Physicists Celebrate Proof of 'God Particle'; Discovery Could Help Explain Why Universe's Matter Has Mass, Also Open Door to New Realm of Physics

By Heilprin, John | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), July 5, 2012 | Go to article overview

Physicists Celebrate Proof of 'God Particle'; Discovery Could Help Explain Why Universe's Matter Has Mass, Also Open Door to New Realm of Physics


Heilprin, John, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


GENEVA - Scientists at the world's biggest atom smasher hailed the discovery of "the missing cornerstone of physics" Wednesday, cheering the apparent end of a decades-long quest for a new subatomic particle called the Higgs boson, or "God particle," which could help explain why all matter has mass and crack open a new realm of physics.

First proposed as a theory in the 1960s, the maddeningly elusive Higgs had been hunted by at least two generations of physicists who believed it would help shape our understanding of how the universe began and how its most elemental pieces fit together.

As the highly technical findings were announced by two independent teams involving more than 5,000 researchers, the usually sedate corridors of the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, erupted in frequent applause and standing ovations. Physicists shed tears reflecting on the decades of work that brought them to this momentous occasion.

The new particle appears to share many of the same qualities as the one predicted by Scottish physicist Peter Higgs and others and is perhaps the biggest accomplishment at CERN since its founding in 1954 outside Geneva along the Swiss-French border.

Rolf Heuer, director of CERN, said the newly discovered subatomic particle is a boson, but he stopped just shy of claiming outright that it is the Higgs boson itself - an extremely fine distinction.

"As a layman, I think we did it," he told the elated crowd. "We have a discovery. We have observed a new particle that is consistent with a Higgs boson."

The Higgs, which until now had been purely theoretical, is regarded as key to understanding why matter has mass, which combines with gravity to give an object weight.

The idea is much like gravity and Isaac Newton's early theories: Gravity was there all the time before Newton explained it. The Higgs boson was believed to be there, too. And now that scientists have actually seen something much like it, they can put that knowledge to further use.

The center's atom smasher, the $10 billion Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border, sends protons whizzing in a circle at nearly the speed of light to create high-energy collisions. The aftermath of those impacts can offer clues about dark matter, antimatter and the creation of the universe, which many theorize occurred in a massive explosion known as the Big Bang.

Most of the particles that result from the collisions exist for only the smallest fractions of a second. But finding a Higgs-like boson was one of the biggest challenges in physics: Out of some 500 trillion collisions, just several dozen produced "events" with significant data, said Joe Incandela, leader of the team known as CMS, with 2,100 scientists. …

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Physicists Celebrate Proof of 'God Particle'; Discovery Could Help Explain Why Universe's Matter Has Mass, Also Open Door to New Realm of Physics
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