The Year of the Higgs Boson?

The possible discovery of the elusive particle has scientists excited

16 July 2012

Just over a year ago, I interviewed an IEEE member working at CERN on the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator. I’ve always been fascinated by the work being done at the LHC, even though some of it is so mind-boggling I have a tough time completely comprehending all of it. So I was really excited to interview Lucas Rodriguez, control system coordinator of an LHC experiment called TOTEM. Rodriguez was excited too, but about something else—he said researchers at the organization were optimistic that 2011 would be a big year for the LHC.

“Everyone at CERN is very excited about this year,” he told me, noting that following several shut downs for repairs, the particle accelerator was finally stable and running continuously. Researchers were hoping to make some big discoveries, not the least of which was tracking down that elusive, much talked about “God particle,” the Higgs boson. [Though be careful who you say "God particle" to—some people get quite upset.]

But 2011 ended, and except for some news in December that CERN had detected tentative hints of what might be the particle, there was still no Higgs boson to be found.

Physicist Peter Higgs [shown above at CERN] and others proposed the particle’s existence in 1964, and it is thought to be the key to why some particles have mass and others do not. The Higgs boson is the only standard-model particle that has never been observed in particle physics experiments. The physics standard model, which is composed of 16 particles, is the framework devised in the 1970s to explain how subatomic particles interact.

On 4 July everything changed.  Researchers at CERN, near Geneva, announced the discovery of a new particle—one that they say appeared to be the long sought after Higgs boson. “I think we have it,” said Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director general of CERN, at the announcement event. It seems 2012 is the big year Rodriguez and his colleagues were waiting for.

Researchers at CERN have noted that final experimental checks are still required to confirm whether what they found is indeed the Higgs particle predicted in the standard model of physics. In fact, on 10 July researchers at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Ill., said it was possible the particle found was a Higgs “imposter” that had subtle different properties from the standard model Higgs boson. So for now we’ll have to wait to see what CERN’s final results show.

Feeling antsy? To help pass the time you can literally listen to a song of the particle made by another group of researchers who attached a musical note to each piece of data from the experiment. Check it out here.

What do you think about the news of a Higgs-like particle? Do you think it’s the one researchers have been searching for? And, with the LHC costing upwards of US $10 billion to build, are such discoveries worth the investment?


Photo: CERN

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