CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, says its researchers observed a particle that may be the Higgs boson, a theoretical particle that could explain where mass comes from.
CERN uncovered a new boson, Joe Incandela, spokesman for one of the research institute’s experiments, said at a seminar at its Geneva headquarters.
Scientists stopped short of claiming the particle is the elusive Higgs boson, the so-called God particle created at the beginning of the universe.
The preliminary results are “dramatic,” Incandela said in a statement on CERN’s website.
“This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found. The implications are very significant and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and cross-checks.”
The announcement brings humankind closer to answering a millennia-old question that the ancient Greeks wrestled with: what is matter made of? (Bloomberg news provides Q&A about the particle.)
The particle is a missing link in the Standard Model, a theory explaining how the universe is built, and its existence would help scientists gain a better understanding of how galaxies hold together. It also could open a door to exploring other parts of physics such as superparticles or dark matter that telescopes can’t detect.
‘Sings and Dances’
The new boson “sings and dances like” the theoretical particle, said Pauline Gagnon, a researcher on the Atlas set of experiments in Geneva, in an interview in Melbourne, where she was attending the bi-annual International Conference on High Energy Physics. “There is no doubt it comes from a different signal, different channels, with different experiments. We just need in the next few months with more data to ascertain exactly what are the properties of this particle to see if it is exactly the Standard Model Higgs boson or some variation of it.”
Particle physics is the study of the elemental building blocks that make up matter. These particles, with exotic names like quark, fermion, lepton and boson, can’t be subdivided. They exist and interact within several unseen ‘‘fields’’ that permeate the universe.
The field that generates mass for objects is named for U.K. physicist Peter Higgs, who in the 1960s was one of the first scientists to outline a working theory on how elemental particles achieve mass. Higgs was one of the theorists attending CERN’s meeting in Geneva today.
Champagne for Higgs
‘‘For me, it’s really an incredible thing that it’s happened in my lifetime,” Higgs said in Geneva. In a statement, he said he would be “asking my family to put some champagne in the fridge.”
Higgs wrote that some particles — such as photons, the basic unit of light — don’t interact with the Higgs field, and thus don’t achieve mass. Most others do.
To put it another way, if the Higgs field were a Hollywood party, a photon would be the unknown actor who hurries through without gaining a bit of interest from others in the room. Other particles would be more like Angelina Jolie, drawing crowds of hangers-on as they move through the party.
It gets increasingly harder to stop such a cluster from moving forward and more difficult to get it moving again once it’s stopped, meeting one definition of mass.
Scientists are trying to prove the existence of the Higgs field by displaying a physical effect for the Higgs boson, a particle that only lives for less than a trillionth of a second and is an excitation, or force, within the Higgs field.
Providing indirect evidence the Higgs field exists will allow scientists to dig even deeper into the secrets of our existence, said Mark Wise, a professor of physics at California Institute of Technology.
“In some sense, this is the beginning,” Wise said of finding the boson. “Because we want to know all its properties as well.”
The data being presented today are the latest from the $10.5 billion Large Hadron Collider, a 27-kilometer (17-mile) circumference particle accelerator buried on the border of France and Switzerland. CERN has 10,000 scientists working on the project, in which billions of subatomic particles are hurled at each other at velocities approaching the speed of light.
The collider will provide the experiments with more data later this year, giving scientists a more complete picture of the observed new particle. Researchers will try to determine whether the particle observed is a Higgs boson, the particle predicted by the Standard Model or not.
“Very few physicists would privately argue that this is not a Higgs particle,” said Themis Bowcock, head of particle physics at the University of Liverpool, said in a statement. “For physicists, this is the equivalent of Columbus discovering America.”
A more exotic version of the Higgs particle could help scientists understand the 96 percent of the universe that remains obscure, since observable matter only represents 4 percent of the total, CERN said.
To declare the boson is discovered, physicists use the statistical standard of “five sigma,” meaning that there should only be a 1 in 3.4 million chance that a sighting would be due to chance. The observations of the new particle have a five-sigma level of significance, Incandela said.
CERN Director General Rolf-Dieter Heuer has said if its researchers don’t find the particle by the end of this year, they will exclude its existence. Failing to find the Higgs boson would have lent credibility to alternative theories that explain the mechanism that allows particles to have mass.
“We have reached a milestone in our understanding of nature,” Heuer said in the CERN statement. “The discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs boson opens the way to more detailed studies, requiring larger statistics, which will pin down the new particle’s properties, and is likely to shed light on other mysteries of our universe.”