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Higgs boson: Has the 'God particle' been found?

Scientists at CERN are expected to report Tuesday seeing hints of the long-sought Higgs boson – the so-called 'God particle' linked to a mechanism that gives other subatomic particles their mass.

By Staff writer / December 12, 2011

In this 2010 file photo, the globe of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, is illuminated outside Geneva, Switzerland. Scientists at CERN are expected to announce Tuesday seeing hints of the long-sought Higgs boson, the 'God particle.'

Anja Niedringhaus/AP

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It's been dubbed the "God particle," although if it could speak for itself, it might be a bit more modest about its pedigree.

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The particle's formal tag is the Higgs boson, and tomorrow at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) scientists are expected to report seeing hints of the long-sought Higgs – the particle linked to a mechanism that gives other subatomic particles their mass.

For more than a century, physicists have painstakingly built the so-called standard model of physics, which catalogs a clutch of fundamental particles, describes their traits, and explains their interactions. The Higgs boson is a relative latecomer to the menagerie and represents the Standard Model's last undetected fundamental particle.

Detection of the Higgs would be "very significant," says Gail Hanson, a physicist at the University of California at Riverside who currently is at CERN as a member of a US team taking part in the international hunt.

"This is the one thing that hasn't been found that we need in the standard model" if it is to underpin a "theory of everything," she adds.

However, information emerging tomorrow is far more likely to be tantalizing than conclusive, she cautions.

Indeed, she adds, "It would be interesting if we didn't find it." 

The Higgs boson first emerged from calculations attributed to six physicists, including Peter Higgs, now a professor emeritus at Edinburgh University.

The six, working in three independent groups, were trying to solve a riddle involving a group of fundamental particles called bosons. Bosons are particles associated with the four fundamental forces of nature, rather than with the constituents of atoms. Electromagnetism is one of these fundamental forces. Its associated boson is the photon. Another fundamental force, which governs radioactive decay, is the so-called weak force. It has two bosons associated with it.

In the 196Os, theorists showed that electromagnetism and the weak force were low-energy manifestations of a combined electroweak force that existed shortly after the big bang, the sudden release of energy that formed the universe some 13.7 billion years ago.

Just as the electromagnetic field has its photon, calculations suggested that the electroweak force had two bosons associated with it. The calculations also suggested that like the photon, this new duo of particles should have no mass.

Yet when physicists found the three hypothesized particles via experiments at particle accelerators, they had very large masses. Either the initial calculations predicting the particles were wrong, or something was missing from the picture.

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