Jul 2012 05

by Damon Martin

On Wednesday, scientists in Geneva, Switzerland revealed they’d found the elusive Higgs boson particle.Two different groups of physicists at CERN, who independently carry out research at the world’s largest hadron collider announced their findings during a press conference on Wednesday, which appears to confirm the existence of the particle which was first theorized nearly 50 years ago.

CERN physicist John Ellis put forth a simple analogy to explain why the Higgs boson is so important. He explained it’s like looking at the universe as if it were a giant snow field. In the universe, particles zip around at the speed of light with nothing to slow them down, kind of like a skier would do on a field of snow. But as physicists have theorized for the last 48 years, moments after the Big Bang occurred a ‘Higgs field’ was created as well that served as a way to slow down these separate particles giving them mass that allowed them to combine into atoms and eventually the building blocks of our world. Going back to the snowfield analogy, if skiers can skip along the top of the snow without slowing down there are also people that would have snowshoes on that would move through the snow but at a much slower speed. Then there are people that just have boots on that move even slower in the snow. The snow in this case is the Higgs field slowing down different particles so they can gain mass and combine into matter. Now if you drill down a snowfield into each individual snowflake, that’s what the Higgs-boson particles would be. An individual particle that forms as a whole to give mass to objects.

Evidence of the Higgs boson particle was found by physicists working on two separate teams, ATLAS and CMS, who worked completely independently of each other to study the results found from experiments conducted in the hadron collider. Thought their studies were done autonomously, their results were shockingly similar. Both teams announced discoveries that were drilled down to comparable levels of accuracy.

In the scientific world the rate at which they are certain of their discovery is on something called a sigma scale. On the low end of the sigma scale, a one or a two is seen as inconclusive data, a three counts as an official ‘observation’, and a five sigma is the signal of an official discovery. A five sigma amounts to less than one in million chance that scientists are wrong. The ATLAS team at CERN announced their findings at a 5 sigma, while the CMS team came back with a 4.9 sigma, slightly less but still overwhelming evidence in support of the Higgs-boson discovery.

In the room on Wednesday was 83-year old physicist Peter Higgs, who first theorized the Higgs-boson particle back in 1964. He celebrated the new along with his fellow scientists. “I am astounded at the amazing speed with which these results have emerged. They are a testament to the expertise of the researchers and the elaborate technologies in place,” said Higgs. “I never expected this to happen in my lifetime and shall be asking my family to put some champagne in the fridge.”

The discovery of the Higgs-boson particle by the teams working at CERN will likely seal the deal that Higgs himself will receive a long-awaited Nobel prize.

Now that scientists have confirmed the existence of the long theorized particle, the work can really begin on determining how our universe was formed. “Now the emphasis will shift to verifying the properties of the particle that has been discovered: does it have spin zero? Does it couple to other particles proportional to their masses?,” said John Ellis, who works at CERN. “The discovery will open up a new era in particle physics, as we look for deviations from the properties expected in the Standard Model, and for other physics beyond the Standard Model that might be connected, such as the nature of dark matter.”

The Standard Model is what physicists have used for decades to theorize and explain how our universe was created. What was once theory now moves into the realm of fact. Work will continue at CERN’s collider until it is shut down later this year, so that improvements on the facility can be completed, allowing atoms to be smashed with more energy at greater rate.