By Maggie Koerth-Baker at 11:36 am Wednesday, Jul 4 via Boing Boing
Back in December, I told you that physicists at CERN thought that by this summer they might be able to say, once and for all, whether the Higgs Boson particle exists. As a quick reminder, here’s how I described that particle in a post from last year:
You know that reality is like a Lego model, it’s made up of smaller parts. We are pieced together out of atoms. Atoms are made from protons, neutrons, and electrons. Protons and neutrons are made of quarks. (Quarks and electrons, as far as we know, are elementary particles, with nothing smaller inside.) When you’re talking about the Higgs Boson, you’re talking about the mass of these particles. Here’s an imperfect analogy: A top quark, the most massive particle we know of, is like an elephant. An electron, on the other hand, is more like a mouse. And nobody knows for certain why those differences exist.
There is a theory, though. Back in the 1960s, a guy named Peter Higgs came up with the idea that all these particles exist in a field, and their mass is a reflection of how much they interact with that field. Heavy particles have a lot of interaction. Lighter particles are relatively standoffish. If this field exists, the Higgs Boson is the tiny thing it’s made of.
So that’s the Higgs Boson—what it (theoretically) is and why that matters. And now, scientists at CERN are saying that they might have found it. What’s that mean? Basically, they found a new sub-atomic particle that seems to fit the theoretical description of what a Higgs Boson should be like. The New York Times reports that scientists are calling it the “Higgslike” particle for now.
Meanwhile, all across the Internet, science journalists and bloggers are alternately celebrating the discovery, skepticizing the details, and cringing at the overuse of the obnoxious moniker “God particle”. Want to know more? Here are some great places to start:
• “We’ve observed a new particle. … We have quite strong evidence that there’s something there,” Joe Incandela, spokesperson for the LHC’s CMS experiment, said in the video, which was discovered by Science News on CERN’s website. “So, to ascertain its properties is still going to take us a little bit of time.” — Yesterday, MSNBC’s Cosmic Blog wrote about a leaked video from CERN that presaged the announcement today.
• “The Higgs has long been a mixed blessing for particle physics. In the early 1990s, when physicists were pleading—ultimately in vain–with Congress not to cancel the Superconducting Supercollider, which was sucking up tax dollars faster than a black hole, the Nobel laureate Leon Lederman christened the Higgs “the God particle.” This is scientific hype at its most outrageous. If the Higgs is the “God Particle,” what should we call an even more fundamental particle, like a string? The Godhead Particle? The Mother of God Particle?” — At Scientific American blogs, John Horgan explains how the Higgs could screw physics funding. It’s been spun as THE fundamental particle, but it’s not really. And now, how do we convince governments to keep research going?
• “Is it the Higgs boson? That’s a surprisingly complicated question! The difficulty lies with our theories of fundamental particles: the Standard Model and its modifications (including supersymmetry). None of these theories provides a clear, precise prediction for the mass of the Higgs boson, and the mass ranges may overlap between different models. Some models predict the existence of more than one Higgs particle, so if any of those are true, then we have at best found a Higgs boson. And that doesn’t rule out the (slim) possibility that this discovery is a Higgs-mimic, a particle that acts kind of like the Higgs, but doesn’t play the same role. In other words, the work isn’t done.” — Physicist and blogger Matthew Francis talks about whether this discovery is a big deal, how big a deal it might be, and why Higgs Bosons are so damn confusing.
• “Physicists said that they would probably be studying the new Higgs particle for years. Any deviations from the simplest version of the boson — and there are hints of some already — could open a gateway to new phenomena and deeper theories that answer questions left hanging by the Standard Model: What, for example, is the dark matter that provides the gravitational scaffolding of galaxies? And why is the universe made of matter instead of antimatter?” — The New York Times covers the basics and what happens next.
• “…Other physicists are preparing for disappointment. That’s because scientists have been secretly hoping all along that, when they finally found the Higgs, it would be an interesting particle with unexpected behaviors — even somewhat unruly. A perfectly well-behaved Higgs leaves less room for new, exciting physics — the kind that theorists have been wishing would show up at the LHC.” — Wired Science explains why finding a Higgs Boson isn’t the end of the story.
• “Seminars proper start at 9am Geneva time (3am Eastern time, midnight Pacific time, 5pm Melbourne time). One from ATLAS, by Fabiola Giannoti, and one from CMS, by Joe Incandela. Then a press conference after. Remember what we’re looking for: how significant is the signal, do the two experiments agree with each other, does the rate agree with the Standard Model prediction, are different channels mutually consistent with each other.” — Way early this morning, while most of us slept, physicist and blogger Sean Carroll was live-blogging the Higgs Boson announcement from CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. His live-blog offers a lot of great analysis and research detail.
• “For many of us, the most shocking revelation to come out of CERN’s Higgs boson announcement today was quite unrelated to the science itself. Rather, we were blown away by the fact that a team made up of some of the most undoubtedly brilliant people in the world believe that Comic Sans is an appropriate font for such a historic occasion.” — The Verge on CERN’s ongoing love affair with the much-reviled font Comic Sans. (They used the same font back in December.)
• “But for cosmologists, one of the most exciting things about the Higgs is that it seems to exist at all. The Higgs is a boson, which means that you can pack many of them into a single state, and therefore can be thought of as a field pervading all of space — photons, which make up the electromagnetic field, are also bosons. (This is in contrast to fermions, which cannot be brought into the same state and are thus more usefully thought of as individual particles of matter.) An even more precise categorisation of particles is via their spin: bosons can take on integer values (0, 1, 2, …) , and fermions half-integer values (1/2, 3/2, …). The known bosons, like the photons, have spin 1 and are known as vector particles. The Higgs, however, has spin 0, and is called a scalar.” — Astrophysicist Andrew Jaffe talks about what a real-life Higgs Boson might mean for other branches of physics.
• Finally, Ph.D. Comics explains the Higgs Boson for those of you who are already too drunk on 4th of July beer to read a long article.