Scientists at the CERN research centre near Geneva on 1st Wednesday of July 2012 unveiled their latest findings in their search for the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle key to the formation of stars, planets and eventually life after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. Some facts about the ‘God particle’
What is the Higgs Boson?
The particle is theoretical, first posited in 1964 by six physicists, including Briton Peter Higgs. It is the last missing piece of the Standard Model, the theory that describes the basic building blocks of the universe. The other 11 particles predicted by the model have been found and finding the Higgs would validate the model. Ruling it out or finding something more exotic would force a rethink on how the universe is put together.
What is the Standard Model?
It is the best explanation physicists have of how the building blocks of the universe are put together. It describes 12 fundamental particles, governed by four basic forces. But the Standard Model only explains a small part of it. Scientists have spotted a gap between what we can see and what must be out there. That gap must be filled by something we don’t fully understand, which they have dubbed ‘dark matter’. Galaxies are also hurtling away from each other faster than the forces we know about suggest they should. This gap is filled by ‘dark energy’. This poorly understood pair are believed to make up a whopping 96 per cent of the mass and energy of the cosmos. Confirming the Standard Model, or perhaps modifying it, would be a step towards a ‘theory of everything’ that encompasses dark matter, dark energy and the force of gravity, which the Standard Model does not explain.
How was the universe formed?
Scientists believe that in the first billionth of a second after the Big Bang, the universe was a gigantic soup of particles racing around at the speed of light without any mass to speak of. It was through their interaction with the Higgs field that they gained mass and eventually formed the universe.
What is the Higgs field?
It is a theoretical and invisible energy field that pervades the whole cosmos. Some particles, like the photons that make up light, are not affected by it and therefore have no mass. Others find it drags on them as porridge drags on a spoon.
Picture George Clooney (the particle) walking down a street with a gaggle of photographers (the Higgs field) clustered around him. An average guy on the same street (a photon) gets no attention from the paparazzi and gets on with his day. The Higgs particle is the signature of the field — an eyelash of one of the photographers.
How do scientists search for it?
They use the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest and most powerful particle accelerator, a 27 km looped pipe that sits in a tunnel 100 metres underground on the Swiss/French border. Two beams of protons are fired in opposite directions around it before smashing into each other to create many millions of particle collisions every second in a recreation of the conditions a fraction of a second after the Big Bang, when the Higgs field is believed to have ‘switched on’.
The vast amount of data produced is examined by banks of computers. Of all the trillions of collisions, very few are just right for revealing the Higgs particle. That makes the hunt for the Higgs slow, and progress incremental.
What is the threshold for proof?
To claim a discovery, scientists have set themselves a target for certainty that they call 5 sigma. This means that there is a probability of less than one in a million that their conclusions from the data harvested from the particle accelerator are the result of a statistical fluke.The two teams hunting for the Higgs at CERN, called Atlas and CMS, now have twice the amount of data that allowed them to claim ‘tantalising glimpses’ of the Higgs at the end of last year and this could push their results beyond that threshold.
THE HIGGS PARTICLE
Theory Nicknamed the “God particle”, the Higgs particle was proposed in the 1960s by British physicist Peter Higgs as a way of explaining why other particles have mass. The Higgs particle is theoretically responsible for mass, without which there would be no gravity and no universe. CERN has been attempting to find evidence of its existence.
1 Protons are accelerated at 99.9999991 per cent of the speed of light. Quarks and gluons inside the protons collide and explode with enough energy to create the Higgs particle
2 The Higgs particle has 100 to 200 times the mass of a proton and will last less than a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second before decaying into a spray of other particles
3 Evidence for the Higgs particle will be found in the telltale spirals and streaks left in Large Hadron Collider detectors by the particles created as it disintegrates
Large Hadron Collider (LHC) Scientists smash protons together by accelerating them in a 27 km-long underground ringed tunnel
Compact Muon Solenoid Detector (CMS) Different particles are trapped in the various layers of the detector after they collide
The world’s largest and most complex scientific instrument
Circumference: 27 km
Depth: 50-175 m
Accelerates: Hadrons (protons or ions)
CERN: European Organisation for Nuclear Research
Why god particle
The Higgs boson was dubbed the “Goddamn particle” by Leon Lederman since it was seemingly impossible to isolate. According to the Economist, Lederman, a leading researcher in the field, wanted to title his book The Goddamn Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? But his editor decided the title was too controversial and told him to change the title to The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question?
Higgs & Bose in Higgs Boson
Higgs is best known for his 1960s proposal of broken symmetry in electroweak theory, explaining the origin of mass of elementary particles in general and of the W and Z bosons in particular. This Higgs mechanism predicts the existence of a new particle, the Higgs boson — which derives its first name from him. Higgs was born in Wallsend, North Tyneside, England. His father worked as a sound engineer for the BBC. Higgs was a professor at the University of Edinburgh.
Higgs paper about his theory was initially rejected. But this was a blessing in disguise, since it led Higgs to add a paragraph introducing the now-famous Higgs particle. In 1964, Higgs wrote two papers on what is now known as the Higgs field. The journal Physics Letters accepted the first but sent the second back. After adding a paragraph predicting the new particle, he submitted the paper to competing journal Physical Review Letters, which published it.
Satyendra Nath Bose
The sub-atomic particle “boson” is named after Bengali physicist Satyendra Nath Bose whose pioneering work in the field in the early 1920s changed the way particle physics has been studied. The work done by Bose and Albert Einstein laid the foundation for the discovery of the God particle. While paying tribute to Bose’s work, Paolo Giubellino, a CERN spokesperson, had said back in October last year, that “India is like a historic father of the project”. Bose specialised in mathematical physics. A Fellow of the Royal Society, he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1954. Bose was born in Calcutta, the eldest of seven children. His father, Surendranath Bose, worked in the Engineering Department of the East Indian Railway Company. Bose never received a doctorate, nor was he awarded a Nobel Prize, though the Nobel committee recognised other scientists for research related to concepts he developed.