Physicists celebrate evidence of elusive 'God particle'

Published: Thursday, July 5, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

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 and how its most elemental pieces fit together.

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.

Dhiman Chakraborty, Northern Illinois University physics professor and leader of the group of NIU physicists participating with the ATLAS team, said it’s a day of great excitement and brings a sense of humble achievement following decades of work.

NIU faculty and students have been involved in such work at both Fermilab and CERN. NIU physics professor David Hedin said work NIU faculty and students did at Fermilab set the stage, as the development of technologies used at CERN occurred during experiments at Fermilab.

Chakraborty said NIU group members contributed to simulation and calibration of the detector, identification of some of the particles the Higgs boson decays into and ensured good quality data were taken.

Hedin said experiments done at Fermilab yielded data that strongly indicated the new particle was the Higgs boson, but CERN now has more data and evidence of it. But it’s a combination of work done in both places, he said.

Chakraborty added that it was a huge team effort, and NIU’s involvement is significant. Faculty and students first began working at CERN in 2007, he said.

“A discovery of this sort only comes around every 30, 40 years,” he said.

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 on 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, 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 about 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.

Each of the teams confirmed Wednesday that they had “observed” a new subatomic particle – a boson. Heuer said the discovery was “most probably a Higgs boson, but we have to find out what kind of Higgs boson it is.”

Incandela said it was too soon to say definitively whether the particle was exactly the same as envisioned by Higgs and others, who proposed the existence of an energy field where all particles interact with a key particle, the Higgs boson.

Higgs, who was invited to be in the audience, said Wednesday’s discovery appears to be close to what he predicted.

“It is an incredible thing that it has happened in my lifetime,” he said, calling the discovery a huge achievement for the proton-smashing collider built in a [17-mile] underground tunnel.

The phrase “God particle” was coined by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman, but it’s used by laymen, not physicists, as an easier way of explaining how the theory got started.

“This boson is a very profound thing we have found,” Incandela said. “We’re reaching into the fabric of the universe in a way we never have done before. We’ve kind of completed one particle’s story. ... Now we’re way out on the edge of exploration.”

• Daily Chronicle reporter Caitlin Mullen contributed to this report.

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