I have always wondered what it would have been like to be alive when Einstein proposed his theories of relativity, or when Watson & Crick cracked the structure of DNA or when Armstrong & Aldrin landed on the moon. Well, I experienced it yesterday, when I witnessed history in the making.
It took almost half a century to discover this new fundamental particle theorized by Peter Higgs et al. in a series of seminal papers in the 60s. It is hard to explain the magnitude of this discovery in a blog post, but I’ll try. I’ll not get into technical details since this post is meant for a broader audience.
What took so long?
The task was extremely difficult, because one needed to collide several trillions (I’m not exaggerating here) of protons at very high energies, and then detect a few dozen events among those trillions which behaved in a way consistent with the standard model of particle physics. First, a giant accelerator was built (LHC) which is a technological marvel in itself. Novel detectors and techniques were developed in order to detect and record this flood of data from collisions. A worldwide computing grid was built to analyze petabytes of data and new Monte Carlo techniques were implemented to increase computing efficiency. We wouldn’t have been able to get the results so soon without such large scale computing efforts.
What are the results?
Finally, what everyone was waiting for, both the CMS (4.9 sigma) and ATLAS (5 sigma) experiments at CERN independently confirmed the discovery of a new fundamental particle! (See my previous post on sigma) This is very important, because when the two experiments combine their data, it will be of even higher statistical significance. Combination of results from some unofficial sources give value as high as 7 sigma! We’ll have to wait a bit for official ones. The mass of this new boson (a class of particle) is between 125-126 GeV which is about 130 times the mass of the proton. Pretty heavy! Everything that has been observed so far has been consistent with the theoretical Higgs boson.
So, is it Higgs boson or not?
CERN has been very careful and responsible in the way they presented the results both to the scientific and general public. In layman terms one can confidently say that Higgs boson has been discovered but when it comes to particle physics, one has to measure all the properties of the particle before things are official. This itself will take a couple of years. But so far, everything we see is consistent with theoretical predictions.
Why is it so important?
New particles are discovered all the time, but they never make it to the front page. What is so special here? Well, this particle explains how things get their mass! Isn’t that crazy? However, this is not the end. This new particle could be just one member of a family of particles! More investigation needs to be done to find out. This is an exciting time in history! CMS spokesperson Joe Incandela said it best: “We’re reaching into the fabric of the universe at a level we’ve never done before”.
We want to know how the Universe works and we have a method to find out how. It is called Science. Think about this…about half a century ago a bunch of young guys scribbled on a piece of paper and predicted such a deep and profound thing about our Universe. That prediction has been now experimentally verified! We humans are smarter than we think!
This discovery marks the beginning of a new era. We could be observing a new class of fundamental particles, new forces of nature, unification of existing forces…the possibilities are limitless.
Now, it is time for astrobiologists to figure this out: