Officials at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) after its French acronym, announced on July 4th that they had found a particle that was consistent with a theorized particle called the Higgs Boson.
Roughly 48 years ago, a group of scientists hypothesized the existence of the Higgs Boson, the missing piece in the standard model of particle physics. Peter Higgs, one of the scientists who proposed the existence of the sometimes-called “God particle,” and after whom the particle is named, was one of the 400 that witnessed the truly historical moment in physics history.
The Higgs Boson was found with a five-sigma certainty, or a one in 3.5 million chance that the discovery was simply an aberration.
The particle is the last piece of the standard model of particle physics, which would help to explain why matter has mass.
Matter is made up of smaller particles, but mathematically, these particles have no mass. University of Toronto professor Robert Orr explains that due to this, physicists had to come up with “a physical theory that incorporates everything.”
“The standard model predicts that quarks and leptons have mass due to their interactions with a quanta field in all space-time,” states Dr. Orr. This quanta field is the Higgs field, and if it were to exist, there would be a boson — specifically the Higgs Boson — that would be associated with it.
Professor Richard Teuscher provided an example of how the Higgs field gives mass to these elementary particles: “[A] room full of journalists chatting, [and a] famous person walks in; the journalists start clustering around [the] person like a big ball glued to that person. In a sense, that’s the Higgs mechanism: field clustered around person, thereby acquiring a mass.”
After the big bang, particles lacked mass, allowing them to move around the universe at the speed of light. Fractions of a second later, the Higgs field formed, along with the Higgs Boson. The once-free particles started interacting with the Higgs field, slowing down and eventually bunching up together to create composite particles and then atoms.
At the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, physicists tried to recreate the big bang and the high energy associated with it during the first trillionth of a second. They accelerated protons to very high energies and smashed them together to see if they could produce a Higgs Boson.
However, the Higgs Boson decays in less than a billionth of a second into other subatomic particles.
Despite its short lifetime, the decay paths that were found during experiments at CERN proved to be in the proper range of the Higgs model, and while more research is necessary, it “looks very good” according to Teuscher.
About 30 U of T staff have been working on the Higgs Boson, including Orr, who created a group in 1994 dedicated to finding the particle, and Teuscher, who works at both CERN and the University of Toronto throughout the year.
Both professors were involved with the creation of ATLAS, one of the particle detectors at the LHC. They also were part of the team that built Scinet, once the largest computer systems in Canada
Both professors agree that the discovery will have no immediate impact on existing technology. But Teuscher is quick to point out the possible similarity to X-rays, which were not originally intended for medical. Similarly, Orr praised the work of Maxwell and Faraday back in the 1880s, and pointed out that “electromagnetism built the world around us”.
“As a grad student, [the Higgs Boson] seemed like a very abstract and unrealistic idea,” explains Orr. “Mathematics has more in it than what we put into it. [It is] amazing how mathematics can predict the universe.”