"We have discovered a new particle," CERN director general Rolf Heuer said Wednesday morning. "A boson. Most probably a Higgs boson." Even the most anticipated news in science does not come without some caveats.
Still, all signs point to a discovery today, arguably one of the most important findings in modern physics. The inscrutable Higgs boson, carrier of mass and final puzzle piece of physics' prevailing theory, may have finally been found. Now comes the fun part — depending on what it looks like, this saga may be just beginning. [UPDATED]
Two experiments at Europe's Large Hadron Collider, built to study the fundamental particles and forces underlying physical reality, separately found evidence for the new particle. Both the ATLAS and CMS experiments reported a 5-sigma statistical confidence level — essentially a 100 percent certainty that a new particle exists. We first saw tantalizing signs of this last fall, but since then the LHC has collided many more particles to see what comes out. Wednesday's news is the result of 2011 and 2012 data, although the 2012 data is still being crunched.
The Higgs boson weighs what theoretical predictions say it should, according to both ATLAS and CMS. It's about 125-126 gigaelectronvolts, or about 130 times heavier than a proton. The LHC was able to find it by speeding protons at incredibly high energies through its vast series of tubes, and smashing them together. Mass and energy are the same thing, so when the protons have very high energies, they're very large. They blow apart when they collide, and physicists look for smaller constituent particles in the shrapnel. That's where they see the Higgs boson.
"This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson, and it's the heaviest boson ever found," said CMS spokesperson Joe Incandela. Lots of work is still needed to verify that it is the storied Higgs, however. Despite the cautious statements, the news was clearly cause for celebration at CERN and at physics laboratories in the US. "As a layman, I would say I think we have it," Heuer told the crowd Wednesday morning. "Would you agree?" A roar of applause went up in response.
Without the Higgs boson, physicists have no way to explain how the universe — stars, galaxies, us — can exist. The boson is a particle, like a quark or an electron, but this is really a component of a force field known as the Higgs field. It's like a universal stickiness that all things feel. A photon is a good analogy, says Paul Padley, a particle physicist at Rice University. It's a light particle, but it also carries the electromagnetic force. The Higgs boson is a similar force carrier. According to theory, every other particle, every little quark and lepton, interacts with this sticky field; this interaction gives them their mass. Mass allows the particles to interact with each other, combining into atoms and molecules and stars and us.
"The reason why we care about it is if the Higgs boson doesn't exist, then we have absolutely no physical understanding of why we exist," Padley said. "You can't explain the universe."
Scottish physicist Peter Higgs, now 83, theorized the eponymous particle decades ago, to explain this mass confusion. He sat in the front row for CERN's symposium Wednesday, and his eyes welled with tears, according to Reuters: "It is an incredible thing that it has happened in my lifetime," he told his fellow scientists.
Two separate verifications at five sigma is a stronger signal than some physicists were expecting. Last year, the ATLAS team saw signs of a Higgs particle weighing 125 to 126 GeV, at a confidence level of 3.6σ. The CMS team saw potential around 124 GeV, with a confidence level of 2.6σ.
Using two different experiments is a way to verify the results, said Dan Green, a physicist at Fermilab and a member of the CMS team. The ATLAS and CMS detectors use different cooling mechanisms and detection methods to study particles, so each detector has different errors. If they both see something, that dramatically decreases the likelihood that it's a fluke.
The ATLAS and CMS teams each kept their results confidential until Wednesday, reducing the potential for cross-contamination or unintentional bias. Physicists involved in both collaborations said this made for some awkward conversations.
Now that it's been found — ahem, probably, very likely, seems to have been found — there's still a lot to be done. As Heuer said, now physicists have to find out which kind of Higgs boson this is. Does it behave according to the Standard Model of particles and forces, or not? What are its properties? These questions may in some ways be even more interesting. "It's the beginning of a long journey to investigate all the properties of this interesting particle," Heuer said.
Padley compared the next steps to a crime scene. Imagine someone goes missing, and a massive search begins. A few months later, a body is found in a lake, and it fits the description of the missing person.
"At that point, the police are going to be very careful. They're going to say, 'Before we decide who this is, we're going to do DNA testing,'" he said. "So once a particle is found that is consistent with being the Higgs, there is still a lot of work to be done, studying it and making sure it is in fact the Higgs boson we know and love from our theory."
