Scientists at the European centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva were cheered like rock stars on July 4 when they formally announced that they had almost certainly nabbed the biggest and most elusive catch in modern physics: the Higgs boson.Dubbed the “God particle,” the Higgs boson is “the missing cornerstone of particle physics,” said CERN director Rolf Heuer. This “milestone in our understanding of nature” essentially confirms that the universe was formed the way scientists believe it was.
Two teams of atom-smashing researchers at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider independently verified, with 99.99997 per cent certainty, the new subatomic particle, which is a near-perfect fit for what physicists have expected of the Higgs boson since its existence was first theorized 48 years ago.
“It’s the Higgs,” British physicist Jim Al-Khalili tells Reuters. “The announcement from CERN is even more definitive and clear-cut than most of us expected. Nobel prizes all round.” So what does this all mean, and where does it leave us? Here, four questions answered about the God particle:
1. Why is this such a big deal?
Finding a Higgs-like boson validates much of how scientists believe the universe was formed. The media calls the Higgs boson the God particle because, according to the theory laid out by Scottish physicist Peter Higgs and others in 1964, it’s the physical proof of an invisible, universe-wide field that gave mass to all matter right after the Big Bang, forcing particles to coalesce into stars, planets, and everything else. If the Higgs field, and Higgs boson, didn’t exist, the dominant Standard Model of particle physics would be wrong. “There’s no understating the significance” of this discovery: says Jeffrey Kluger at TIME. “No Higgs, no mass; no mass, no you, me, or anything else.”
2. Have they found the Higgs boson, or something else?
As momentous as this discovery is, “missing entirely from all of the high-fives and huzzahs today was a single, tiny word: ‘the,'” says TIME‘s Kluger. Instead of claiming to have found “the Higgs boson,” the scientists were only willing to say they’d found “a Higgs.” That’s pretty typical of “the most sceptical profession on earth,” says Martin White at Australia’s The Conversation. But scientists have been busy on theories that “may one day supersede the Standard Model,” and many of them do “predict more than one Higgs boson,” each with different masses, energy levels, and other attributes. If this new discovery turns out to be “an exotic Higgs rather than the common garden variety,” that will be “as popular as it would be earth-shattering.”
3. Who gets the Nobel prize?
This Higgs breakthrough is “good news for physicists, but one dreadful headache for the Nobel committee,” says Ian Sample in Britain’s The Guardian. Traditionally, each Nobel prize in the sciences is awarded to no more than three individuals, but literally thousands of people made this new discovery possible. “All deserve credit,” but even the leaders of the CERN teams should hold off on writing their acceptance speeches: The likely laureates will be Peter Higgs and two of the other four living theoretical physicists whose 50-year-old work was just validated. This isn’t the first time the Nobel judges have faced this quandary: “Restricting those honored with a Nobel helps maintain their prestige. But in modern science, few discoveries are born in final form from so few parents.”
4. What does this discovery mean for me?
Unless you’re a physicist, you probably still have no idea what the Higgs boson is — I don’t, says Robert Wright at The Atlantic. So why should you care about this discovery? Well, it’s an important step toward a possible understanding of how the universe formed — pretty interesting stuff — but the very fact that we don’t really get it “means we should all try to have some intellectual humility, especially when opining on grand philosophical matters, because the thing we’re using to try to understand the world — the human brain — is, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty crude instrument.” On a more practical note, “the massive scientific effort” that led to the Higgs discovery has already changed your life, says TheAssociated Press. CERN scientists developed the World Wide Web “to make it easier to exchange information among one another.”
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