Last week, scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced findings related to their search for the Higgs boson, a long-sought elementary particle. In fact, it’s the only elementary particle predicted in the standard model — the current set of theories physicists think describe the universe at the subatomic level — that science has yet to confirm.
Scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) have made progress finding the elusive Higgs boson, shown here in a simulated particle collision decay path. // Simulation still by CERN
So what did CERN announce? In a word: progress. They can’t say with enough certainty that they’ve found the Higgs boson, but the data are certainly shaping up to indicate they will, perhaps as soon as next year. They’ve also narrowed down the range for the possible mass the particle can take on, which is also helpful. That might not seem like much to announce right now, but it’s still pretty exciting for physicists.
While CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (the particle accelerator making the search possible) has only gotten enough data to indicate the existence of the elusive particle, but not confirm it, even that much is revealing. The results so far paint the Higgs boson just about how current theories predicted, and there’s little evidence of it turning up with wildly different properties. This means that, should it actually be the Higgs boson they’re looking at, modern physics has everything more or less right.
Basically, the Higgs boson explains why particles have mass, something modern physics can only guess at. The actual details are a bit complicated, but the usual analogy is to think of a crowded party. Little-known guests can walk through the crowds relatively quickly, but famous guests would find it harder to move because they’d be surrounded by groups of people. Higgs bosons would act like these groups, impeding the progress of certain particles and thus imbuing them with mass.
There’s also a tendency to refer to the Higgs boson as the “God particle.” Almost every scientist I know hates this term, mostly because it just makes no sense. (There’s nothing divine about the particle, and it doesn’t answer every question about the universe, or even just physics.) The heavenly appellation comes from the title of a book by Nobel laureate Leon Lederman (with Dick Teresi), The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) Apparently, even Lederman is no fan of the nickname; he wanted to name it “The *** Particle” because it was so hard to find, but his editor wouldn’t allow it.
So, while this is good and interesting news for fans of the Higgs boson, CERN still has a way to go before it can officially claim discovery. But that’s how science is — less “Eureka” than hard experiments. If anyone can do it, though, it’s CERN!
Of course, if you think Fermilab has it in the bag, or if you like the name “God particle,” be sure to let us know in the comments section below.