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Higgs boson: It appears to be there, but what is it? (+video)

Even if the newly discovered 'God particle' is not the Higgs boson as it was originally conceived, the implications of the new finding for science are still significant. The discovery is likely to provide the whole field of particle physics with a burst of momentum. 

By Natalie WolchoverLifes Little Mysteries / July 5, 2012

In this file photo a scientist looks at the pictures of the first collisions at full power at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN). The head of the world's biggest atom smasher is claiming discovery of a new particle that he says is consistent with the long-sought Higgs boson known popularly as the "God particle".

AP Photo/Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi, File


Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) say they've discovered a new "Higgs-like" particle: a bundle of energy that has most of the trappings of the long-sought Higgs boson. They're not naming the newcomer outright, because there are subtle indications that the particle may not, in fact, be the plain old Higgs itself, but rather a close doppelganger.

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Don't let that disappoint you. To the contrary, Harvey Newman, a high-energy physicist at the California Institute of Technology and a member of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment (one of two LHC experiments that discovered the new particle), said finding a more exotic variety of Higgs boson is actually "one of the most exciting things that can happen." Here's why.

The Higgs field, with its corresponding Higgs boson, was predicted to exist as the simplest explanation of why all the elementary particles in the universe have mass. In short, the Higgs field is a cosmos-size swimming pool, and everything is swimming in it. Particles that interact strongly with the Higgs field, "like a heavyset man swimming with his clothes on," in the words of John Gunion, a physicist at the University of California at Davis, are heavier than particles that breeze through the pool "like an Olympic swimmer in a wetsuit."

One Higgs swimming pool (and one corresponding Higgs boson — a sort of splash in the pool) is enough to impart mass to all the particles in the Standard Model: the standard theory describing the known elementary particles and the forces acting between them. But the Standard Model is not the whole story.

"It's simple and powerful, but we know it can't be the complete theory," Newman told Life's Little Mysteries. Believing in the Standard Model "would be like believing in Newton's laws of motion." The laws assume that space and time are separate and immutable entities. This is fine for describing the movements of slow and low-mass objects, but the laws break down for objects approaching the speed of light, or for black holes, which bend space and time. "Newton's laws are beautifully simple and describe so much, but we know it's not the fundamental theory, just the low-energy limit of a more fundamental theory" — that is, Einstein's theory of relativity, which seems to describe space-time exactly. "It's the same thing here. We know there must be a more fundamental theory than the Standard Model."

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