The Edmond Sun

Nation & World

July 5, 2012

Physicists are celebrating their Higgs boson ‘triumph’

LOS ANGELES — For physicists, it was a moment like landing on the moon or the discovery of DNA.

The focus was the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle that exists for a mere fraction of a second. Long theorized but never glimpsed, the so-called God particle is thought to be key to understanding the existence of all mass in the universe. The revelation Wednesday that it — or some version of it — had almost certainly been detected amid more than hundreds of trillions of high-speed collisions in a 17-mile track near Geneva prompted a group of normally reserved scientists to erupt with joy.

Peter Higgs, one of the scientists who first hypothesized the existence of the particle, reportedly shed tears as the data were presented in a jam-packed and applause-heavy seminar at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

“It’s a gigantic triumph for physics,” said Frank Wilczek, an MIT physicist and Nobel laureate. “It’s a tremendous demonstration of a community dedicated to understanding nature.”

The achievement, nearly 50 years in the making, confirms physicists’ understanding of how mass — the stuff that makes stars, planets and even people — arose in the universe, they said.

It also points the way toward a new path of scientific inquiry into the mass-generating mechanism that was never before possible, said University of California, Los Angeles physicist Robert Cousins, a member of one of the two research teams that has been chasing the Higgs boson at CERN.

“I compare it to turning the corner and walking around a building — there’s a whole new set of things you can look at,” he said. “It is a beginning, not an end.”

Leaders of the two teams reported independent results that suggested the existence of a previously unseen subatomic particle with a mass of about 125 to 126 billion electron volts. Both groups got results at a “five sigma” level of confidence — the statistical requirement for declaring a scientific “discovery.”

“The chance that either of the two experiments had seen a fluke is less than three parts in 10 million,” said University of California, San Diego physicist Vivek Sharma, a former leader of one of the Higgs research groups. “There is no doubt that we have found something.”

But he and others stopped just shy of saying that this new particle was indeed the long-sought Higgs boson. “All we can tell right now is that it quacks like a duck and it walks like a duck,” Sharma said.

In this case, quacking was enough for most.

“If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably at least a bird,” said Wilczek, who stayed up past 3 a.m. to watch the seminar live over the Web while vacationing in New Hampshire.

Certainly CERN leaders in Geneva, even as they referred to their discovery simply as “a new particle,” didn’t bother hiding their excitement.

The original plan had been to present the latest results on the Higgs search at the International Conference on High Energy Physics, a big scientific meeting that began Wednesday in Melbourne, Australia.

But as it dawned on CERN scientists that they were on the verge of “a big announcement,” Cousins said, officials decided to honor tradition and instead present the results on CERN’s turf.

The small number of scientists who theorized the existence of the Higgs boson in the 1960s — including Higgs of the University of Edinburgh — were invited to fly to Geneva.

For the non-VIP set, lines to get into the auditorium began forming late Tuesday. Many spent the night in sleeping bags.

All the hubbub was due to the fact that the discovery of the Higgs boson is the last piece of the puzzle needed to complete the so-called Standard Model of particle physics — the big picture that describes the subatomic particles that make up everything in the universe, and the forces that work between them.

Over the course of the 20th century, as physicists learned more about the Standard Model, they struggled to answer one very basic question: Why does matter exist?

Higgs and others came up with a possible explanation: that particles gain mass by traveling through an energy field. One way to think about it is that the field sticks to the particles, slowing them down and imparting mass.

That energy field came to be known as the Higgs field. The particle associated with the field was dubbed the Higgs boson.

Higgs published his theory in 1964. In the 48 years since, physicists have eagerly chased the Higgs boson. Finding it would provide the experimental confirmation they needed to show that their current understanding of the Standard Model was correct.

On the other hand, ruling it out would mean a return to the drawing board to look for an alternative Higgs particle, or several alternative Higgs particles, or perhaps to rethink the Standard Model from the bottom up.

Either outcome would be monumental, scientists said.

But the search hasn’t been easy. To create exotic subatomic particles for study, physicists use huge colliders to smash bits of atoms together. CERN built its $10 billion Large Hadron Collider in large part to produce a particle as massive as the Higgs boson was expected to be; no other collider in the world was up to the task.

The LHC, as it’s known, shoots beams of protons around a 17-mile circular track underground — accelerating them nearly to the speed of light and crashing them together to create bursts of subatomic particles.

Scientists on the two research teams — known as CMS and ATLAS — use two different detectors to analyze the patterns formed by the particles. If a Higgs boson were to be created, it would decay immediately into one of several combinations of other particles, theorists have suggested. These combinations are what scientists search for in the 800 trillion proton-proton collisions recorded at the LHC.

In December, CERN announced that both teams had uncovered “tantalizing hints” of a Higgs boson with a mass of about 125 billion electron volts.

Physicists said they didn’t expect Wednesday’s announcement to come so soon, and that the collider’s performance had exceeded all expectations.

“I am astounded at the amazing speed with which these results have emerged,” Higgs said in a statement. “I never expected this to happen in my lifetime.”

John Gunion, a theoretical physicist at the University of California, Davis and co-author of a book called “The Higgs Hunter’s Guide,” said he was satisfied that the new particle was associated with the production of mass in the universe in the moments after the Big Bang.

The next step, he and others said, would be to figure out whether the particle is indeed the single Higgs boson described by the Standard Model or some exotic variant. Proponents of a theory known as supersymmetry, for instance, believe that there are multiple Higgs bosons.

