories deep under the Alps believe they have actually found the invisible Higgs, or at least a particle that behaves a lot like they thought the Higgs would act. There might not be just one Higgs particle, though, but a whole variety of flavors, just as there are a wide variety of quarks.
"If the boson really is not acting standard, then that will imply that there is more to the story—more particles, maybe more forces around the corner," Neal Weiner, a theorist at New York University, wrote The New York Times in an email, "What that would be is anyone's guess at the moment."
Particle Physics 101
The Standard Model in particle physics attempts to explain how all the fundamental particles of the Universe interact with each other. The model, which is often compared to the Periodic Table of Elements used by chemists, consists of the various particles that make up all matter and force in the Universe.
When our children study about protons, electrons, and neutrons, they are learning old information. Particle physicists have developed the categories of subatomic particles a great deal since the neutron was discovered in 1932. Protons and neutrons now fall into the category of hadrons, particles that are made up of combinations of quarks. Electrons and neutrinos are both types of leptons. All the above particles, which make up the fundamental building blocks of matter, are called fermions.
In contrast to fermions, bosons are particles like photons, gluons and the Higgs boson that do not make up actual matter; they are considered force-carrier particles. Two fermions cannot occupy the same place at the same time; they bump into each other. Bosons, however, are not actually matter and can move right through one another.
Scientists like to talk about the fabric of time and space. The fabric of space? By definition, isn't a "space" an emptiness, the hole between two objects? Isn't space that vast black nothingness between the stars?
Peter Higgs' Idea
In 1964, a physicist by the name of Peter Higgs, currently professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh, proposed that empty space is not really empty at all; it is filled with a background energy field, like a lattice through which all other particles have to move. Wherever a particle moves through this field, the field gets distorted and hugs around the particle. The Higgs boson is that "hug" of the field—like a crowd of people around a starlet. The particle is given mass, making it harder for it to change direction, speed up or slow down, like the crowd-clustered starlet trying to move across the room. People surround the famous woman as she moves, making it harder for her to speed up or slow down. In a similar way, it is believed that subatomic particles get their mass—their inertia, their resistance to changes in motion—through interactions with the Higgs Field. That was Peter Higgs' idea.
Since a field cannot be seen, scientists are looking for the hugging clusters, the uncharged particle that would interact with every other subatomic particle to give them all mass. Since then, scientists have been scrambling to find this particle, the Higgs boson. It's difficult to prove the existence of an invisible particle that disappears before you can grab it.
Physicists working at CERN's Large Hadron Collider said Wednesday that they had built up enough evidence to declare that a Higgs boson-like particle did indeed exist, and already the scientists are working to learn more. From here they want to detail the nature of the Higgs and its possible siblings and hunt for dark matter, parallel universes and the other stuff of science fiction.
"The fact that both our teams have independently come to the same results is very powerful," Oliver Buchmueller, a senior physicist on one of the research teams, told Reuters. "We know it is a new boson. But we still have to prove definitively that it is the one that Higgs predicted."
Peter Higgs received a standing ovation when he entered the CERN auditorium. His eyes filled with tears as he spoke to his fellow researchers. "It is an incredible thing that it has happened in my lifetime."
- Higgs Boson: Discovery Could Explain How Universe Began • Fox News
- Particle physics field excited by potential Higgs boson discovery (+video) • Christian Science Monitor
- Newly Discovered Particle Appears to Be Long-Awaited Higgs Boson • Wired News
- Physicists Find Elusive Particle Seen as Key to Universe • New York Times
- Arise Sir Peter: Give Professor Higgs a knighthood, colleagues say • Telegraph.co.uk