Scientists hoping to get a glimpse of the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle whose existence is believed to be key to explaining why there is mass in the universe, will have to wait another year in their quest to confirm its existence. Just on Tuesday, two teams of scientists working at the the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, announced that they had found “tantalizing hints” of the particle. However, it will be another year before they have enough data to sufficiently confirm the discovery:
The putative particle weighs in at about 125 billion electron volts, about 125 times heavier than a proton and 500,000 times heavier than an electron, according to one team of 3,000 physicists, known as Atlas, for the name of their particle detector. The other equally large team, known as C.M.S. — for their detector, the Compact Muon Solenoid — found bumps in their data corresponding to a mass of about 124 billion electron volts.
If the particle does exist at all, it must lie within the range of 115 to 127 billion electron volts, according to the combined measurements. “We cannot conclude anything at this stage,” said Fabiola Gianotti, the Atlas spokeswoman, adding, “Given the outstanding performance of the L.H.C. this year, we will not need to wait long for enough data and can look forward to resolving this puzzle in 2012.”
Peter Higgs was one of six physicists who proposed the Higgs boson as a means of explaining mass in 1966. The Higgs is the last missing member of the Standard Model, which is a kind of “instruction manual” for how particles and forces interact. It is sometimes called the “God particle” because finding the elusive particle would enable us to make sense of the very workings of the universe. Discovering the Higgs could be the biggest scientific advance of the century, since Francis Crick and James D. Watson figured out the structure of DNA 60 years ago.
Pallab Ghoush further explains the significance of discovering the Higgs:
…Once physicists know [the Higgs] exists, they can begin studying it detail and finding out whether there are many different types of Higgs. Most importantly, theoretical physicists can discard various alternatives to the Standard Model and kick on, trying to develop it further.
As successful as the Standard Model has been, it still doesn’t encompass gravity. Nor does it provide a reason for why there was an excess of matter over anti-matter after the Big Bang, allowing the Universe to come into being. And the theory accounts for the behaviour of just 4% of the Universe – its normal matter. The rest, in the form of dark matter and dark energy, remains to be explained.
However, if the Higgs is ruled out, life does get very interesting indeed. It means that the keystone which keeps the Standard Model propped up doesn’t exist, paving the way for new, more exotic theories.
Scientists searching for the Higgs have detected “suspicious bumps that have come and gone” over the past 20 years, but two different teams using two different particle detectors acquiring similar results is a sign that those bumps are not statistical anomalies. It is also cause for significant excitement among particle physicists many of whom, “fueled by coffee, dreams and Internet rumors of a breakthrough,” gathered to watch a webcast of talks and a discussion of the results at CERN on Tuesday morning all over the world — and maybe they’ll be doing the same some time next year, too.
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