Physicists celebrate evidence of ‘God particle’

Discovery » Physicists shed tears, rejoice, reflect on the decades of work

The Salt Lake Tribune     July 4, 2012
By JOHN HEILPRIN

Geneva • Scientists at the world’s biggest atom smasher hailed the discovery of “the missing cornerstone of physics” Wednesday, cheering the apparent end of a decades-long quest for a new subatomic particle called the Higgs boson, or “God particle,” which could help explain why all matter has mass and crack open a new realm of physics.

First proposed as a theory in the 1960s, the maddeningly elusive Higgs had been hunted by at least two generations of physicists who believed it would help shape our understanding of how the universe began

As the highly technical findings were announced by two independent teams involving more than 5,000 researchers, the usually sedate corridors of the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, erupted in frequent applause and standing ovations. Physicists shed tears reflecting on the decades of work that brought them to this momentous occasion.

The new particle appears to share many of the same qualities as the one predicted by Scottish physicist Peter Higgs and others and is perhaps the biggest accomplishment at CERN since its founding in 1954 outside Geneva along the Swiss-French border.

Rolf Heuer, director of CERN, said the newly discovered subatomic particle is a boson, but he stopped just shy of claiming outright that it is the Higgs boson itself — an extremely fine distinction.

“As a layman, I think we did it,” he told the elated crowd. “We have a discovery. We have observed a new particle that is consistent with a Higgs boson.”

The Higgs, which until now had been purely theoretical, is regarded as key to understanding why matter has mass, which combines with gravity to give an object weight.

The idea is much like gravity and Isaac Newton’s early theories: Gravity was there all the time before Newton explained it. The Higgs boson was believed to be there, too. And now that scientists have actually seen something much like it, they can put that knowledge to further use.

The center’s atom smasher, the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border, sends protons whizzing in a circle at nearly the speed of light to create high-energy collisions. The aftermath of those impacts can offer clues about dark matter, antimatter and the creation of the universe, which many theorize occurred in a massive explosion known as the Big Bang.

Most of the particles that result from the collisions exist for only the smallest fractions of a second. But finding a Higgs-like boson was one of the biggest challenges in physics: Out of some 500 trillion collisions, just several dozen produced “events” with significant data, said Joe Incandela, leader of the team known as CMS, with 2,100 scientists.

CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux interviews Yale Professor Ainissa Ramirez on the “God Particle”

CNN’s SUZANNE MALVEAUX: Scientific announcement tomorrow could change all of our lives. So researchers in Switzerland, they are expected to announce that they have discovered what is called “the God particle,” or at least they’re pretty sure they’ve discovered it. For about the last 50 years, it’s been the most sought-after particle in all of physics. So think about this as a missing puzzle piece in our understanding of how the universe works.

And this is Ainissa Ramirez. She’s a scientist, she’s a professor at Yale University.

Thank you so much for helping us here, because our team, we’ve all been talking about this for the last couple of days. We’re absolutely fascinated. But we’re a little confused. So it you could help us understand, tell us what is “the God particle”?

AINISSA RAMIREZ, YALE UNIVERSITY: Well, thank you, Suzanne. The “god particle,” well, that’s a term that’s kind of been used just to promote what it is, but its official name is the Higgs boson. And what it is is the missing link that links us to the Big Bang. The Big Bang occurred under 14 billion years ago, and it started with lots of particles that had no mass. And now we have us today, full of elements with mass.

Now, how do we get mass? Well, it’s the Higgs boson or the “God particle,” that is that missing link. That’s the thing that created the mass.

MALVEAUX: So that’s the thing that gives us all our shape, our form and our weight? That one kind of particle? Is that right?

RAMIREZ: It’s that particle that gave all the elementary particles mass: electrons, protons and neutrons, which create atoms, which create elements, which create people, Earth, everything that we understand.

MALVEAUX: So what is —

RAMIREZ: That’s the missing link and that’s what’s —

MALVEAUX: That’s great. And so we got the missing link here. What does that mean for us now? What can we do with this information?

RAMIREZ: Well, first, it helps us decide that the model that we have to describe the universe works. If we have this data and we find out that it’s correct, then we have a formula, if you will, that will describe everything in the world. It will describe why the sky is blue, why DNA has twists the way it does. It describes everything.

So this is a great way for us to understand how the world works. So that’s the first part. And the reason why we do this research is just, it’s curiosity, but also down the road, the Higgs boson might be important to us from a technology point of view. But first we have to find it.

MALVEAUX: So are we absolutely sure that we’ve found this “God particle”? You say you’re almost certain, but not absolutely sure.

RAMIREZ: We’re not absolutely sure. It’s more of a definite maybe, if that makes any sense. The thing is that we can look at things — and we have some confidence that it’s a particle that looks like a Higgs boson.

But we have to make sure all the properties are right. And that takes a while. And so no one is really willing to stick out their neck because it almost looks like the Higgs boson. We want to be absolutely certain that that’s the case. And so that’s going to take much more time to dig through all the data.

I didn’t mention, but the experiment that — where this happens is in Cern. It’s called the LHC, the Large Hadron Collider.

MALVEAUX: Right.

RAMIREZ: Now these experiments happen a million times per second, a million times per second. That’s a lot of data. And we have to comb through that data to see if it looks like what the Higgs boson should generate. So it’s going to take some time to dig through all that data.

MALVEAUX: And, Professor, is it worth it? We’re talking about 50 years and billions of dollars spent to find this so-called God particle?

RAMIREZ: Well, it wasn’t 50 — it’s not 50 years and billions of dollars just specifically for this particle. There’s a lot of infrastructure that’s needed, that’s used for other science as well. But, yes, the first scientist, Peter Higgs, thought of this idea about 50 years ago, and we’ve been on this quest to figure it out and find it since.

MALVEAUX: And what’s next, Professor?

RAMIREZ: What’s next? Well, we’ll find out tomorrow, July 4th, whether scientists feel confident that they actually found the Higgs boson and we’ll continue on with the science. The science not only helps us understand the world, but there’s so much more that we gain from big science.

We gain all kinds of technologies that we use today. We don’t talk about this, but Cern, the place where this experiment happens, is actually the mother of the World Wide Web. So while we do big science, we create all these other things as well, which we use and enjoy today.

MALVEAUX: All right. Thank you for breaking it down for us. Really appreciate it.

 

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