“There’s plenty of room for surprising details,” said Wilczek, a supersymmetry fan.

In the meantime, physicists at CERN won’t get much of a chance to enjoy their party.

Cousins said that he was already doing mop-up work, putting together documentation that normally would have appeared at the same time as the seminar. Many of his CERN colleagues hopped on planes to attend the conference in Melbourne.

Others will keep their eyes on their computer screens and continue studying collisions. The next phase of data collection for the Higgs search, which had been scheduled to wrap up in October, will now run into December, Sharma said. That should give CERN scientists three times more collisions to study than the 800 trillion they’ve already amassed.

“We are in hot pursuit,” he said. “You push it as much as you can.”

But even that won’t be enough to reveal definitively the true nature of the new particle, he added.

After December, the LHC will go dark for two years while its equipment gets an upgrade. Then it will pick up the search where it left off.

1
Text Only
Nation & World
  • Kaiser joins Thunder ownership group

    Tulsa businessman George B. Kaiser has been approved by the NBA Board of Governors as a new partner in The Professional Basketball Club LLC, which owns the Oklahoma City Thunder. Thunder Chairman and CEO Clayton I. Bennett made the announcement Friday. Kaiser is purchasing the ownership interest of Tom L. Ward.
    “We are honored to welcome George Kaiser as a member of the ownership group of the Oklahoma City Thunder,” Bennett said. “George is a well-respected and important Oklahoma business leader, as well as one of the state and nation’s top philanthropists. His commitment to successful business and community leadership is in true alignment with that of the Thunder.
    “I also appreciate the commitment and leadership provided by Tom Ward as a member of our ownership group from the beginning,” Bennett added.

    April 18, 2014

  • VIDEO: Boston bomb scare defendant appears in court

    The man accused of carrying a backpack containing a rice cooker near the Boston Marathon finish line on the anniversary of the bombings was arraigned Wednesday. He's being held on $100,000 bail.

    April 18, 2014

  • MS_injection well.jpg Agency clarifies earthquake-related misinformation

    A state agency says misinformation related to the debate about the cause of more earthquakes across Central Oklahoma includes oil well types, well numbers and injection pressure.
    The Prague sequence of 2011 along the Wilzetta Fault zone included a significant foreshock, a main shock of magnitude 5.7 and numerous aftershocks. It has been suggested that this sequence represents tremors triggered by fluid injection.
    More recently, earthquakes have been recorded in the vicinity of Jones, Arcadia Lake, Edmond, Guthrie, Langston and Crescent. Regulators and scientists are working together to better understand what’s causing all the shaking.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • bomb1 VIDEO: A year after marathon bombing, Boston remains strong

    The City of Boston came together Tuesday to honor those who were injured and lost their lives at the Boston Marathon on the one-year anniversary of the bombing. While the day was sure to be emotional, those affected by last year's race are showing they won't let the tragedy keep them down.

    April 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • New study counters pot legalization argument

    A new study raises a strong challenge to the idea that casual marijuana use isn’t associated with bad consequences, a researcher says.
    Researchers say the findings suggest recreational marijuana use may lead to previously unidentified brain changes and highlight the importance of research aimed at understanding the long-term effects of low to moderate marijuana use on the brain.

    April 15, 2014

  • Anita Hill.jpg Anita Hill reflects on her fateful testimony, 23 years later

    Back in 1993, I rounded a corner of a Laguna Beach, Calif., grocery store and walked straight into Anita Hill.
    We both stopped in our tracks. She looked slightly panicked, like someone had turned on a light in a room, and all she wanted was the door.
    It took a moment to register that this was the woman who, just two years before, calmly testified before a Senate committee about the sexual harassment she endured while working for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas  at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, of all places.

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • jc_Erick Wyatt.JPG Norman man takes on challenge to unseat Inhofe

    EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one in a series of candidate profiles leading up to the 2014 Oklahoma elections.

    Erick Wyatt is running for U.S. Senate to be a strong voice of the people, he said. More than anything, Wyatt said he is running against incumbent U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe for the sake of his children.
    The Norman Republican vows to represent the people’s interests instead of the interests of powerful political groups, Wyatt said.

    April 14, 2014 1 Photo

  • 20140414_MALAYSIA_Bluefin.jpg In new phase to find Flight 370, search robot will enter ocean

    The pings have sputtered out in the multinational search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, forcing search crews to deploy an underwater robot to find a plane that’s eluded human efforts.
    In a last-ditch effort to find the Boeing 777 and its black box flight recorders, a U.S. Navy submersible vehicle will be used to scan an area in the southern Indian Ocean for debris.
    “We haven’t had a single detection in six days, so I guess it’s time to go underwater,” Angus Houston, who heads Australia’s Joint Agency Coordination Center, told a news conference in that country’s western city of Perth on Monday.

    April 14, 2014 1 Photo

  • 25801486.jpg VIDEO: Northern California bus crash kills 10

    At least nine people died in Northern California on Thursday night, in an accident involving a bus, a car and FedEx truck. The bus was filled with high school students from Southern California who were on their way to visit a college campus.

    April 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • Strong earthquake rattles Logan County

    Ray Dorwart, owner of Guthrie’s Dorwart Custom Boots, 117 S. Second, said he was in his store working on a sewing machine when he felt the structure shake Monday morning.
    Dorwart was on the phone with an out-of-state friend when he heard some tools rattle and felt the wood floor vibrate.

    April 7, 2014