There are plenty of theoretical questions to address. The Higgs may have four cousin particles, said Tom LeCompte, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory and a member of the ATLAS team. On a scale of "Higgsiness," this particle may be 100 percent Higgsy, or it may be less, he said. Physicists need to figure out whether it does everything it's supposed to, or if there really are four versions. Maybe there are versions with an electrical charge, or versions that weigh more or less. Maybe it is a scalar particle — a very weird thing indeed, with no charge or spin. It would be the first scalar fundamental particle.
"This is why everybody is not only excited about the discovery, but everybody is excited about the prospect this discovery opens for physics," Heuer said.
So, stay tuned for a summer of more interesting results.
Happy 4th of July, science :)
If it pans out, I have only one word.
One step closer to finding the Mass Effect?
This is nice to wake up to! Looking forward to hearing more.
Warp Engines, Flying Cars here we come? Well at least we know the other forces like electromagnetism completely reshaped our species. From electricity itself to electric engines to computers to Light bulbs and Mobile phones. Who knows what the understanding of gravity at the most fundamental level will bring us. Of course it might still take years or decades before they fully understand gravity let alone can manipulate it.
If this boson matches the description of the theoretical Higgs, and the Standard Model, then FTL travel is still beyond us. At least beyond any idea we have come up with so far. The Alcubierre drive, the best, i believe, model for FTL, would require overcoming several technical difficulties, not the least of which would be harvesting and distributing exotic matter. Even if we fully understood gravity, making an engine that manipulates it in any significant way would probably require amounts of energy that would be utterly impractical, if not completely beyond us.
However, this is still a cool find, Cheers to the guys and gals at the LHC!
Is this the scene from Back to the Future?
How can I make money off this particle exactly? I kind of need it in a few years. Actually I'd be wanting it before the Mayan calander ends.
Why are humans intelligent? What gives us the right to know anything. We didn't earn our lives
The wonderful picture of the cosmos in its great mass and particles, always puts me in AWE! It is such a wonderful painting as we humans create our knowledge as we observe what our dear Lord has made! We humans were giving free will, artistic ability, intellect to expand and multiply ourselves in vision, our souls and the descovery of the cosmos. We are so blessed! With our faith in a mustard seed, we can move mountains!
"God does not play dice with the universe."
"Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocre minds. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence."
Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." ~ Albert Einstein
Cool! I think it is great they found the Higgs Boson! Beautiful!
Thank you Peter Higgs!!
There are so many people who dont appreciate the work that scientists do.
An interesting fact emerges along a different track.
That, when something is around for long enough, praised enough, monopolized discussion enough, many are tempted to assume it must be the most efficient way of doing something or even is the only way of doing them.
There used to be times when collision experiments were used with antiparallel beams of antiparticles, usually electrons and positions. These completely annihilated, supposedly, and the resulting energy, presumably, could form any of a number of quantum stochastically rqandom particles. Proton-proton beam collisions supposedly produce new particles from excess energy of motion of particles, but often through various more exotic interactions of fields between quarks, and, then, only certain types of particles seem to be possible.
In a matter-antimatter collision, all the energy could be put to particles, and particles presumably of any type. In proton-proton collisions, not all the energy is converted to new particles. In fact, much of the energy is expended just in overcoming electrostatic repulsion, getting protons close enough for exotic interactions. Too, almost no particles should remain in annihilation collisions, whereas all the original particles or their fragments should remain in proton-proton collisions.
It can be a good question why the evidently less efficient proton-proton method is being used rather than the matter-antimatter method.
I find it quite amazing seeing the ever expanding reaches of both the micro and macro worlds. It would be extremely funny to one day see so far into a particle or out into the grand vastness of space, that you find yourself looking at your own universe with total cyclic redundency.
Playing Devil's Advocate since 1978
"The only constant in the universe is change"
-Heraclitus of Ephesus 535 BC - 475 BC
The Higgs bit we know. But the boson? Western science is overlooking India’s contribution
With yesterday’s announcement of the latest findings in the search for the Higgs boson, the elusive particle is on everyone’s mind. This kind of fame is relatively rare, even for important scientific discoveries; but the Higgs boson has been called, or miscalled, the God particle, enabling it to pass into the realm of popular scientific lore, like the discovery of the smallpox vaccine, the structure of DNA, or the theory of relativity.
