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Last week, particle physicists at CERN came closer to finding the Higgs boson (otherwise inaptly known as “the god particle”), a hypothetical elementary particle that would explain the origin of mass.
Named after British physicist, Peter Higgs, who first hypothesized that mass came from elementary particles, the Higgs boson is believed to have existed during the few seconds after the Big Bang when particles first obtained mass. Not only is it the missing piece of the Standard Model, which explains how subatomic particles and the universal forces are related and how they interact with one other, but it will be able to fill in some of the inconsistencies within the model.
Located between the border of Switzerland and France, CERN – Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or European Council for Nuclear Research – is a particle physics laboratory composed of particle accelerators. One of these particle accelerators is the largest in the world, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and consists of an underground circular tunnel.
The LHC’s purpose is to figure out what the universe was like on a subatomic level one second after the Big Bang by smashing together protons – a type of subatomic particle – at nearly the speed of light. ATLAS and CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) are two of the six major experiments at the LHC that are simultaneously, yet separately, determining the existence of the Higgs boson.
Proving the existence of the Higgs boson would be tricky. Because it is a hypothetical particle, the Higgs has to be created, which is also difficult. For one, its life span would be short because of its rapid decay, and it could only be detected by special instruments. ATLAS and CMS are looking to detect the Higgs, not by the state of it existing, but rather, by its decaying state.
To do so, these two experiments have to create the particle. Thereafter, they look for the Higgs by detecting the energy it has released upon its decay. The energy, which should ideally read around 116-130 GeV, is then recorded on graphs. While recording the data of the energy from the decaying, ATLAS and CMS have seen spikes at similar energies on their respective graphs at like times. However, some particle physicists believe that these spikes may be energy fluctuations.
“The excess is most compatible with a Standard Model Higgs in the vicinity of 124 GeV and below,” says Guido Tonelli, a particle physicist working as the spokesperson for CMS, “but the statistical significance is not large enough to say anything conclusive. As of today, what we see is consistent either with a background fluctuation or with the presence of the boson.”
To actually confirm the Higgs’ existence, ATLAS and CMS have to find more spikes in the same places at even greater energies to make sure that they are not merely fluctuations.
If scientists were truly able to confirm the Higgs’ existence, they would essentially discover a new basic understanding of the foundation of the universe and its origin – and possibly explain the elusive nature of dark matter and dark energy. Results, however, will have to wait. Tonelli further states, “Refined analyses and additional data delivered in 2012 by this magnificent machine will definitely give an answer.”