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.
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Enter Higgs. The six physicists tackling this mass mismatch crunched numbers and posited that a mass-imparting field permeates space. It became known as the Higgs field.Skip to next paragraph
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When a particle encounters the field, it's like a rock star arriving at a party, suggests Howard Gordon, a senior physicist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
As the star arrives, people are milling around – the Higgs field. Few recognize the rock star until the star starts moving through the group.
As he heads toward the hors d'oeuvres table, "he becomes very massive" as people migrate to him for a chat, says Dr. Gordon, more so than they would a garage-band guitarist.
Similarly, different particles couple to the Higgs field with different intensities. The stronger the coupling, the more mass the Higgs field imparts to the particles, Gordon says.
"The theory of this Higgs mechanism implies that there must be a particle associated with it" – the Higgs boson, specifically – says Gordon, deputy program manager for the US collaboration on ATLAS, one of two general-purpose, underground detectors at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. These detectors measure the collision debris generated by the collider, a circular particle race track 17 miles in circumference that straddles the French-Swiss border.
From the debris, physicists can identify the more-massive particles the collisions fleetingly create.
Successive experiments at particle accelerators less powerful than the LHC have suggested a range of masses within which the Higgs boson should be found.
Detectors at the LHC have been designed to probe that range.
The effort often has been likened to looking for a needle in a haystack. The analysis emerging tomorrow is said to come from more than 380 trillion collisions between protons. From those collisions come perhaps 100,000 Higgs bosons.
Or something that looks like them but are not.
If one of the two large detectors spots something vaguely resembling a Higgs signature, "it's encouraging," writes Pauline Gagnon, a physicists and senior research scientist at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, in her blog on the website Quantum Diaries.
But if both detectors see similar signatures and they yield the same mass estimates for the Higgs boson, it won't be enough to claim discovery, but it will be "time to call your mother," Ms. Gagnon adds.