It would be difficult for most people to understand its significance, just as it would be to comprehend the notion of relativity, but such problems are overcome by locating science in personalities as well as cultural and national traditions. The first thing that you and I know about the Higgs boson is that it’s named after Peter Higgs, a physicist at Edinburgh University who made the discovery — although the original insight, in one of those recurrent back stories of science, was Philip Anderson’s.
Still, we have Higgs, and Edinburgh, and western civilisation to fall back on. The rest — “the Higgs boson is a hypothetical elementary particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics. It belongs to a class of particles known as bosons ...” — we needn’t worry too much about. But maybe we should worry just enough to ask, “What is a boson?” since the word tends to come up as soon as Higgs does. Is it, an ignoramus such myself would ask, akin to an atom or a molecule? It is, in fact, along with the fermion (named after Enrico Fermi), one of the two fundamental classes of subatomic particles.
The word must surely have some European genealogy? In fact, “boson” is derived from Satyendra Nath Bose, an Indian physicist from Kolkata who, in 1924, realised that the statistical method used to analyse most 19th-century work on the thermal behaviour of gases was inadequate. He first sent off a paper on quantum statistics to a British journal, which turned it down. He then sent it to Albert Einstein, who immediately grasped its immense importance, and published it in a German journal. Bose’s innovation came to be known as the Bose-Einstein statistics, and became a basis of quantum mechanics. Einstein saw that it had profound implications for physics; that it had opened the way for this subatomic particle, which he named, after his Indian collaborator, “boson.”
Still, science and the West are largely synonymous and coeval: they are words that have the same far-reaching meaning. Just as Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings digest the Japanese prints they were responding to so we don’t need to be aware of Japanese prints when viewing the post-impressionists, western science is pristine, and bears no mark of what’s outside itself.
Other Indian contributions
The last Indian scientific discovery that is universally acknowledged is the zero. Indians are very strong at maths, and the only modern Indian who’s remotely part of the western mythology of science is Srinivasa Ramanujan, equally well known for his Hindu idiosyncrasies and his agonised stay in Cambridge as he is for his mathematical genius.
Indians can be excellent geeks, as demonstrated by the tongue-tied astrophysicist Raj Koothrappalli in the U.S. sitcom Big Bang Theory; but the Nobel prize can only be aspired to by Sheldon Cooper, the super-geek and genius in the series, for whom Raj’s country of origin is a diverting enigma, and miles away from the popular myth of science on which Big Bang Theory is dependent. Bose didn’t get the Nobel Prize; nor did his contemporary and namesake, J.C. Bose, whose contribution to the fashioning of the wireless predates Marconi’s. The only Indian scientist to get a Nobel Prize is the physicist C.V. Raman, for his work on light at Kolkata University. Other Indians have had to become Americans to get the award.
Conditions have always been inimical to science in India, from colonial times to the present day; and despite that, its contributions have occasionally been huge. Yet non-western science (an ugly label engendered by the exclusive nature of western popular imagination) is yet to find its Rosalind Franklin, its symbol of paradoxical success. Unlike Franklin, however, these scientists were never in a race that they lost; they simply came from another planet.
keep great discoveries coming!!!
"You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes." -Morpheus
Readers, please keep in mind that what they've so publicly announced is actually more like a 4.9 sigma level of confidence. Neither the Tevatron finding of a potential heavy particle between 115 and 134 GeV, nor this two group finding at LHC, have the refinement to fully analyze in that high an energy field in full confidence. The margin of error at LHC is much lower than the Tevatron, but still significant enough to be an error here. Also, the Higgs boson would seem to require evidence of decay in differing voltage environments; and while it's certainly possible that this is what was observed, for it to be defined as a real Higgs boson, it's interaction with other particles at other energy levels will define whether this is actually what Higgs predicted. They apparently have no evidence that any mass was generated either at Tevatron or at LHC.
Risky business, these public declarations. The head of OPERA was fired for doing this same thing.
If it's true that the Higgs boson has been confirmed at CERN, then one must ask whether such an elusive and strange particle really exists in our dimension, at all - or in another, higher dimension.
Gardner Brooks, in his insightful novel The Gensis Project, explores this question from an interesting and provocative point of view. Paraphrasing his God-character, “Human scientific discoveries have advanced to the point where they are literally bumping up against the edge of reality, the boundary between your dimension and mine. When you finally figure out that your dimension - your reality - is simply the result of computer code running in my dimension, a lot of what you consider weird or incomprehensible may begin to make sense.”