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Scientists may have found Higgs boson. What next?

Physicists working at CERN's Large Hadron Collider say it's possible they've discovered the long-sought 'God particle'.  The Higgs boson could lead to 'new physics', they add.

By Staff writer / July 4, 2012

British physicist Peter Higgs, right, congratulates Fabiola Gianotti, ATLAS experiment spokesperson, after her results presentation during a scientific seminar to deliver the latest update in the search for the Higgs boson at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Meyrin near Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday.

Denis Balibouse/AP

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Two teams of researchers say they have found a new, fundamental subatomic particle with a handful of traits that are consistent with those predicted for a long-sought Higgs boson – a particle linked to the mechanism that gives mass to other fundamental particles.

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The results, presented Wednesday, are preliminary. Still, the data the teams presented drew thunderous applause and a standing ovation from physicists packed into a lecture hall at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, where the results were presented.

In December, the same teams unveiled results that hinted they'd found a particle. But this time each team, using independent ways of hunting for Higgs bosons, found their results matched for a few key measurements, each set carrying literally a 1 in a million chance of being wrong.

"As a layman, I'd say we have it," said CERN Director-General Rolf Heuer. As a scientist, however, he added that researchers now have to figure out what "it" is.

The particle's mass, for instance, falls within the range predicted for a Higgs boson that would fit into the so-called standard model – a description physicists have painstakingly built of the fundamental particles that make up matter and the forces that govern their interactions.

But some theories predict more than one Higgs boson. And it's possible an unpredicted Higgs wannabe could display some of the predicted properties, a discovery that would drive theorists back to their white boards.

"One of the most exciting aspects of this observation is that the road remains open for a vast range of 'look-alike' alternatives, where any deviation from the Standard Model would point the way to the existence of other new particles or forces of nature," said Harvey Newman, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in a prepared statement.

However, key pieces of information that would help distinguish among the possibilities are either missing or incomplete, the researchers acknowledge.

Whatever the outcome, it's clear that the researchers involved and the theorists who predicted the existence of the Higgs bosons in the mid-1960s have entered Nobel Prize territory, to say nothing of new frontiers for exploring the nature of the universe.

"We're reaching into the fabric of the universe at a level we've never [reached] before," says Joe Icandela, a physicist at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the spokesman for one of the two major experiments hunting for the Higgs boson at CERN. "This is not like other ordinary particles. It's a key to the structure of the universe."

If the discovery the teams announced turn out to be the standard-model Higgs, it means "we've completed one part of the story, and we're on the frontier now."

Call it the energy frontier – in this case, energies that approximate levels thought to have existed in the first millionths of a millionth of a second after the big bang, which gave birth to the universe some 13.6 billion years ago.

The teams conducted their experiments using the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, an underground particle accelerator nearly 17 miles in circumference. This demolition-derby track for subatomic particles straddles the French-Swiss border outside of Geneva. It's designed to collide protons with energies comparable to those that existed in the infant universe.

At those energy levels, a standard-model Higgs boson would have existed on its own. But as the universe cooled, the Higgs bosons present at the time would have grown unstable and decayed.

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