|Cern finds ‘possible’ Higgs boson
GENEVA/LONDON Scientists at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) centre have found a new subatomic particle that could be the Higgs boson, the basic building block of the universe.
“I can confirm that a particle has been discovered that is consistent with the Higgs boson theory,” said John Womersley, chief executive of Britain’s Science & Technology Facilities Council, at an event in London.
Joe Incandela, spokesman for one of the two teams hunting for the Higgs particle told an audience at Cern near Geneva: “This is a preliminary result, but we think it’s very strong and very solid.”
The Higgs particle, although crucial for understanding how the universe was formed, remains theoretical. It explains how particles clumped together to form stars, planets and even life.
Without the Higgs particle, the particles that make up the universe would have remained like a soup, the theory goes.
It is the last undiscovered piece of the Standard Model that describes the fundamental make-up of the universe. The model is for physicists what the theory of evolution is for biologists.
What scientists don’t yet know from the latest findings is whether the particle they have discovered is the Higgs boson as described by the Standard Model, a variant of the Higgs or an entirely new subatomic particle that could force a rethink on the fundamental structure of matter.
The last two possibilities are, in scientific terms, the most exciting.
A video from Cern, apparently posted mistakenly on the eve of the announcement on the elusive ‘God Particle,” revealed that a new subatomic particle has been observed in the relevant range.
“We’ve observed a new particle,” Cern spokesman Joe Incandela says in the video that appeared on the Science News website before being picked up elsewhere.
“We have quite strong evidence that there’s something there... To ascertain its properties is still going to take us a bit of time.”
Questioned by a feverish US media, Cern quickly insisted that the video was only one of several that was filmed in advance of Wednesday’s announcement in Geneva.
The video has been relocated to a password-protected part of the Cern website.
But Incandela appeared pretty sure of what he is saying in the video, pouring light on what has become something of a holy grail for scientists, physicists in particular.
“But we can see that it decays to two photons, for example, which tells us it’s a boson, it’s a particle with integer spin,” he says.
“And we know its mass is roughly 100 times the mass of the proton... This is the most massive such particle that exists, if we confirm all of this, which I think we will.”
Analysts pored over the subtle semantic differences in the video that might illustrate Cern’s progress.
“Note that the language used refers to ‘observation’ not ‘discovery,’” Peter Woit, a senior lecturer in mathematics at Columbia University in New York, wrote on his blog.
“‘Observation’ generally means a lower standard of evidence... However, it appears that (Cern is) sensibly playing this down, with nothing in the video mentioning the word ‘discovery’ or their decision not to use that word.”
Cern says it will not make any claim of discovery until it has proof that the risk of a statistical fluke is vanishingly small.
Finding the Higgs would vindicate an intellectual framework for the nature of the cosmos called the Standard Model.
In scientific parlance, the goal is “five sigma,” meaning there is just a 0.00006 percent chance that the results are a mathematical quirk.
Devised in the 1970s, the Standard Model identifies the building blocks for matter and the particles that convey fundamental forces.
Because the Higgs cannot be seen, its existence — or not — has to be inferred.
It is considered a hugely successful theory but has several gaps, the biggest of which is why some particles have mass and others do not.
This is done by smashing protons together in an underground tunnel, providing a tiny but fierce collision that causes sub-atomic debris to fly into detectors built into the 360-degree walls of a car-sized lab.
The hypothesis is that Higgs bosons exist in an invisible, ubiquitous field created by the Big Bang some 13.7 billion years ago.
Physicists then sift through the smashup and look for a pattern that points to the Higgs.
When some particles encounter the Higgs, they slow down and acquire mass. Others, such as particles of light, encounter no obstacle.
The task has been arduous because there are trillions of signals, occurring among particles at different ranges of mass.
“If the Standard Model is confirmed via the discovery of the Higgs boson or whether we need to abandon and start re-writing the textbooks, it’s a historical day in science that we should all be proud of,” Peter Knight, president of Britain’s Institute of Physics, said on Tuesday.
Raucous applause more usually seen at a football match and tearful exchanges are not things you would associate with a meeting of the science community.
The centre on the French-Swiss border had not seen a day like it as physicists from all corners of the globe grappled for a front row seat at the milestone moment when the existence of a Higgs-like particle would be revealed.
“They were snaking back and forth, the queue even reaching into the restaurant,” said a Cern spokeswoman.
For the first time ever, the unusual tribe which is particle physicists found themselves with a global showcase for their work.
A group of teenagers from Preston, England, arriving for a tour of the home of the Large Hadron Collider could not believe the timing of their visit and badgered their teacher with questions.