The world of physics takes a bold leap forward with a single laborious finding
The world’s two most advanced particle detector experiments — ATLAS and CMS — have both detected signs of a particle that eluded physicists for almost a half century — a particle researchers suspect is the Higgs boson.
I. Hunting for Higgs — Inside the Most Expensive Machine Created by Man
The two detectors are housed within a 17 mile in circumference underground tunnel in the Alps, a tunnel which is chilled to temperatures colder then outer space. The particle accelerator and attached detection apparatus is a triumph of engineering, and at $10B USD is the single most expensive piece of laboratory equipment in the history of mankind.
The LHC track stretchs 17 miles and is colder than space. [Image Source: Entropy Bound]
But the biggest payoff for the high cost and years of effort came when the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced that they had detected signs of the Higgs-like boson, a particle whose operation necessitates a super-powerful collider and world class detection equipment.
Just a couple days before U.S. Department of Energy‘s FermiLab published data from their now-defunct Tevatron indicating that they were 99.8 percent (roughly 3σ) sure that they had detected a Higgs-like boson. That level of confidence is called an “observation” in particle physics.
II. From “Observation” to “Discovery”
By contrast the threshold of confidence for a “discovery” is 5σ — and CERN delivered precisely that on Wednesday.
Using data gleaned from record 7 TeV and 8 TeV proton collisions, the CMS and ATLAS teams jointly pinpointed a Higgs boson or similar particle to within the 125-126 GeV mass region, with the requisite 5σ confidence.
That result is strengthened by the fact that the observation at the Tevatron predicted a mass between 115 and 135 GeV.
The CMS experiment spokesperson Joe Incandela comments:
A CMS detector view of a Higgs boson creation from a 8 TeV collision. [Image Source: CERN]
ATLAS experimentspokesperson Fabiola Gianotti comments:
An ATLAS detector view of a Higgs boson creation from a 8 TeV collision. [Image Source: CERN]
III. The Hunt is Over, But the Discoveries Have Just Begun
The discovery of the new boson is a momentous day for particle physics, and one that comes despite wise caution on the parts of the men and women involved. Physicists were wary of jumping the gun and announcing the discovery, lest they make a mistake and alienate a public who already is less than highly interested in taking a trip into the cerebral land of modern particle physics.
The Higgs boson is theorized to give rise to the so-called Higgs mechanism, a form of electroweak symmetry breaking. A simple analogy of this complex effect is to think of a sort of “sticky field” that coats particles like a spoon dipping through a jar of honey. This “sticky” effect is thought to give protons, neutrons, and electrons — the building blocks of matter that most of us are familiar with — their mass.
To summarize in the simplest terms, researchers are now have detected a particle which they believe may give all standard particles their mass.
Finding the Higgs boson is a major step on the road to discovering the secrets of the universe.
[Image Source: NASA]
The discovery takes researchers a step closer to confirming the “Standard Model of particle physics”, a theory which in turn opens the door to more advanced applications, such as string theory.
Much work remains to be done, though. The particle, while observed with a high measure of confidence, was poorly quantified, aside from its mass. By further probing observed Higgs-like bosons, researchers will be able to tune, accept, or reject certain compenents of Standard Model theory. These changes could help researchers better understand mysterious components that make up much of the non-visible universe — such as dark matter and energy.
In short, Higgs boson — also nicknamed the “Goddamn particle” or “God Particle”, for short, by a famous Nobel laureate — is only the first step in a bold journey for mankind, a journey which will take humans, quite literally where no man has gone before.